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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Working with SMEs

Writing often presents the challenge of translating Subject Matter Experts. By this I mean bringing their expertise to those of less, or no, expertise in the subject. Such writing is a matter of simplifying, clarifying, and making accessible.

The writer performs this task first by asking questions until the subject is understood. One does not become an expert that way. The expert’s commitment differs from the writer’s. The writer learns the salient points of the subject then delivers those salients to the reader.

To perform this translation properly, the writer must:

  1. Avoid jargon. Jargon, here, consists of specialized terms, acronyms, and other terms unfamiliar to the general public. When jargon is unavoidable, as will happen, the writer must carefully define the term. Otherwise, the reader will feel excluded from understanding.
  2. Identify what’s important. This means understanding the aims and audience of the material being written. For instance, to teach someone how to use a computer application, one need not understand how the electrons dash about in the chips. The writer writes within the grasp of the intended audience.
  3. Make the subject local. The writer must relate the subject to the reader. The reader always thinks, what’s in it for me? If the writer cannot make that evident, the reader will lose interest.

I interviewed numerous Subject Matter Experts in the wine business: winery owners, winemakers, and winery reps. I discovered that winemakers from one region were often quite ignorant of other regions. California wineries might compare their wines to those from the Rhône Valley in France. The wines could be fine and delicious but the resemblance to those Rhône wines could best be described as promotional. One must not presume the breadth of expertise but instead ascertain for oneself.

The simpler and more direct the language, the clearer the writing.

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