Fly like an Eagle (Part 1)

The eagle is excited about a storm. Why? The eagle will fly to some high spot and wait for the winds to come. When the storm hits, it sets its wings so that the wind will pick it up and lift it above the storm. While the storm rages below, the eagle is soaring above it. The eagle does not escape the storm. It simply uses the storm to lift it higher. It rises on the winds that bring the storm and rests its wings.

Fly like an Eagle is a two-part series on handling Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in the field of technical communication. The first part (this article) ruminates about the various types of SMEs. The second part deals with the strategies of handling the various types of SMEs.

The technical communicator, be it a technical writer or an instructional designer, depends on the SME for information on features in the software/hardware or eLearning content. The paucity of time, stringent deadlines, emphasis on quality deliverables, heightened expectations and other factors are stress zones, add SMEs to this equation, you have a precarious situation. The stranglehold on providing relevant information and content perpetuates customer related issues; decreased customer satisfaction and increased customer support calls. Not a win-win situation. SMEs are not people who make your life difficult or annoy you, they simply feel that they have a better grasp.

Is it that difficult to understand why SMEs behave the way they behave? Not at all, it all depends on understanding the psyche of an SME and the different types available to us. Over a period of time of dealing with SMEs, I have come to the understanding that SMEs can be classified as different types. This is my perception and the take on SMEs.

  1. Believer – An SME who believes in technical documentation or training material, you have their buy-in from the very beginning. The scheduled meetings are very smooth and productive, will provide you with a wealth of information. Queries/suggestions are quickly addressed either by emails, meetings, or calls. A very good listener with lots of patience. No question is silly in this person’s dictionary. Understands the stringent deadlines and dependency of the writer on the SME. May have prior technical writing or training experience.
  2. Nervous/Insecure – A believer but unable to express their thoughts. The reasons could be many; they are nervous or insecure in crowds, not confident in talking about ideas in meetings, are also insecure because their communication skills in the English language are not that great. But, these people are very patient, good listeners, helpful, have immense talent, and are a treasure trove of knowledge of the domain. They tend to procrastinate due to their insecurity, so, many technical communicators find them difficult to work within the best of circumstances. They are also worry warts.
  3. Know-it-all – Is a very opinionated, a bad listener, who finds fault with whatever you produce as a deliverable. They have their own opinion on how a document should be written or how training should be done. The meetings are more about their opinions, it usually involves you to sit patiently and listen. If they are a “once upon a time” writer or trainer, you will definitely have to listen to their experiences, it can be very tiring. They disregard schedules, withhold information, make impossible suggestions to improve the work produced, and are non-believers. Have a low threshold of tolerance for collaboration, suggestions, and contradiction from you. But, they play the blame game very easily, if something goes wrong, you will be blamed. All this because they lack trust in the technical communicator.
  4. Reluctant Participant – This SME is a passionate developer who is not interested in other aspects other than coding. They are fascinated by technology, algorithms, coding and are unwilling to participate in collaborating with the technical communication team. They reluctantly help since one of their key performance areas (KPA) is cross-functional collaboration and hence very close-minded. Sending emails with a cc to their reporting manager will not help your cause. The perception that they are very lazy is not true, they are disinterested.
  5. Nit-picker – Constructive criticism is good for improvement but, nit-picking is not. The nitpicker packs suggestions, with a lot of negativity, in the guise of constructive criticism. Their focus is micro-managing the content given by them; they don’t understand the concept of a “draft”, give you long review comments, will be the cause of your skewed schedules and don’t understand the bigger picture, that is, the customer. It becomes very difficult to work with such SMEs on a day-to-day basis.
  6. Die-hard Cynic – They believe that documentation or training is a waste of time and an ineffective tool for customer experience. They have the characteristics of a know-it-all and some additional traits that make them the most difficult people to work with as an SME. They are not receptive to collaboration; they don’t reply to emails or forget to respond, they won’t get back to you on queries, nor will they assist you when you need their help. They have the expertise but, are unwilling to share knowledge since they are not convinced about the technical communication activity. They are also very quick to anger.
  7. Turf fighter – One of the most difficult SMEs to work with, they are a combination of a know-it-all and die-hard cynic, a deadly combination. They think they are better than you in communication skills. Very reluctant to share information and knowledge. They tend to be very hostile, dismissive, and resentful of the entire technical communication team. This could be because they are insecure about their job, or they have been the person who contributed the content before you stepped in as a specialist. They are quick to anger and are very rude.

SMEs are the boon and sometimes the bane of our existence. We can always try to empathize with them. Some days are not good for you, perhaps they are having a bad day too. Politeness, positive attitude, patience, listening does not cost you much but, provides you with a set of people who are willing to go that extra mile to make your life easier as a technical communicator. I remember reading the essay “On Saying Please” by one of the greatest essayists A G Gardiner (he used to write a syndicated column under the pen name Alpha of the Plough). The chain reaction of being impolite and rude is excellently written, here is an excerpt.

“The young lift-man in a City office who threw a passenger out of his lift the other morning and was fined for the offense was undoubtedly in the wrong. It was a question of ‘Please’. The complainant entering the lift, said, ‘Top’. The lift-man demanded ‘Top-please’ and this concession being refused he not only declined to comply with the instruction but hurled the passenger out of the lift. Probably the man who said ‘Top’ to the liftman was really only getting back on his employer who had not said ‘Good morning’ to him because he himself had been henpecked at breakfast by his wife, to whom the cook had been insolent because the housemaid had ‘answered her back’.”

Can we fly like an eagle during a storm and soar to greater heights? The second part is coming soon. Please send your comments/feedback/queries to, I will reply as quickly as possible.


Kiranmayee Pamarthy

President – 2018
STC India Chapter