Seven Tips for Working with Subject Matter Experts
Marketing and proposal writers are used to overcoming obstacles. Shifting deadlines, fluctuating workloads, snarky executives, and poorly written Requests for Proposals: they’re just part of the job. But as we found in our recent business writing survey, one challenge continually stands above the rest—working with subject matter experts.
So, in this post we’re exploring seven simple steps for getting the content you need, when you need it, from your firm’s technical folks. On to the list!
1. See It from Their Side Let’s face it, subject matter experts can be quirky people (we're looking at you, engineers, accountants, IT specialists, and the like). Most we’ve worked with are intense thinkers, more apt to be analytical, quiet, and interested in ideas over interaction. These traits, akin to the INTP personality of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®, are what make them so good at their jobs. However, these traits are also what can make them difficult to work with on writing projects.
As Dilbert drolly reminds us, technical folks can be hard to read, and clear communication is often a big challenge. Further, as focused, theoretical thinkers, the thought of providing you with content for a proposal, white paper, or other document is not likely to motivate them, putting your deadlines at risk.
The Action: The first step is simply acknowledging that your subject matter experts likely have different personalities, strengths, preferences, and priorities than you. They may not take direction or communicate in the same way, and they almost certainly don’t view your documents with the same level of urgency, interest, or importance. So take the time to consider their personalities and perspectives before you start assigning tasks. It’s amazing what a little understanding can do.
2. Make Their Job Easier You may work for the same company, but treat your subject matter experts like clients. Specifically, treat them like proposal evaluators.
Think about it: Both are key to your proposal being successful, and both are intelligent people with busy schedules. More importantly, neither’s regular job duties entail dealing with your proposals. So when they are called on to be involved, as either a contributor or evaluator, it is in addition to their everyday responsibilities. Your proposal is making their jobs busier and more stressful—and they’re not happy about it.
So, help them. Just as you use proposal headings, navigation, and a compliance matrix to make an evaluator’s job easier, you should look for ways to make each subject matter expert’s job easier. Why? Because while a happy evaluator is a generous evaluator, a happy subject matter expert is a responsive subject matter expert. Clichéd, but true.
The Action: Adjust to what works best for each subject matter expert. Are they good at speaking about a topic but struggle with writing about it? Interview them, and write up the content for their review. Are they good at jotting down concepts but poor at flowing sentences and paragraphs together? Have them provide bullet lists and nothing more. See what communication styles are best for their personality, and use them. Be accommodating, and they’re likely to return the favor.
3. Be Specific The communication breakdown between a writer and subject matter expert is often not known until late in the process: when the technical person provides content vastly different from the writer’s expectation.
We’ve seen 20 pages provided when two paragraphs were expected. We’ve seen entirely different topics, audiences, and benefits discussed. It happens frequently, and at times expectations are so far apart that sections have to be scrapped and started again, delaying crucial project timelines.
The Action: Never assume that you’re on the same page as your subject matter expert. Discuss your expectations in detail up front, then provide a template document with written instructions on the expected content matter, length, audience, and key messages.
If practical, include fill-in-the-blank content to further focus your technical person. Provide as much guidance as possible; in addition to reducing your risk of a time-wasting communication breakdown, it helps save them time.
4. Get a Verbal Commitment No matter how well you focus your technical folks, getting them to adhere to internal deadlines can be a frustrating endeavor. Fortunately, your odds of success can be greatly increased by getting one simple statement: a verbal commitment.
According to Dr. Jack Schafer, author of Psychological Narrative Analysis, people who make verbal commitments feel obligated to follow through on their commitments or risk cognitive dissonance or social rejection. Simply, when an assignment comes due, your subject matter expert will have a tougher time pushing it aside.
The Action: During your project kick-off meeting, go through each task to be completed, one by one, and get a verbal commitment from each person assigned. As Dr. Schafer notes, you should ask questions like “Can I count on you?” and “Do I have your word on that?” and wait for an affirmation before moving on. Avoid settling for implied commitments or qualifying responses like “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best.” And if you really want to cement the verbal commitment, shake the person’s hand.
5. Have an Executive Champion It never hurts to have supporters in high places, particularly ones senior to your subject matter experts. We’ve seen the entire culture of a project team change simply by having a senior executive be supportive of the process.
But, beware of the fine line of senior executive involvement: Your goal should be to get their buy-in and overall support, not to use them as a policeman whenever someone blows a deadline. Otherwise, the good favor you’ve built up from the technical folks will quickly disappear. Not good.
The Action: If reasonable, invite a relevant senior executive to your kick-off meetings to get their input and, as important, their witness to each expert’s verbal commitment. Include them on status meetings and follow-up messages. Get them involved.
On a broader level, make sure leaders understand the importance of your documents and the process for creating them. If you’re part of a marketing, proposal, or sales team, provide quarterly reports of your team’s accomplishments, and offer to be a guest speaker at other teams’ staff meetings. Make them understand your challenges and the benefits of a high-performing proposal process. The awareness can be invaluable.
6. Use Technology Reminders, in various forms, are useful for keeping content assignments top of mind. An easy and low-effort way to provide them is via project management applications, like Basecamp, iMeet Central, or specialized proposal management tools.
Don’t have one of these? No problem. More common applications like Microsoft Sharepoint and Outlook have similar features for assigning and monitoring tasks.
The Action: After your kick-off meeting, use your preferred application to assign each task to the responsible subject matter expert. In the task options, set automated email reminders for the duration of the assignment.
A note of caution: Much like senior executive involvement, there is a fine line between proactive and obnoxious. So, don’t inundate your subject matter experts with reminders. We recommend setting reminders for when the task is assigned, one week before due date, one day before due date, and every day after until completed. Subtle and mildly annoying, nothing more.
7. Go to Lunch Don’t wait until a project starts to get to know your subject matter experts. We know it may be awkward, but it’s worth it to make the effort. In addition to better understanding each person’s personality and preferences, you’ll build trust and rapport, making it easier to communicate and work together throughout the year.
The Action: Make a list of your key subject matter experts and schedule one-on-one lunches with each once per quarter. In the meantime, stop by their offices, make small talk, and ask questions. Learn about their families, hobbies, and personalities. Bond.
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