How to Work with a Busy Subject Matter Expert

“It’s 2009. I’ve been tasked with creating several page templates for a major brand associated with pregnancy testing and fertility advice. I find this a little daunting because I don’t have a medical background. Luckily I have Jane as my collaborator, a fertility expert who has access to all the information we need. We set up a co-writing session and set to work.

The traditional workflow for a project like this might be to run a workshop with Jane, then go away and wrestle the workshop results into a document, then send the output to her for approval. This would be one way to work, but I choose to run it differently this time.

I have her booked in for a day so I choose to compose sentences together with her as raw form content. We also spend some time chunking and splicing resource materials. We sit side by side at the table with a pad of A3 in front of us, a box of sharpies and some scissors.”

How to Collaborate with a Subject Matter Expert, , Gather Content

When my fellow Mad*Pow content strategist and I saw that Gather Content was writing a piece about how to work with an SME, we were thrilled! We frequently work with healthcare and financial care subject matter experts, and the onus is on our small team to identify the best practices for working together and ultimately creating usable, intuitive, delightful content – usually in the form of copy.

We saw Rob’s weekly email,* and nearly in unison gasped aloud, clicked the link, and began to read. But as our eyes traveled down our respective screens, our elation faded. Ellen’s article is perfect for content creators who work in person with SMEs, particularly when the SME is interested in learning the basics of copywriting, or is already a writer.

But what about when the SME has a full time job and a tight schedule?

We’ve Tried it All

Over the past year, we’ve had a lot of experience working with extraordinary, intelligent, and talented subject matter experts. We’ve tried all sorts of methods and ideas. We want to know how to work with an SME. And so we’ve seen a lot of failure as we’ve learned.

On one project, we asked the SME to be responsible for writing articles. But ultimately we found the SMEs, though brilliant in their fields, were just too unfamiliar with using voice and tone guidelines. We had to rewrite everything, sending us way over budget and behind schedule.

On the next project, learning from our mistake, we asked the SME to create first drafts. We sent over specific templates and more detailed guidelines, but again we found the material often unusable. Though we’d accounted for the review time in the schedule, we recognized that we were missing out on some of our SMEs’ specialized knowledge, because it was too cumbersome to send and resend our rewritten pieces for multiple reviews and additional feedback. Plus, our SME didn’t understand why we were rewriting at all (though we attempted a few explanations), so we risked offense by sending over revised pieces!

Continuing on our learning curve, we then tried beginning with a brainstorming session, to harvest information from our SME. This was helpful, but the SME wasn’t prepared for the extent to which we wanted to brainstorm, and spent much of the time explaining to us why the project should have different goals from those our client had requested.


After several other trials and errors, we’ve come up with a system that works well when SMEs have limited time, and no interest in becoming copywriters. Without further ado, here’s my humble add-on to Ellen de Vries’ excellent article.

How to Work with an SME

If your SME has little time, your project has a small budget, and your copywriters still want to get the most information they can, the Mad*Pow content strategy team has recommendations. Here’s how to work with an SME:

  • Ask the SME to prepare and give a 10min overview of the topic as an introduction. This can be done for both content and design teams, and serves as a great short intro.
  • Next, schedule a brainstorming session where the content team and SME together come up with ideas for the articles, tips, or other content required. Make sure any guidelines are shared with the SME before this brainstorm begins.
  • Now it’s time for writing. Figure out what information you can’t write on your own, and have the SME draft this.
  • Plan time to revise what the SME wrote, for tone and voice.
  • Write everything else yourself, and have the SME review it. Make sure to clarify that this review is for accuracy, not tone or language preference. Encourage the SME to explain why he or she recommends changes, so that you can understand for the future.

Using this process, we’re able to minimize SME time to below 10 hours, while still making sure all of our content has the stamp of approval.

What have your SME experiences been? Share them on Twitter (@marsinthestars) or in the comments!

*If you are a content strategist and don’t subscribe to the weekly email from Rob Mills and the Gather Content team, you are missing out. I highly recommend you go sign up immediately.

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