Communications people generally work with Subject Matter Experts or SMEs to produce content. Often the subject on which SMEs are expert is their life’s work. So when the communications person walks in with the objective of preparing content for general consumption, it’s not uncommon for the SME to be dismissive or skeptical. While the communications person cannot and will never be as knowledgeable as the SME on the subject matter, there are some ways to make the SME/Communicator relationship work symbiotically.
Be respectful of each other’s discipline. The communicator brings a skill set that enables them to understand an audience and prepare materials relevant to their needs. The SME has the knowledge but isn’t necessarily the best person to explain the subject to the uninitiated.
Outline your needs. Communicators should not be afraid to express their experience (or complete ignorance) with the subject matter. Giving the SME a baseline to begin explaining their subject or an understanding of the audience for which the materials is being prepared can help so that there is no information overload or jargon that is incomprehensible.
Manage your time wisely. Neither the communicator nor the SME has time to waste. I have had SMEs complain that they talked to a reporter or a communications person for an hour and, “all I got was a sentence in the article that isn’t technically correct”. Conversely, I have had writers come back after a long session with a SME and tell me they didn’t understand a word of what he/she said. A good communications person will prepare for the meeting with the SME by doing some background reading and provide the SME with a timeline at the interview so that the SME knows what type of content is being developed with the information and on what timeline. The SMEs I know are at ease when they know the process and when they are needed.

When working with SMEs: outline your needs, manage your time wisely, ask lots of questions and get it right. Click To Tweet
Ask lots of questions. In my experience, SMEs can be very patient if the communicator shows a curiousity (an occupational trait) and a willingness to learn. If the communicator doesn’t understand what the SME is saying, it is critically important to stop to ask a question or clarify understanding. In highly technical fields like science and medicine analogies seem to help. Most of the SMEs I’ve met would far rather respond to questions than see a written product or graphic that gets it wrong.
Get it right. SMEs want others to understand what they do and why it is important. Communicators who prepare materials have an obligation to get the content right technically. But just as the SME has the technical knowledge, the communicator has the skill to make the content audience ready – the communicator should be very clear with the SME that their job is to make sure the content is technically correct and that comments on style and grammar will be considered suggestions – which takes us back to be respectful of each other’s discipline!