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The Value of Recording Conversations with SMEs
2014, Q2 (August 19, 2015)
By Ben Davidson, STC Carolina Chapter Member

Ben Davidson
Ben Davidson
As technical writers, we are sometimes tasked with writing about a product that we are unfamiliar with. This can be a daunting task, especially under a tight deadline, so it’s essential that we get the most from our conversations with each subject matter expert (SME).

During my previous assignment, I needed to deliver an Installation and Administration Guide, as well as a few other supporting documents. It was a deep dive into the deep end of the information pool, so I decided to use my smart phone to record my conversations with fellow team members. Doing so proved extremely helpful, and I feel that the final documents benefited significantly as a result.

We’ve all probably had a teacher who lectured quickly, causing us to scribble notes as fast as we could scribble them. Chances are, we weren’t really able to listen in a deeper way. Knowing that my phone was capturing all the information each SME shared allowed me to relax and listen to what he was saying. Because I knew that I had the safety net of the recording, instead of writing down notes, I jotted down timestamps for the key information as each SME relayed it. By being more “in the moment” and carefully listening to the information, free from the need to document it or any anxiety about missing something, I think that I asked better questions, and that I thought more strategically about the value of that information from the POV of the target audience. As I became more knowledgeable during the course of the project, I was also able to have better conversations with each SME than I would have if I’d been writing away.
Because I knew that I had the safety net of the recording, instead of writing down notes, I jotted down timestamps for the key information as each SME relayed it.

The “telephone game” is something we’d all like to avoid running afoul of when translating “SME speak” into customer-facing language. Being able to replay the information verbatim made me far less likely to omit or distort important details. On this project, one of the SMEs had a foot in the marketing side of the project, so much of his language worked perfectly to convey customer benefit.

Respecting the time of the SMEs is a must. When I had a question, my first stop was my increasingly informative recording library. I answered numerous questions on my own this way.

For the first few weeks of the project, I listened to the recordings several times a week on the way to and from work, mostly just letting the information and terminology wash over me. Sometimes, "learning by osmosis" can compliment more active learning.

I met weekly with each SME for the initial phase of the project. Because the recordings granted me one hundred percent information retention, I was able to taper off these sessions, with IM or email when necessary to clarify concepts that were unclear. It’s possible that I ended these sessions earlier, or required fewer follow-up sessions, than I would have had I not had those recordings.

I also transcribed several of the recorded sessions, mostly the core earlier sessions, which I then printed out and kept on small book stands on either side of my monitor. Helpful!

At the end of the project, the manager suggested that we archive the recordings in order to create a knowledge database. While we didn’t do that, largely because the recordings were informal documents for my own use, this is always an option if the SME conversations are structured more like lectures.

If your company has security concerns about sensitive information remaining on an employee's personal phone, then you might consider using a company laptop to record the sessions.

Hopefully, this article has convinced you to give this method a shot. You might be glad that you did!

Follow up nearly two years later:
I'm still recording most of my meetings with developers, and it's as helpful as it was on day one.

Ben Davidson can be reached at benddavidson99 at gmail dot com. End of article.

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