Scriptwriting with SMEs: Three Great Tips

Writing with a partner might conjure anxious visions of disagreements, miscommunications, and the like.  Thankfully, these anxieties are unlikely to become reality.  Writing, like any creative endeavor, can actually be far easier and more productive with more than one person’s input.  Let’s look at how you can ensure that partnering with a subject matter expert can be a great experience, and produce a strong business video script.

First, we should define subject matter expert (or SME), which luckily is quite close to what it sounds like: a subject matter expert is “a person who is an authority in a particular area or topic.” 

The US OPM (Office of Personnel Management) presents a definition that offers a few more nuances, describing subject matter experts as people “with bona fide expert knowledge about what it takes to do a particular job.  First-level supervisors are normally good SMEs.”  OPM also gets to the reason to engage an SME, or several SMEs: “A larger number of SMEs not only ensures you are capturing all of the key requirements of the job, but it also provides multiple points-of-view regarding the criticality of the tasks and competencies.”

I’d add one caveat to the OPM’s definition, which I think is otherwise perfect: the subject matter expert can have bona fide knowledge of many specific topics, not just how to do a specific job.  In fact, as a producer and copywriter with TruScribe, most of my interactions with subject matter experts are with those who have expert understandings of a product, solution, or intellectual property.

No matter what the SME’s precise area of expertise, it’s their specialized knowledge that they bring to the writing table that makes their partnership so valuable.  Combined with your skills as a copywriter, the partnership sounds like a dream pairing—right?

Potential Conflicts

Let’s think of some of the issues that may arise in a writing partnership of this kind—giving some credence to the anxieties discussed above, perhaps, but also providing us a realistic roadmap of the challenges we may be working around.

Connie Malamed immediately foregrounds some basic differences in the thought processes of SME and copywriter.  In addition to that fact that the SME is, definitionally, an expert, and you are a novice, “the two of you may have conflicting ideas on how a learning experience should be designed and what it should include.” 

In other words, there’s not a guaranteed overlap of skills or expectations between the two roles, and even when some exists, the execution—those conflicting script ideas—may prove difficult.  Perhaps the SME has interacted primarily with other experts in the field for some time; they might think in a highly technical shorthand, or have a starting point on the messaging journey that you think will be too advanced for most audiences.

Similarly, your lack of expertise might problematize your ability to find the key points to discuss.  You might try to simplify an area which resists simplification, or spend too much time explaining something which requires far less attention. 

Coming Together

So how can you ensure success?  First, make sure you are both in full agreement on your audience.  If you’re expecting an expert-level audience, then you might be able to make less edits to the SME’s ideas and terminology.  If your audience is largely laypeople, then your job will involve a good deal more translation of complex ideas.

Lizzie Bruce has a suggestion that goes beyond clarifying SME knowledge for the page: clarify the content creation process with the SME.  With this familiarity, the SME can “know about and understand content design, and know the schedule of upcoming topics far in advance.” 

This is a great way to break down silos between content creators and SMEs, and can create a great rapport between SMEs and copywriters.  One of the bigger points of awkwardness in the writing partnership can come from the ‘two different worlds’ feeling of the pairing; the more SME and copywriter are part of the same process, the more this feeling will fade.

Listening Up

This unfamiliarity with the creative team is also the first challenge Christopher Pappas identifies of working with SMEs (as a copywriter), but luckily, he quickly provides “The Number 1 Top Skill for Working Smoothly with Subject Matter Experts.”  That skill?  Active listening.

This is as simple as listening to their thoughts and asking them about their role and their perspective.  “Ask them about any stories they may have about big challenges they faced throughout their career and how they overcame them, and have them share their successful moments.”

This strategy is extremely similar to any good interview preparation, with the only real difference being that your active listening in a writing partnership will continue longer than a single interview.  This makes it that much more important to show the SME that you don’t see them as some kind of database—you see them as an equal with unique experiences, and you want a sincere relationship.

Pappas also drills in the importance of doing your homework—that is, learning what you can about the SME’s field before your conversations begin.  You won’t approach their knowledge level, but it will matter to them that you cared enough to get started with the material.

Be flexible, as the SME’s schedule might not match up with yours.  Talking to them might be the most important part of your day, but they might be fitting it between multiple obligations.  And make it easy for them, both when it comes to cutting details they’d like to include, and when it comes to providing them your drafts to review.  Try not to give them homework—especially as you keep their schedules in mind.

Writing with an SME may initially seem like a complex task, but in reality, it’s not dissimilar from most writing partnerships.  Make the SME feel respected and comfortable, even if their thought process on the project is a bit different. 

With the two of you on the same page in terms of audience, prepare for your conversations by doing some research and listening actively.  Value their time, and try to make the experience as straightforward as you can.  Apply your skills to their understanding, and you’re well on your way to a great script.