Using Subject Matter Experts to Create the Best Technical Content for Your Audience
Storytelling Communications

How to Coach Subject Matter Experts to Create Technical Content Worth Reading

8 Minute Read
Comments
Share
Share
Share
Email

In a previous job as a managing editor, it was my responsibility to ensure that the writers could write fluidly and clearly, even about subjects where they may not have been experts. To tackle tricky technical content, they might speak with a subject matter expert to coach them in an unfamiliar area.

Sometimes, though, the situation is flipped, and the subject matter expert is the content creator. The challenge? Coaching those experts—who probably aren’t experts in writing—to write about their area of expertise in a way that’s relatable (and understandable) for your audience.

Scouting for a Subject Matter Expert

Before you’re able to work with an expert, you need to find someone who can write for you. While many people consider themselves thought leaders, it can take some effort to find someone who not only understands your topic but can disseminate the information in a way that your audience understands, especially if it includes both experts and beginners, with widely different knowledge levels.

So what do you look for in an internal or external expert? Ideally, he or she can write well and communicate clearly. However, don’t stop at just a review of someone’s writing portfolio to determine whether or not they’re able to clearly articulate their knowledge.

Jennifer Tullman-Botzer, digital marketing manager at IBM Security, works with internal subject matter experts every day to write articles for Security Intelligence, IBM’s award-winning information security publication. She suggests, “If someone is able to clearly express themselves in conversation, they’ll probably make a good blogger. And by contrast, someone who gets bogged down in technical detail will likely have the same problem when writing—although this certainly is not an insurmountable issue.”

Be Like a Doctor—Know Your Audience

Let’s talk about doctors for a moment. They’re one profession that—depending on who they’re talking to—need to alter the way they deliver the message they’re sharing. When speaking to a potential patient about a surgery, for example, the doctor will present the surgery in layman’s terms. She will not share a ton of medical jargon in her explanation of what to expect from the surgery, and while she’ll definitely be thorough in her explanation, she won’t go into unnecessary detail.

Now, imagine that same doctor introduces the patient to her scheduling coordinator. In order to schedule the surgery, she’ll need to inform him what type of surgery she’ll be performing. He may ask questions dependent on the procedure, such as how long the doctor would like to book the room, but informing him about the surgery will likely be quick and impersonal. He’ll need no details about the particular case, just enough information to schedule the appointment and pass along information to the billing department.

Then, this doctor, while sitting at lunch, discusses the case (of course without sharing any personally identifying information—stay with the story here!) with a colleague. How do you think she’ll talk about the surgery now? Chances are it will be a different conversation than the one she had with her patient. She’ll use medical terms and maybe discuss the types of tools or techniques she plans on using. This doctor’s audience is the determining factor as to what level of information she shares.

Photo by Piron Guillaume doctor content

Image attribution: Piron Guillaume

It can be difficult to know whether jargon has a place in content marketing. My first response would be, “Heck no!” but the answer really depends on who’s reading your content—just as the doctor alters her response depending on who she’s talking to.

Tullman-Botzer says, “I’m honestly always a little surprised at how well the more technical articles tend to perform on Security Intelligence. Seeing that is a good reminder that our audience is not content marketers like ourselves—it’s knowledgeable security professionals who are working in the trenches and of course encounter technical jargon all the time. That said, we do work hard to maintain a balance between the more technical articles and those that paint a broader picture of the security landscape for executives or line of business leaders who may not have a full technical background.”

Making Technical Content for All Readers

How do you ensure the content you’re sharing will be understood by your audience?

“With the Security Intelligence audience specifically, we can assume a basic level of technical understanding—people reading our site will certainly have more security knowledge than the general public,” says Tullman-Botzer. “But my opinion is that it’s always better to spell out an acronym or briefly explain what a given term means. Nobody who knows what a DDoS attack is is going to be offended that we gave a short definition; they’ll probably just skip ahead to the next paragraph.”

Does this mean we should be dumbing down our content so that readers of all levels understand the message we’re delivering? No. If anything, we want to elevate our audience’s experiences while reading. We want them to feel empowered and educated by the information we’re sharing. But it can be tough to find that balance between making a tricky topic easy to understand while still presenting industry-specific, dense information.

Tullman-Botzer agrees that content must always remain elevated. “I would never want an SME to ‘dumb down’ a blog,” she says. “We just might ask that he or she add a few sentences clarifying points or terms that might not be obvious to all readers—or we could link to other articles that give more background. And again, I think we’re very lucky that our audience does have at least a basic security knowledge—and we also publish enough content that even if some highly technical article doesn’t strike your fancy, we’ll have something else about threat trends that might be just what you’re looking for.”

And here’s another suggestion. Bethany Johnson, writing for the Content Standard, suggests mixing these details with simple sentences: “Here’s another way to elevate readers. Carefully mix industry-specific words with basic, fourth-grade-level sentences.”

The next time you’re faced with writing or editing an article that may be difficult for an audience to understand, check yourself at every twist and turn. Make sure each point you outline has supportive details, either by Tullman-Botzer’s suggestion of adding a few supportive sentences or linking it out to different articles, or with Johnson’s recommendation of simplifying sentences that contain jargon-heavy concepts.

Inject Some Personality in There

Just because you’re writing technical content doesn’t mean your readers don’t want a little personality from the article. But when you’re writing something that’s quite difficult to explain, it can be difficult to know how to make it interesting.

“In general, I think it helps to think about the types of content you yourself like to read,” says Tullman-Botzer. She continues, “Is it dry and boring, or does it tell a story and surprise you? Not everyone will prefer the story, but hopefully most people! Then the second thing is to imagine yourself in the shoes of the reader of your article and think about what they’re looking for when they’re experiencing a problem and seeking solutions. Yes, they want the solution itself, but they also want to know you understand the problem and that you can be trusted. This is where it really helps to share personal stories and demonstrate your experience.”

The introduction to “A W-2 Nor’easter: Digging SOC Analysts Out From Under Tax Fraud False Positives,” a recent article by Kacy Zurkus in Security Intelligence, is a great example of how to bring personality into a piece of industry-dense content, without even having to share personal anecdotes. It begins:

“If you’re on the East Coast, particularly in New England, you’ve likely gotten used to looking out your window at several feet of snow. As soon as we get ourselves shoveled out from one storm, another nor’easter is underway. I can’t help but think this must be what it feels like to work in a security operations center (SOC) during tax (fraud) season. Even if analysts are able to shovel through a few virtual inches of ticketed events in their queue, tax season delivers an avalanche of W-2 fraud alerts.”

By comparing the tax fraud issues analysts face with the weather affecting many people, Zurkus gains an immediate recognition from readers. That snowy scene puts them in the story, and the transition to talking about tax fraud will be less abrupt.

a man shovels snow off his driveway

Image attribution: Filip Mroz

The next time you work with a subject matter expert, ask them three questions:

  • How can we relate this topic to something easier to understand that takes place in the audience’s everyday world (like snow storms and tax fraud work)?
  • Are there any personal stories that will illustrate your experience with the topic? These anecdotes can simply show that you understand the problem, or they can go further to showcase how you’ve personally overcome the issue.
  • How can we structure the information so that it flows in the easiest manner for readers to understand?

Tullman-Botzer offers one final tip on managing structure. She says, “I’m going to sound like a high-school English teacher here, but starting with an outline really is helpful when approaching any writing assignment. An outline can help to organize one’s own thoughts and can also show you the spots where technical nuances may need to be explained or clarified.”

For more stories like this, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.

Subscribe to the Content Standard

Featured image attribution: Clark Young

Erin Ollila graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. After a 12+ year career in human resources – specializing in employee health and dental benefits, as well as wellness programs– she's jumped headfirst into digital strategy and content creation. Erin believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She lives in Southeastern Massachusetts, neighboring Providence, Rhode Island, one of her favorite small cities. Learn more about her at www.erinollila.com.

Recommended for you

Subscribe