Sometimes a corporate copywriter or a non-fiction freelance writer must write about subjects that they know little, or nothing, about. It may sound impossible, but it can and will be done.
According to the definition provided by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, a subject matter expert, or SME, is a "person with bona fide expert knowledge about what it takes to do a particular job." Writing as an SME requires you to sound like someone with sufficient knowledge of the topic. And you must do so authentically and genuinely.
Now, how can you develop an expertise in a subject quickly? Let's look at 12 steps.
- 1. Have the Right Mindset
- 2. Understand Your Learning Style
- 3. Do In-Depth Research and Internalize What You Learn
- 4. Understand the Target Audience
- 5. Scrutinize Each Concept and Break it Down Into Piecemeal Steps
- 6. Write in Easy-to-Understand Sentences
- 7. Write in a Confident and Authoritative Tone
- 8. Communicate with Other Subject Matter Experts
- 9. Monitor Communications on the Subject
- 10. Build a Platform Around Your New Knowledge
- 11. Engage in Conversations About the Subject
- 12. Write a Book or eBook About the Subject with a New Perspective or Twist
1. Have the Right Mindset
Practice growth mindset wherever you are, especially when you learn about a new subject. Growth mindset refers to a self-perception that our abilities can be acquired and developed through hard work and dedication. Everything is learnable through trial and error, and you can teach yourself. This term was popularized by Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.
2. Understand Your Learning Style
Some people understand lessons better by watching videos or listening to podcasts; others by reading, writing, and doing things in action. By understanding how you learn, you'll be able to "hack" to a higher quality of comprehension.
3. Do In-Depth Research and Internalize What You Learn
Use reputable references as the starting point. If you're not sure which ones, ask an expert with years in the field. Inquire about must-read references.
Take note of the titles and read them critically. Most likely, the authors have published books, papers, and articles. Internalize the main concepts and use them to deconstruct what you already know. Write down what you find, whether it's something new or simply a fresh approach to seeing things.
4. Understand the Target Audience
Who are they? In marketing, the targeted individuals are called "personas." A persona is a semi-fictionalized representation of the targeted customers or readers, with unique backgrounds, interests, and demographic elements.
The same message might need to be conveyed differently depending on who they are, what they like, where they live, what they believe, how they think, and why they choose something. Such information is vital so you can write within the preferred tone, depth, and level of technical jargon.
5. Scrutinize Each Concept and Break it Down Into Piecemeal Steps
Explaining complex concepts in simple language requires more than a deep understanding of the topic, but also the mastery of deconstructive thinking and rewriting. For a new SME, breaking down a concept into small easy-to-digest pieces of information is a part of the learning process.
6. Write in Easy-to-Understand Sentences
Rewrite what you've just learned in simple sentences. When you write down something, the brain registers it as newly acquired information. Start by writing just for yourself, called "freewriting." Once you've familiarized yourself with the subject, develop an outline or a mock presentation so you can internalize the information.
7. Write in a Confident and Authoritative Tone
As a new SME, writing down what you've mastered is crucial, as it provides an opportunity for the new concepts to sink in. While writing, your mind develops new relationships with previously-learned concepts by deconstructing and recreating correlations. Ideally, you use a confident and authoritative tone so you can practice being a real expert and thought leader from the start.
8. Communicate with Other Subject Matter Experts
Experts talk with other experts so they can exchange ideas and learn from each other. Note what makes a particular expert renowned and the distinguishing elements between his or her knowledge and the other experts'. Process the new information with your own understanding of the subject to come up with post-deconstruction schemes.
9. Monitor Communications on the Subject
Use social media listening tools, like BuzzSumo and Mention, to find out what people are saying about the topic across the Web. By understanding the trending topics of your subject, you can gain more insights on how things are evolving, what people need, and what the future may look like.
10. Build a Platform Around Your New Knowledge
You may start a blog around the subject, a sub-topic, or a trend based on your new knowledge. Write a blog post at least once a month. If you have time, you can aim at a weekly posting. The key is being consistent and about the quality, not the quantity. If you can whip up 1,000 words, it's excellent. If it's fewer or more, it's also great.
11. Engage in Conversations About the Subject
With blog posts and comments, both on social media and in face-to-face presentations, converse about your subject matter with passion and integrity. By educating others, you actually educate yourself. Listening to others and having your own stance on issues is one of the best ways to learn. This way, you can build your own authorial voice.
12. Write a Book or eBook About the Subject with a New Perspective or Twist
It doesn't have to be a lengthy one, as long as you can express what you know and bring value to your readers. Reinventing the wheel isn't required.
Transforming yourself from a rookie to a subject matter expert might sound like a colossal undertaking. However, with the right mindset, strategic learning, positioning of your new SME status, and being brave in publishing fresh ideas and new paradigms, you can become a respectable expert and thought leader. Practicing and daring to be different are the keys to success.