On being … hocus-pocus?

By Ingrid Sapona

One of the ways I describe my consulting services is that I translate complex, often technical, information into plain language. So, in my work, I deal with subject matter experts – “SMEs”, as they are often referred to – a lot. I talk with them about what they do, always trying to understand it enough to write intelligently about it. It’s a challenge on a variety of levels. Often, when experts write about what they do, they either provide no detail or way too much detail for non-expert audiences. As you can imagine, neither of those options is ideal, which is why I’m hired to do the writing.  

One of the biggest hurdles is gaining SMEs’ trust and confidence. I basically need to convince them that I’m intelligent enough to “get” what they do, even though I couldn’t do what they do. I find that the best way to win them over is by demonstrating my curiosity and interest, and not being afraid to ask basic questions.

The trickiest part of my job often involves figuring out how much detail to include for my audience, typically folks with little background on the topic. But, to get to the point where I can explain things in plain language, I need to have a pretty solid understanding of the stuff. Before I meet with an SME, I usually do a fair bit of background reading on the topic.

By the time I meet with the expert, I want to at least have the big picture. I think one of the reasons I’m good at working with SMEs is because I don’t mind displaying my ignorance. The way I see it, the expert is there to educate me and I’ve always been an eager student. Many of my questions are focused on understanding the jargon associated with the field. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking them to define terms and then explaining my understanding back to them in my own words to make sure I have it right.

Usually what I feel I need to understand is how they got from point A to point C. In other words, I want to understand what happens at point B. Sometimes the expert is openly unwilling to tell me. In those cases, I think of point B as the secret sauce, and I can understand that they don’t want to share all their secrets. When that’s the case, I don’t mind simply explaining to readers that something involves a trade secret or proprietary information.

Lately I’ve worked with experts that seem happy to tell me, but their ultimate explanation boils down to them saying “we apply an algorithm” – as though that says it all. The first few times I got that response, I wished I had taken more math. But, just because I may not be able to interpret a complex mathematical equation, it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the factors that underpin the algorithm, so that’s what I try to get at.

Unfortunately, as often as not, the experts never seem to be able to explain much about the algorithm they’re relying on in their work. So, I’ve pretty much given up trying to get further insights. To be honest, that’s pretty freeing. Now, instead of feeling stupid when I can’t understand some outcome that relies on an algorithm, I just sit back and accept that the algorithm is like a magician’s hocus-pocus – no point in asking what it means – it’s enough to know that if all goes well, it’ll yield some magic result.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


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