Blood from a turnip – Extracting information from the unwilling

I recently commented on another technical writer’s blog about this subject, but I couldn’t put the issue to rest over night. One of the most serious problems for a technical writer is trying to extract critical information from a non-responsive stakeholder or subject matter expert. You know the one, who’s always “busy,” never responds to email, IMs, or voicemail, and won’t answer questions when cornered in the break room.

While there are numerous techniques that technical writers use to get people to talk, I’m talking about the most extreme cases. Notably, in organizations where knowledge is viewed as a source of power. Sharing information is the quickest way to dilute that power.

The problem, though, is that technical writers often have to rely on others for information in order to write content. While we’d love to spend all day chasing people around, that’s just not feasible – deadlines are always tight. Besides, in some instances, the non-responder is your manager, so you don’t have any escalation options. But, I have a solution – a desperate measure for desperate times.

First, it helps to remember who your Number One is… your customer. They are counting on you to give them the information they need.

Second, become a subject matter expert on the topic. Talk to everyone else because the “powerless” are often more than willing to help in order to learn more about the topic themselves.

Third, write your content in a logical and reasonable manner. Yeah, I’m talking about making it up, of sorts. Yet, it should be based on your learnings and logic, not literally made up. It helps to think about how you think it should be done (when documenting a process or task). Be the voice of the customer in this instance.

Fourth, and the most controversial, send the non-responding stakeholder an email with your content, tell him or her that you’ve published it (it’s “live”), and that you are holding him or her responsible for its accuracy. Culminating with “let me know if it’s wrong.” <mic drop>. You could even seal it with a happy face 🙂 You may not actually publish it, but the stakeholder doesn’t need to know that.  When it comes to rationalizing your behavior to management, you’ll probably win this case anyway.

I cannot stress enough that this technique should be used with absolute discretion and only when you’ve exhausted all other means. Yet, in my experience, only about 10% of the time I got a “it’s wrong!” email response. Not a bad record if I say so myself.

This technique won’t make you popular with that stakeholder, but your customers will love you. Ultimately, that’s what counts.

What about you? What techniques do you use to extract information from the unwilling?


One thought on “Blood from a turnip – Extracting information from the unwilling

  1. Well, a couple of times when I’ve been really desperate (like when my employer was about to miss a big milestone payment because the responsible engineer couldn’t find ten minutes to sign something he’d already read) I have contacted the RE’s manager and said look, here’s what’s at stake…. That always turns the key. I know it probably pisses off the RE, but then I’m sure he (it was a he both times I’ve had to go to that extreme) was probably pleased when that fat bonus came in. –Dan

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