Getting Someone to Know What They Know

Have you ever tried to explain something that is second nature to you?  It’s difficult if not impossible to recall even important details all at once.  In working with a knowledgeable source, they often don’t know what all you don’t know- that is, a routine they’ve been doing for so long may seem like common sense to them despite outsiders having utter ignorance on where to begin.   The approach outlined here can help break down that communication barrier.

My experience with this scenario began in the context of writing articles with engineers as the source.  It can be applied to many areas of information gathering, but this is my frame of reference.  Ideally, my job is to pull the information from those who know it well and make it understandable to even the most novice. In that sense, this can be used for requirements gathering, UX and playtesting, essentially any time you're looking for information from someone that can't quite elaborate it.

The key to drawing out the information you need is to give the source prompts that allow them to converse freely in correcting false information. 

Striking Up the Conversation

Starting from scratch on a subject you need to understand is both difficult and freeing; the questions in your mind will be the same as those of the uninitiated.  Opening the conversation with just a few questions allows the dialog to flow without overwhelming the source.  These questions should be chosen with your goal outline in mind, which is guided by questions to ask yourself:

  • ·         What is the story you’re trying to tell? 
  • ·         What information is required to set the stage? 
  • ·         What will convey the actions taken and their rationale? 
  • ·         Why should the reader care?

Your answer to these questions will often be unclear, leading you to the questions you need to ask the source. 

The ‘False Start’ Draft

Once the source has responded with basic answers to your questions, it’s time to extrapolate, elaborate, and- quite honestly- make stuff up.  Flesh out a concept outline in a basic way:

  1. ·         Take an elevator pitch of your finished product
  2. ·         Expand that into an abstract
  3. ·         Point out each section heading required to convey that story
  4. ·         Use the information from your source as a starting point for each section

Your source’s information likely won’t be enough to go on for the entire document. Consider it the kernel of truth around which you paint the image.  Fill in the gaps with implied information, regardless of its correctness.  This is the ‘false start’ part of the draft.

When your expert source reads the draft, the errors will stick out to them like a sore thumb.  Since the subject matter is something they care about, it will be a personal matter for them to correct the information.  In doing so, not only will they have covered all the gaps in your draft, they will often elaborate on their comments which provides a deeper understanding of the material for yourself and your readers.  At this point, you’ll be a few short rewrites away from a solid finished product.

Progress is Important

This approach is intended to get things moving where stagnation is the enemy.  The correctness of the final draft is just as vital, so the back-and-forth nature of the process gives your source multiple opportunities to catch any error (it is implied that the final draft edit will be done with a careful eye).  The point of using this method is to never let the project sit on the back burner.  Doing so could mean missing deadlines or scrapping the project entirely.  With this method, as long as your source is willing to communicate, you should be able to create a solid product in record time.

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