What’s the right formula when working with SMEs on training?

“How do we get subject matter experts (SMEs) to be better trainers?”

It’s a question I hear often, especially in light of the recent presentations I’ve been doing on the concept of radioactive elements, which comes from my book What’s Your Formula?

Before I dive more deeply into SMEs, I want to remind everyone what “radioactive elements” are. Radioactive elements are components of training that can be very powerful, but they can also be very dangerous or even harmful if they’re not used very well. As you can see from the image below, these elements include some of the most commonly used pieces for training today: lecture, PowerPoint, SMEs, handouts, smile sheets (level 1 evaluation forms), icebreakers, elearning, augmented reality, role play, games and data.

Subject Matter Experts can often be tricky, and sometimes frustrating, to work with, mainly because their job title is never actually “Subject Matter Expert”. They are paid by your company to be very smart and very good in a specific area, and that area is rarely presentation skills or instructional design.

One of the things I like most about the periodic table of elements of amazing learning experiences is that it’s full of ideas we can use to build around any one individual element. SMEs, specifically, don’t need to be expert presenters or trainers if we can help them by integrating other elements into their presentation design.

What could a formula look like that begins with SMEs? Maybe something like this:

Ex + Lo + Lp + Em –> Less frustration + More Engaged Learners

As I mentioned already, SMEs typically don’t have a background in instructional design and unless they’re naturally gifted, few SMEs I’ve seen are able to capture the attention of their learners for long periods of time. Turning SMEs into instructional designers is often an exercise in futility, and it’s actually not appropriate in most cases.

Helping with Learning Objectives

If those of us with training and instructional design background can ask some questions to suss out what’s truly important (so that we can help mitigate the temptation for an SME to share all of their knowledge during a one hour session), we’ll be on the right track.

Often times, when asked: What are your objectives for this session? An SME will tell me: I need people to know ____, or I need people to understand ______.

For those of us with a background in crafting learning objectives, we all cringe a bit when we hear those magical words such as “know” or “understand”. That’s also an insider reaction. Anyone who hasn’t studied why you don’t use words like “know” or “understand” may feel a bit put off if you tell them: You can’t use “know” or “understand” when you’re creating objectives!

A better way to respond is to ask the SME to continue their sentence. “Ok, you want people to know _____ so that they can do what?” The answer to this follow-up question often yields the learning objectives we’re looking for.

“So that they can follow this procedure” or “So that they can determine the best course of action.” Suddenly, the learning objectives you can use to help craft a lesson plan with your subject matter expert have become more clear.

By the end of this session, learners will be able to…

  • Follow a procedure that will allow them to ________
  • Determine the best course of action for _______

Helping with a Lesson Plan

Now that you’ve been able to suss out the objectives, an SME may need a little more help keeping their messaging tight, and also finding appropriate activities so that the learners can demonstrate the abilities that the SME would like them to walk away with.

Helping an SME give structure to their presentation by coming up with a lesson plan (usually before you open PowerPoint to generate slides and talking points) can be extremely beneficial. A lesson plan can offer an SME insights as to how long they should spend on any given topic, as well as specific activity instructions to help check to see if the participants can actually follow that procedure or determine the best course of action.

Don’t Forget Follow-up Opportunities!

Whether you have an hour, a half-day or a three-day workshop, I know very few SMEs who will be able to share everything they would have liked to share within the time constraints. After all, they have spent years developing their expertise, and they often want their participants to know as much as they know themselves.

Reminding SMEs that the learning doesn’t have to stop at the end of the session, and that they can invite participants to email or in some other way reach out for further information and conversations can help alleviate the need to present everything in a single training session.

So, how do we get subject matter experts (SMEs) to be better trainers?

Subject matter experts are extremely valuable learning resources… as long as the workshop they put together is effective and digestible. As training professionals, it’s our job to find other elements we can use to bond with the subject matter experts so that their knowledge can come to life.


Need some help working with your SMEs? Or perhaps you need some help putting together a training program – whether instructor-led (in the classroom or virtual) or elearning? Endurance Learning would love to be your helping hand! Drop us a note and let’s talk about what you’re working on and whether/how we might be able to help!

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