Your SME’s Stories

As trainers, we come to a project with a unique point of view. Not being the subject matter experts help us ask questions that may seem overly simple to the people who have been working with this content for longer than us. Those simple questions are great for getting to the needs of the learners.

Great training uses the same words the learners will use once they have completed the course. Without making assumptions, the only way to know how people interact with each other is to observe them or interview them and get their stories. The latter is much more complicated than the former. Let’s dig into why that is and a few approaches to SME interviews that may help you in your next training.

They Come Prepared with Bullet Points

Once you have finally scheduled some time with your busy SME, it is time to get all of the information out of their head and into writing. They have likely come prepared with talking points and maybe even some marketing language they have used to describe the topic at hand in the past. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to get you the right words to speak your learners’ language.

Putting SME’s on the Spot

To push past this roadblock, you may ask refining questions. Because you are speaking to the content expert who just wants to tell you the data as hard facts, and you may throw them with your questions. From their perspective, the spotlight is on them to think on their feet, and that is a lot of pressure if there is any ambiguity in your line of questioning.

How, then, do we get our SME’s out of this bullet point frame of mind and into telling us what we need to hear?

Allow Them to Warm Up

They are likely going to start with their bullet points. Give them a few minutes to do this and learn how they talk about the content. As they do this, listen intently. Did they bring up a problem? Did they mention something new people need to know? Take notes on any of these opportunities you hear during their preamble.

Ask for Real Stories

Once the SME has provided the introduction, you must ask the right questions to get the content you need. This is an art, and not a science, but there are some good questions to ask to draw out the stories you need.

  • You mentioned this problem earlier. Do you have any stories about that actually happening?
  • Has anyone successfully implemented this new thing? Tell me about that.
  • You mentioned you had a situation recently. Using real words, not just the gist, how did that conversation start?
  • When you talk to people about this, how do you explain what is in it for them?

The groove of these meetings isn’t always easy, and they may give you a bunch of content that isn’t helpful. What is paramount is you get them to use their own language so you know how to talk to the learners. Directly asking them to use their own language may backfire because most people aren’t aware of what that means. If they continue to speak in generalities, ask them to only use “I” statements and steer away from anything sentence that use the words “we” or “in general”. Most SMEs want to tell you the facts and to get most training right, we need to hear their stories. Turning a content expert into a storyteller isn’t an easy feat, but with the right questions, you can find the stories you need to make your training great!

How do you draw stories out of your content experts? Let’s keep this conversation going in the comment section below.

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