Building Training DNA of SMEs (Part 2)

Recently, I offered a slideshow of what it looks like when subject matter experts (SMEs) use sound adult learning principles to engage an audience.  This post outlines five key elements needed to help SMEs design more engaging presentations.

Element #1: Seeing is believing

Before I work with SMEs in developing presentations, I try to demonstrate what a good, engaging, interactive presentation can be.  If SMEs don’t have an opportunity to attend a live presentation, I often send them a link to one of my favorite TED talks so that they can see that even a lecture, when well-rehearsed, can captivate an audience.  The bottom line is that in order for an SME to believe that interactive, engaging learning is more than just “touchy-feely fluff,” they need to see (or better yet, experience) what is possible through a well-designed presentation.

Element #2: Train the Trainer

All of the SMEs I’ve worked with over the past two years have attended some type of train the trainer session.  I’ve found that the most fundamental piece to these sessions is the activity around well-written, action-oriented, learner-centered learning objectives.  Basically, SMEs are challenges to finish this sentence when writing learning objectives: “By the end of this session, participants will be able to…”

Once the SMEs used a verb like “explain” or “demonstrate” or “describe”, pure lecture went out the window.  They had to leave room in their presentations for role plays or case studies or other activities that allowed participants to explain something or demonstrate something or describe something.

Element #3: Lesson Plans

To help SMEs organize their thoughts before they opened up PowerPoint and just started running wild with slides, I emphasized the need to use a lesson plan template.  This helped assign specific time to every concept they would cover and it was a way to be intentional about a variety of instructional strategies (instead of straight lecture).

Element #4: Intensive One-on-One Work

After all the training and resources that were provided to SMEs, I found follow-up with one-on-one sessions and phone calls to be incredibly important.  It wasn’t enough for me to simply review their lesson plans and email feedback to them (I found that when I only sent written suggestions, they were rarely integrated into a final lesson plan).  Real-time conversation was crucial to understanding the SMEs’ ideas, brainstorming how to present the content and building upon one another’s thoughts.

Element #5: Positive Peer Pressure

I’ve found that SMEs are driven and have a lot of pride.  When one SME took a risk and delivered an interactive and engaging presentation that was well-received and generated a lot of energy and excitement in the training room, every other SME who witnessed this wanted to design something even better and more creative.

A one-off train-the-trainer session will do little to transform an SME from lecturer to engaging presenter.  Like many other forms of change management, this really is a process.  What kinds of effort are you willing to put in to helping SMEs deliver more engaging presentations?

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7 thoughts on “Building Training DNA of SMEs (Part 2)

    • Ug. Yes, the two words that I “outlaw” in objective writing are: know and understand. And even after everyone agrees on this ground rule, it’s a tough habit to break when I turn people loose in designing practice lesson plans… Of course, once they embrace this concept, there’s a huge “ah-ha” moment and their activities really come to life!

  1. I found this post really interesting because a lot of SME’s think just because they know the topic or content inside and out they are able to explain and teach it to someone else. I agree a person with a lot of knowledge on a subject should be able to explain it to others but not without preparation and practice. Being an expert on a subject doesn’t mean you understand how others learn. Subject matter experts need to have knowledge on learning styles and make sure they incorporate multiple styles into their presentation in order to reach the majority of the group. I think it is great you spend so much time with your SME’s trying to get this point across.

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that SMEs generally don’t have enough exposure to how to present information to people. I’ve found that they are often passionate about their topics, so they assume everyone else is passionate about the topic as well. Within that assumption are other assumptions, such as: my audience will understand my acronyms, my audience already understands and can easily relate to the problem I’m trying to solve.

      Moving SMEs to *want* to improve their presentation skills is the first step. The next step has been working with them long enough for there to actually be a change in the way their presentations are actually delivered (old habits die hard!!). To *want* to change, and then to actually demonstrate engaging presentation skills are two very different things.

  2. Great blog, I really enjoyed the two parts.

    I think it would be great o have the time and leadership support to train SMEs to learn to polish their presentation skills and really develop meaningful content in their trainings, but my experiences usually have led me to organizations where the SMEs are so busy working in their jobs and with their teams, they don’t have the time or support to become a trainer. This is job security for me (as a corporate trainer,) but it also challenges me to absorb as much as possible from my SMEs. Since I can’t train my SMEs to be trainers and that is up to me, what I DO think is helpful is giving them a short lesson on why learning needs to be developed in a certain way. Having meaningful 2-way conversation with them, absorbing the content from them, and then explaining the process I take in designing my learning helps them to understand why 1) training cannot be created at the drop of a hat, 2) why the training is timed and structured the way it is, and 3) to set expectations of the measurement strategy that will help quantify ROI (which is likely the next biggest challenge to developing a new training.)

    While every organization cannot invest the time and resources to make every SME a trainer, your strategies here can help the learning professional manage the collaborative work done with a SME. Thanks for the post and the tips!

    • Thanks for the comments, Jenna. Are your SMEs responsible for presenting? Or is your role principally to take their knowledge and expertise and figure out how to present it in a way that will be meaningful for learners?

      You’re right, it’s very rare when SMEs are given the support and time and then held accountable for developing presentation skills while they also hold down their “day jobs”.

      We were able to find a good mix of being able to train folks on presentation skills, provide fairly intensive ongoing support and to hold everyone with presentation responsibilities accountable for making sure it was meaningful to the learners.

      In the end, I think that last part is the most important – whoever carries the responsibility for presenting (whether corporate trainers or SMEs), that person owes it to the learners to deliver a presentation that is engaging and meaningful.

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