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ATD Blog

3 Things You Know About Learning That Your SME Doesn’t

Monday, December 11, 2017

Bringing subject matter experts (SMEs) into the training process is often necessary and important. Their knowledge and perspective during the design phase help talent development (TD) professionals determine what learners need to learn and what they need to be able to do after training.

When your SME is also the person delivering training, new challenges arise. SMEs are not learning experts, after all, they are subject matter experts. This can lead to ineffectiveness and inefficiency in the training room. Therefore, they need to be coached on delivery and facilitation skills that we, as TD professionals, already employ. Finding the best way to coach your SMEs, though, is daunting because each of them has different experience, strengths, and needs.

Before you dive into delivering feedback to your SMEs, make sure they understand the fundamentals of the learning process itself. Here are three things that trainers know, but SMEs may not.

SMEs Must Embrace the Learning Conversation

Many SMEs assume that the driving force of training delivery is content. That’s not the case. What drives learning is the conversation the SME has with learners about the content. Understanding this helps SMEs in a couple ways. First, if your SME assumes that his or her role is to lecture learners, emphasizing the need for conversation will help them break free of that assumption. Second, by viewing learners as partners in the learning conversation, SMEs can level the playing field and approach training as a conversation among colleagues. During this conversation everyone in the room has the same goal—making sure that learning happens to move business forward.

SMEs Must Understand Their Responsibilities to Learners

While TD professionals are comfortable with the fundamentals of adult learning theory, most SMEs are not. There’s no reason to confuse them with too much theory, though. An easier route is to help them focus on the two things that adult business learners crave: relevance and efficiency.

Concerning relevance, everything the SME delivers should have relevance to the learners’ work lives and the business as a whole. It’s the SME’s job to explain that relevance, to make those connections.


Concerning efficiency, learners need to feel that their time in class is well spent. It is the learners’ sense of efficiency that is crucial to the SME’s success. Helping the SME understand this will not only help them stay focused on learners throughout the process, it also will help long-winded SMEs stay concise. In our book, Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide for Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning, Greg Owen-Boger and I describe business learners as “busy people at work,” a description that usually resonates with SMEs because they, too, are busy people.


SMEs Must Trust Learners

Staying focused on the need for a genuine conversation, relevance, and efficiency will help SMEs earn the trust of their learners. But trust is a two-way street. SMEs also need to trust learners. That means they need to understand the value of each learner’s perspective and experience. As the learning conversation moves forward, SMEs should assume that every comment, question, concern, or disagreement coming from learners will serve the process. Recognizing this is the first step toward opening up discussion, digging deeper into content, and ultimately giving learners a glimpse into the mind of an expert. Gaining this insight is the reason SMEs are involved in training in the first place.

The next time you’re working with a SME to improve training delivery, take a step back and make sure they understand these fundamental ideas. It will make your feedback and coaching easier for them to understand and implement.

Need more tips? Check out Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide for Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning.

About the Author

Dale Ludwig is the founder and president of Turpin Communication, a presentation and facilitation training company based in Chicago. Over the past 25 years, he and his partners have developed methodologies that challenge much of the conventional wisdom in the field. Dale has a PhD in communication from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is co-author of The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined. He is a frequent blogger and guest writer at Training Industry’s website. In addition to The Orderly Conversation, he is the author of the whitepaper “Getting Past 101: How to Bring Value and Relevance to Presentation Skills Training,” which can be downloaded at  

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