I cannot tell you how long I have been wanting to write this post – years. I’m sure a musical will follow shortly…After reading an insightful article by fellow Instructional Designer, Nicole Mellas, entitled 3 Steps to Get MORE out of Subject Matter Expert (SME) Interviews, I was prompted to share my tips and experiences.
Dealing with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can be tricky. Often times, they have trouble placing themselves in the shoes of their audience and/or Instructional Designer, and on particularly frustrating days where communication has come to a standstill, I call this relationship “My SME and Me.” In the darkest moments (re: sobbing over my keyboard), it renews my faith in humanity.
As Instructional Designers it is our job to figure out how to communicate effectively with our SMEs. Effectively in the sense that you get clear (or somewhat clear) answers to the questions you have in order to ensure the most accurate content, and you do this in an efficient manner. The phrase ‘time is money’ is a very accurate one in this respect. There are often many other tasks that you could devote your time and effort to in the instructional development process, so it is critical to be able to streamline the approach you take when it comes to communicating with your SME. Another phrase I’ve come to appreciate in recent weeks – “Everything is figureoutable” – Marie Forleo – allows me to recognize that each SME is their own person and as such, they are entitled to their own manner of communicating and disseminating information and the Instructional Designer will eventually figure out how best to communicate with that particular person.
When I reflect on my annual performance, I often cite communicating with SMEs as one of my greatest challenges. While I still consider this task challenging, I walk into my SME interactions with a different attitude – one that appreciates where the SME is coming from and their area of expertise – they’re a SME for a reason, after all. This is step one.
Go into your SME interactions prepared. Pinpoint the specific content areas you want to discuss in an agenda, that you submit to the SME ahead of time, and bring relevant reference material to the meeting (or include it in the agenda email) – this will help streamline your meeting by giving the SME an opportunity to prepare themselves ahead of time.
Always keep your eye on the prize. The prize is engaging, accurate content or copy, and you need to steer the ship of conversation! If your SME begins to go off on a tangent, diplomatically get them in check, and proceed with your agenda (e.g. “That’s an incredible story about how you built the rocket, but could you tell me more about how to launch the rocket?”). Accurate content is essential for many training programs. I would say all, but something like soft skills training may be more subjective than something more specific like air traffic control training. It is imperative that you keep your SME on point.
Finally, respect your SME. When you are especially frustrated and feel like you’ve talked circles around yourself, always be polite and ensure you are respectful to your SME. In many industries, you will likely have to interact with this individual again, and not burning bridges will go a long way in your next interaction.
To summarize, my tips for successful SME interactions are:
- Get your attitude in check
- Come prepared
- Keep the content in mind
- Direct your SME and keep them on point
- Respect your SME and build rapport
What have your SME experiences been like? Have you experienced cases of My SME and Me?