Category: Subject Matter Experts and Training

You have a tremendous opportunity.

Others ‘just don’t get it’.

Many experts have no idea how to develop and deliver training material. YOU, yourself,  may not be a trained instructional designer or certified instructor but consider the value someone trained to educate would bring to your instructional offering. Partnering could take many different forms or be executed in different ways.

Open you mind to the idea of partnership. It will save you time, effort and it just may save your ‘bacon’.


You know the old saying, “The whole is greater than the Sum of the parts…” Here’s my version for this discussion:

Topic Proficiency and Expertise + Training Development & Delivery Expertise


Audience Centered, Results Oriented Content with Expert Secrets & Tips for Practical Applicability

(i.e. the Best of Both Worlds)


The big deal is: not many people are doing this the right way.

If you’ve attended some courses lately you’ll see this. Some sessions bombard you with facts & figures. Others bore you with stuff you already know or that is of little value. At the end of some sessions you may say either, “That was a useless waste of my time!” OR “Wow they know their stuff. That was way over my head.”

Ask yourself:  would you hire them as trainers? Probably not. You may consider hiring the ‘know-it-all’s for some services because this stuff is way too complicated and you could never do it yourself.  WAIT A MINUTE! When you think back to the ‘free’ session, maybe the underlying objective wasn’t to sell education, maybe it was to sell services. Hmmm…


So, what’s the real problem?

  • Is it the advertising: should it be an introductory course or advanced?
  • Is the material too detailed?
  • Is the topic structured to facilitate understanding?
  • Does the material make unfair assumptions in knowledge or vocabulary?
  • Etc.

You get the picture.

Consider that the real problem was they didn’t know where to start or how to put the material together.


If you ask most training experts, they’ll agree that ideally they’d like to partner with an expert in the topic they are teaching. That way they can DEVELOP and BUILD the right material-right from the start: adding in the right discussions and exercises to get the audience participating and learning. Having someone give them the expert hints and tips adds TREMENDOUSLY to the value of the course.

I know what you are thinking.

In a perfect world you would combine the talents of a training expert and someone who is an expert in their field. Together magic would be worked.  The collaboration would be something to celebrate. The resulting material would be unique and would be differentiated from the competition.

But you don’t live in a perfect world. You have a small staff and you can’t afford to hire someone on full-time to help you develop and deliver instructional material for your seminars, webinars and workshops.

If you can’t afford a full-time employee or a contractor to develop and deliver material, consider hiring a Training Expert for a bit of consulting. That expert can save you time, money and embarrassment. As my friend Adele, says: “Consider the cost if you don’t.”


Here’s a way to think about hiring a professional trainer. You don’t have to hire one on full-time, rather you can determine where you are going to get the ‘most bang for your buck’:

  • Strategically (‘the big picture’):
    • Defining goals (audience and outcomes)
    • Developing the overall structure of your set of offerings
    • Fleshing out the overall structure of your seminar
  • Tactically (‘the more indepth, detailed view’):
    • Looking at your offering in a more detailed step-wise manner, as discussed in ‘Can you teach like a Trained Professional?
      • How the ideas and concepts are are divided into building blocks.
      • Does the sequence of these blocks make sense?
      • Have all the learning styles been addressed?
  • Practically:
    • Making it ‘real’ wit pragmatic advice?
    • Ensuring your offering hits the mark (which could include defining ‘the mark’)


Even if you already have an offering, consider having a ‘trained professional’ (trainer) look at it. OR have a trainer attend or listen in to your session. OR have a trainer interpret the feedback you’ve collected. You will be AMAZED at how they make sense of things and pick out a few things to ‘spruce up’.

So, don’t say, “No thanks, I’m good,” as you would to someone offering you an appetizer you didn’t want…

If you are open to these ideas your sessions will get better. Your audience will become a loyal fan club. AND you will have developed a distinct brand that YOU can teach/train your topic better than all the others.


So, how can I help?

My plan is to roll out a number of blog posts that will give you a more in-depth look at designing and delivering training. (These postings are not a replacement for in-depth knowledge a trained educator would have; rather, they will give you some simple ideas that you can apply to your work.)

Arming you with that knowledge will make you more efficient in partnering with an expert trainer. Think of it like going to your paid-by-the-hour accountant with most of the information he/she is going to ask for.

I promise to try to make this as simple as possible AND I will try not to use ‘instructor’-speak. Until next time, keep an open mind about partnering to leverage some training talent.


Flickr Creative Commons Image by C.Quarles


Many Training Experts cringe at the thought of someone that is not trained in course/instructional design actually designing training material.


Because good instructional material doesn’t just happen:  It is designed and developed (according to good instructional design practises).

Where to Start?

One colleague pointed out:

“… experts typically don’t start with what they want students or workshop participants to KNOW or to be able to DO as a result of a course or individual lesson.”

This is more than just being goal oriented. AND it is more than being learner/audience centered as discussed in “Can you teach like a trained Professional? The ONE and ONLY Question.”

Instructional design considers the knowledge and experience base of the (typical or intended) audience. Think of this as a “starting point”. Considering the intended end result (in terms of the learner’s knowledge or skill base) of the session, appropriate instructional material is developed. (These “goals” are typically referred to as learning objectives or outcomes.)

Design to Illuminate

The instructional material created may take many forms: lecture, discussion, exercise, etc. However, it is KEY that the material, regardless of form, is at the appropriate level.

Have you ever attended an introductory course, which started out with introductory concepts and then delved into the depths with some technical how-to?  Well, I have. I thought to myself, “…how did that happen? Where am I? Did I fall asleep in the ‘101’course and wake up in the ‘301’course?? WHAT were they thinking??”

Good instructional design LIGHTS UP an IDEA. It brings the idea to life. It allows students/learners to “see”, to “grasp” ideas, concepts and skills and apply/perform them.

If the material is at an inappropriate level, it can either turn off your learners OR leave them in the dark. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?

Can Subject Matter Experts design good Instructional Material?

It depends.

The ultimate goal for this blog is present some ideas and concepts that will illuminate those that aren’t professionally trained teachers/instructors or instructional designers.  I hope I am able to shine a light on some strategies and techniques that they can put into practise.

As one colleague put it,

Not all SMEs want to be a designer, or better yet–not all SME’s can be good designers.”

Stay tuned until next time when I give you an alternative to designing instructional material yourself. You can follow me by going to the right hand side of this page and signing up for a free email subscription to this blog.


Flickr Creative Commons Image by DeaPeaJay

Who do you think has the upper hand when it comes to training:

the subject matter expert (SME) or the expert trainer?

Okay, let me change the question to be more specific,

Who do you think has the upper hand when it comes to


Experts have the experience base, the war stories including the “gotchas”, short cuts and successful “references”. Depending on the topic, this expert knowledge can be the most valuable part of a session. This knowledge may be something that a non-SME trainer would not posses (unless it was built into the courseware.)

For technical training, experts have the proficiency and intensive knowledge. Tim Pearson, technical trainer and consultant for Datatel, put it nicely,

“Without the SME portion, one finds that the time is not long before an experienced programmer or System Administrator sniffs out that [there is] an “id10t” is standing in the front of the room.”

So, for TECHNICAL training, beware! You may NEED a SME at the front of the room.

Let’s change the question again:

Who do you think has the upper hand when it comes to


As I have discussed in my previous post, some experts face a challenge. Many of them have spent a lot of time being experts. Some of them lost touch with what it was like to be a novice, apprentice or junior [fill in the blank]. Others have trouble relating to non-experts because they are so used to speaking in their own expert vocabulary:  they use their own language or short forms/acronyms. And some of them, do all of this much too quickly (i.e. some of them talk too quickly without visual aids… and for us visual people, it is easy to get lost.)

However, the real challenge is subject matter experts, if they have not been trained in instructional/course design, don’t know where or how to start to design the right material for their audience. They need a structure. They need a process. They need some tools to help. This is where instructional design or an instructional designer enters the equation.


The answers to these questions, of course, varies with each situation.  Yes, sometimes this depends on the abilities of the expert and other times it depends on what the content is or how advanced the training is.

While experts face a number of challenges in developing and delivering training, they have a number of advantages and may have the upper hand when it comes to being convincing, insightful and valuable.

The primarily challenge for subject matter experts may be in developing instructional material, if they have not been trained to do so. And that discussion is only a post away…


Flickr Creative Commons Image by Horia Varlan

Most training experts agree, that some subject matter experts can be successful teachers; even more agree that subject matter experts can be coached to become excellent teachers.

If you are wondering if you need a bit of coaching to spruce up your teaching skills, or if you are going to teach for the first time, there is ONLY ONE question to ask yourself:


Are YOU the Center?

OR is YOUR AUDIENCE the Center?

When I asked Training Experts this question, a common theme emerged:  they thought subject matter experts need to think like an audience member. They called this approach user/learner/or audience centered.

Yes, there are other aspects to consider; however, if you think about it, most of these really come back to taking this learner centered approach.


A learning style is categorizes the method in which you prefer to learn. (Keeping this simple for now), typically teachers consider those styles to be: auditory (learning by hearing), visual (learning by seeing) or tactile (learning by doing).

What is your learning style? Are you assuming your audience learns the same way? OR are you addressing all learning styles?

Why is this important?

Well think about it. If you are a visual type, and your trainer just talks, talks, talks, are you going to learn the material? What if you are an auditory person, and your trainer just shows diagrams and instructions and does very little talking? Is your learning optimal? And heaven help you if you are a tactile learning and your trainer is just a talker, you’ll possibly fidget the class away.

Regardless of the teaching material you have inherited or developed, you need to think about addressing all learning styles. If someone hands you a script, there is nothing stopping you drawing pictures on a whiteboard for clarification. OR if someone hands you a PowerPoint presentation, consider adding in a discussion or an exercise.

In trying to address these styles, you should consider making use of appropriate teaching techniques (methods). Those methods include: lecture, the use of questions, demonstration, exercises, stories, role plays, discussion, etc. (I won’t discuss these and other techniques in detail: that is a discussion for another day.)

Just remember the audience is there to learn. You need to think about HOW you will address all the different learning styles.


Some think subject matter experts are too wrapped up in their own expert world with their expert colleagues (having their own expert conversations and debates)…

There is nothing wrong with that. After all, where would we be without experts?

However, experts may use language, terms, acronyms, vocabulary that only their (expert) peers understand. That may be appropriate for their work environment when they are working with other experts.

In a learning environment, using an expert vocabulary may not be appropriate. If you ever have attended a convention and walked into the wrong room or enrolled in a more advanced session than you should of, then you can appreciate the challenge of trying to understand someone else’s expert vocabulary (when you don’t possess the same expertise).

Think about speaking in the language of your audience with appropriate vocabulary, defining any acronyms that may not know of.

[Ironically, I wanted to use the phrase, “use problem decomposition methods” in the next section. Then  I realized that it may be considered programmer-speak.  I rest my case with my points on appropriate use of vocabulary.]


Consider dividing the subject matter into understandable bits or presenting the content (concepts, ideas, etc) in manageable parts that make sense to your audience. Those chunks should have a reasonable number of simple steps for your audience to internalize and execute on. (I always use 7 plus or minus 2 as a good rule of thumb.)

An old friend of mine was a large animal veterinarian. Sometimes on dairy farms he’d run into a cow with a number of medical challenges. Did he tell the dairy farmer about all the aliments?  No, he presented the few major challenges and explained how the farmer could address them in a few steps. A few weeks later, he’d be back: those major issues where dealt with, leaving a few more issues to explain and remedy. The result was a healthy cow and a happy farmer. Had he presented 10 health issues and 14 steps to address them, the result would not have been the same: the farmer would have been overwhelmed.

How would you explain your topic to a typical person in your audience? What would be an appropriate starting point for your audience? Do they need a fifty thousand foot overview to give them a framework? OR do they need to understand some basic terminology, concepts or tools?

Developing the right building blocks for your topic for your audience lays a strong foundation. That foundation is a strong base of knowledge which can be built upon over time.


Do you give out advice, tell stories or show demonstrations that are appropriate for the audience’s skill level and that are down-to-earth and applicable to real life, their life?? OR are you talking about academic topics and theories?

Would you ever envision a member of your audience walking away from your session and actually doing what you are telling them? Is it too basic, too complex or something that you just would never do in the field?

Again, depending on your audience’s life and skill level, give them something practical to think about and apply in their environment. You can discuss, demo or have a hands on exercise to introduce them to a new skill, a resource or a tool.

Just remember, you wouldn’t teach someone new to woodworking how to use a router in the first lesson. Chances are you’d discuss the dangers of woodworking and give them a hammer and a pair of safety glasses.

Think about the audience and where they are coming from: their skill level, their industry and their work environment. Are you giving your audience advice, discussing topics or showing them demonstrations that are appropriate and applicable in THEIR world?


Make sure the Center of Your Universe is YOUR AUDIENCE, by ensuring you:

  • Address all the different learning styles
  • Speak the language of your audience and not revert to your expert-eze (i.e. speaking with fancy acronyms and other gobbly goup)
  • Present the right building blocks(concepts, ideas, etc)  in manageable realistic chunks
  • Are practical about advice, discussions and demonstrations.

Always think about where your audience is, who they are, what experience(s) they have and why they are attending your session.

It is your responsibility to enable them to learn. If you CENTER on them, they will learn.

Until next time…


Flickr Creative Commons Image by CLUC

I am anxious to start discussing some simple steps to assist you in becoming a better trainer.

But, before I get you pointed in the right direction, you need to know what Training experts think about of YOU, a subject matter expert (SME), trying to teach/train. (I will use the words teach(ing) and train(ing) interchangeably.) It will give you some insight into some of the challenges that you may face along the way, along with outlining YOUR distinct advantages.

This background information is the base of the advice I will outline in the upcoming days. AND it  will make you a better trainer-GUARANTEED!

Oil & Water


I’ve discussed and debated this subject with Business and Training Experts. Recently, I started a discussion with Training experts and posed the question, “Why can’t subject matter experts teach?”

I asked the question in this manner, (i.e. “why can’t” vs “can”), to spark some debate, which it did. The result was both insightful and entertaining. As one person put it,

[It’s the] “The Dilbert Principle…most-competent employees can be least-competent in other job roles.”


Although, you may think answering the question, “Can subject matter experts teach?” as one person put it,

[the answer] “… is simple, it depends: on the person and the subject.”

Yes, there are elements of truth in that answer. After all, you wouldn’t want “Joe-Trainer”, (who is not a surgical expert), teaching you heart surgery NOR you wouldn’t want “Jane-Business-Guru-but-I-Can’t-Simplify-Anything” training you how to build a successful business.


However, the REAL answer is really multi-faceted. Understanding the advantages and challenges subject matter experts face along with understanding the different aspects of training will give you the background to fully leverage the steps that I will lay out in the upcoming days.

Are SMEs and Training just like oil and water?

They don’t have to be.

Join me to find out more… You won’t want to miss this series!

Sign up for a free email subscription to this blog.

Until next time…


Flickr Creative Commons Image by Sheeren M.