Should trainers be subject matter experts in the topic they are teaching, or do they just need excellent presentation and facilitation skills that enable them to train on any topic?

Some L&D professionals adopt the notion that subject matter expertise is indispensable for delivering an effective learning experience. They claim that having profound knowledge and experience will improve trainers’ facilitation, enable them to share examples and stories with the learners, and improve the overall learning experience. Others say that the trainer’s main role is to facilitate learning among participants rather than rely on his or her own knowledge and experience to deliver the content.

Some trainers develop their own materials. Others receive detailed facilitator guides from third-party training providers. In most cases, the time span between receiving the training request and the training delivery date is quite short.

What should trainers do when they receive a request to deliver training on a topic in which they do not have much experience? Should they refuse the request, or should they rely on preparation or the facilitator guide?

In a recent study by L&D Partners, a group of four L&D consultants assessed the performance of 116 trainers from different organizations. Each trainer had been asked to deliver a 30-minute demo session covering a topic of his or her choice. The majority of trainers selected interpersonal and management topics, while some preferred technical topics like networks and data transmission. After the demo session, the consultants evaluated each trainer’s performance of 10 training delivery skills, one of which was content mastery.

Content mastery was measured based on several aspects, including how confident the trainer was in presenting information, answering questions, sharing examples and personal experiences, responding to challenging thoughts, and knowing the flow of the content. To study the impact of content mastery and its relation to the trainers’ delivery skills, the researchers ranked the trainers based on their overall training delivery score and then converted and grouped them into percentiles. They found that there was a high correlation between content mastery and overall training delivery.

The biggest difference in content mastery was between the highest two percentile groups; the average content mastery score of the trainers in the 90th to 100th percentile was 20 percent higher than that of the trainers in the 80th to 89th percentile (see Figure 1). There was an exponential increase in this competency for the top 10 percent of trainers.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Overall Delivery and Content Mastery

When comparing the impact of content mastery to that of presentation skills and facilitation skills, content mastery had the greater contribution to overall training delivery from the 51st percentile and higher and the biggest negative impact from the 50th percentile and lower (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Presentation Skills, Facilitation Skills and Content Mastery

Your trainers may have excellent presentation and facilitation skills. However, this research tells us that if they don’t master the content they are delivering, that weakness could overshadow their delivery skills. Whether it’s interpersonal, management, leadership or technical training, make sure your trainers focus on teaching the topics in which they have experience.