Subject matter experts should be a welcome sight in the training room. Their real-world knowledge and perspective brings depth and practicality to the learning process. The challenge, though, is that SMEs can’t do it alone. They need the support and guidance of learning leaders to succeed as trainers.

Here are three ideas to keep in mind.

Help SMEs understand that when they’re in the training room, they wear two hats, “SME” and “trainer.”

As the SME, they should feel free to talk about what they know, what they’ve experienced, and why it’s important to the business. As the trainer, they are responsible for emphasizing relevance (helping learners apply what they’ve learned to their work) and efficiency (being clear, not wasting time, and making the learning process feel fruitful).

Let this distinction be clear in the learning design and when giving feedback to the SME about delivery. For example, does the learning design help the SME frame content to meet learner needs? Is the SME saying too much and burying the learning goal under too much detail? Does the SME understand how their stories encourage learning?

Encourage SMEs to draw their enthusiasm from their learners and the learning process.

This will help set the right tone for the training and avoid two common pitfalls. The first of these is the assumption that what they’re talking about (the subject matter) determines the level of enthusiasm possible during delivery. Making this assumption means that content deemed “dull” or “boring” (accounting information or business processes, for example) can’t be delivered with much enthusiasm and certainly no passion. This is not true, of course. Enthusiasm is the natural result of the SME’s desire to make content relevant and useful to learners.

The second assumption, often made in response to the first, is that enthusiasm must be artificially generated. Never encourage SMEs to be entertainers. They don’t need to add humor or fun to the process to engage learners. Enthusiasm must be genuine and spring from the SME’s connection to learners. When it is, it makes learning easier.

When learning designs include exercises or activities, be sure to set the SME up for successful execution.

Always keep in mind that exercises bring with them a high risk of frustration for trainers (whether an SME or not) and learners alike. Eliminate any exercise that is not designed to reinforce or extend learning. Ice breakers, energizers and anything that resembles forced fun should be cut. For the exercises that remain, help the SME manage them in these ways.

Make it very clear how the exercise should be set up. The set up should emphasize the goal of the exercise, the context in which it takes place, and the benefit it has for learners.

Offer clear guidance on how the exercise should be debriefed. This will help the SME balance depth of discussion and efficiency.

Finally, give your SMEs options. Let them eliminate exercises they don’t feel comfortable facilitating. Offer alternative exercises designed to reach a single goal.

Sometimes the best learning that takes place in a class occurs in spite of the learning design. This is especially true with SMEs. Be sure to give them the guidance and the freedom they need to function comfortably and confidently in the classroom.

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