Preparing to leave his desk, Kai gathers his data, his detailed analysis and findings, and his airtight PowerPoint deck. Ten years in, he’s now the head analyst on the team, and he’s ready to share his findings with the executive board. He enters the conference room on cue and launches into his presentation, giving all the details he thinks will help them make their decision. However, instead of heads nodding with agreement, he sees confusion and, in some cases, indifference. Somewhere along the way, Kai had lost them. 

It’s a familiar scene, played out in organizations around the world: when an expertly trained, highly experienced subject matter expert (SME) can’t quite seem to effectively communicate their expertise. Recent research by CareerBuilder identified that 62 percent of employers rated soft skills as very important, yet the Wall Street Journal conducted a study showing that 89 percent of executives are struggling to find people who have these skills. Whether it’s an introverted personality, an organizational obstacle, or the inability to find common ground (i.e., “talking over everyone’s heads”), it seems as if the skills that get SMEs into the big meetings aren’t enough to keep them there anymore.

Picture the frantic scientist at the beginning of the classic disaster movie—they clearly know the material, they know the risks that everyone should look at, they obviously have passion, but still, no one is listening.

The changing role of the SME

As organizations change, SME roles change—but are the people in those roles changing themselves, too?

You’ve heard it before: we’re in the midst of a digital revolution. Organizations are being asked to deliver solutions to their clients involving extremely advanced analytics and algorithms. At the same time, the roles of SMEs are changing in order to compete in leaner, more matrixed organizations. In order to cut out the need for excess roles, many organizations invest internally and expect their SMEs to do the job of advisor in addition to conducting complex analyses.

As a result, that same SME now needs to understand the client need, pull the appropriate data, form it into an idea or product, sell it to the client, and, ideally, serve that client relationship as a trusted advisor. As more technically trained experts are expected to step out from behind the scenes, the inability to move from data specialist to advisor is a noticeable, and risky, skill gap. This is especially true when these professionals are tasked with presenting to or partnering with clients, C-level executives, or other high-profile stakeholders.

Why is there such a dramatic skill gap for SMEs?

It’s difficult enough for someone not trained in influential communication to engage others in a strategic dialogue, let alone someone who is used to having a strictly behind-the-scenes role. Compare the level of experience with high-stakes presenting that a business school graduate would have with, say, someone specializing in computer code. The soft skills required to build and strengthen relationships take work to develop, and the balancing act that most SME jobs require doesn’t always allow for this development.

This problem also begs the question: what skills are needed for SMEs to bridge that gap and become valued thought leaders? How does one establish the ability to effectively develop and deliver, and then act as a resource about, highly technical material so they can transition from a vendor to an advisor role? Findings suggest that it’s not one or two communication abilities, but actually a hybrid of interrelated skills and a true mindset shift that prepares people to provide value to their clients, stakeholders and partners through expertise, influence, listening, insight, and guidance.

What do SMEs need to succeed? A “ladder” of communication skills

First, recognize that development is a long-term process, and each organization is uniquely specific. Think about the SME role: they are inherently paired with someone who is not an expert, who needs their help and expertise, and asked to clearly communicate extremely complex data to that person. There is no one magic skill that will help them do this—today’s SMEs need to develop a whole host of skills. 

  1. Present themselves clearly

Can SMEs put together accessible, understandable messages that explain their findings? Can they draft emails that translate the complexity of the situation into something that can be consumed by the reader? They need to be confident, prepared, clear and credible.

While one element of this skill is simply devoting enough time to preparation, it is also fundamentally important for them to recognize the importance of being audience-centered (i.e., having a communication style that adapts to the style of those to whom they are presenting). SMEs need simple rules for themselves when it comes to communication—things like boiling their main message down to one sentence and having a method of delivery that’s effective, adaptable and authentic.

  1. Ask the right questions and listen authentically

It might seem natural for an SME to believe that heading into an initial client meeting with a robust, developed perspective on the client’s problem is the best use of everyone’s time. But let’s flip that idea on its head: what if the SME considered every meeting to also require next-level-needs identification? What if they considered themselves a consultant at every level—asking the client questions not because the SME themselves didn’t know the answers, but because the client didn’t yet know?

A huge part of the new SME role is the ability to draw information out of others. SMEs need to head into the meeting with the mindset that it’s a conversation, not a monologue.

  1. Tell a story with the data

Make data vivid—show the meaning in a way that beginners can understand. Consider a story as a means to get complicated messages across. Every client has different needs. The conversation is less about what the SME has found and more about what their client needs to know. Beyond this, SMEs need to be presenting their client with a solution, not simply findings.

  1. It’s a dialogue: engage in discussions about data

So the SME has presented their research, but are they ready for the give-and-take that comes after? They need to be prepared to engage with their client about implications, options, or push-back. This kind of dialogue requires a balance of soft skills like empathy and a deep understanding of their data and how it relates to the client’s need.

  1. Shift their mindset from expert to advisor

This idea goes beyond what you might call role clarity. Understanding their own role is a critical part of being an effective SME, of course. But there’s more weight to it than just that. SMEs need to lose the idea that they are the “data person,”—not to say there is no such job as a pure analyst, just that the job description is no longer consistent with the role of SME.

SMEs need to elevate themselves to going beyond the data by being advisors to their clients and embracing everything that comes with that, which is what today’s clients need.

The SME role is now about contributing

As it turns out, the fix isn’t just about “speaking up” or “dumbing down.” It’s about listening, contributing and making a true impact. Without deeper, relevant communication skills and the appropriate mindset, even the most renowned expert can find themselves in the room, but without a seat at the table or a chance for their voice to be heard and their influence to be felt. That kind of rut won’t only have a negative impact on an individual’s career (sorry, Kai), but the lack of communication and lost insight can result in a number of missed opportunities for their entire organization.

Taking it back to the example above, if that frantic scientist knows how to connect with the audience and speak to the room at the level they need to comprehend, disaster can be averted.

So, what does this all mean for up-and-coming subject matter experts? Know your material. But also take the time to know yourself, your role and, most importantly, your audience. There’s value in recognizing and acknowledging individual communications gaps and helping SMEs realize that understanding is not mastery.

If knowledge sharing is critical to your business, then so is communication. As a leader, making your SMEs as masterful at communicating their expertise as they are at practicing it is a path to growth—and, ultimately, success. But the key part is finding and applying an approach that increases comfort, understanding and confidence and ensures that once they’re in the room, they can make their voice effectively heard.

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