Get What You Need From Subject Matter Experts

We’ve all heard the age-old sentiment of “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” I think that still rings true in most situations in life, even in business when we try to interview subject matter experts to fulfill a training need. Using the following 3 steps when you interview subject matter experts to get what you need and help you bring the right amount of honey.


Getting what we need from those around us–coworkers, partners, or even 4 year olds –can be one of many age-old dilemmas that is more than challenging. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to negotiate with a 4 year old, but it is challenging to say the least and often very loud!


We tend to think that the honey in this saying above requires being sickeningly sweet with a whole lot of patience and “please” and “thank you” and “please, don’t use daddy’s toothbrush to brush Sandy’s teeth.” Sandy is our dog, and, yes, this just happened…yesterday.


No, you’ll need a different kind of honey to get what you want and need from a Subject Matter Expert (SME) to complete your project. Saying “please” and “thank you” is always nice, but that doesn’t necessarily get the job done or get you the information you need to complete the task at hand.


The kind of honey needed to catch a SME and get everything you need requires no real honey, just a sweet, sweet plan.


To Catch an Expert


Since you can’t be the subject matter expert (SME) in every field, it’s essential that you can tap into the knowledge of a SME to develop a quality learning solution, which meets the needs of your audience and best supports their learning.


SMEs have the knowledge you need, but they don’t always have the time or motivation to sit down and share their knowledge because they are busy being the expert that they are. You might need a creative solution to connect with your SME to get the information that you want.



You need a plan that allows your SME to compile the best information so that you, the training expert and instructional designer, can access it and organize it well. The following three steps will help pull your plan together with the right honey to catch an expert and get exceptional results.


#1 Define the Objectives


Before you set a meeting with a SME to pick their brain about the content, you first need to define all the objectives of the project–business objectives and learning objectives. I typically prefer to host a Scoping Meeting to define the learning objectives.


In an ideal world, the training requestor, SMEs, key stakeholders, and everyone who will work on the training would be present during the Scoping Meeting. Unfortunately, ideal world solutions don’t usually come together as I would like them to.



What often happens is one of two things, I am told a high-level goal and a few tidbits of information or I get something really generic like, “we need a training on X.” If I am a little lucky, I am told what the business objective/goals are. From there, I dig. I ask probing questions to piece together the business and learning objectives. And, all of this usually happens via email, which is NOT my preference, but I make it work.


Business objectives may answer questions like:

  • Why does the company need this training?
  • What business need does this training fulfill?
  • When does this training need to be completed?


Learning objectives address desired behaviors and/or performance changes that a company wants to see in an employee, like:

  • What should the learner be able to do following the training?


Writing quality learning objectives can be tricky, but they are SO important.


If you’re an objectives rookie or struggling with writing learning objectives that get results, I cover this in my course, The Instructional Design & Tech Accelerator system and certificate program, with a hands-on lessons and application exercises that may help you go from rookie to expert in a matter of minutes.


Teacher Transition to Instructional Design Certificate Program

Teacher Transition to Instructional Design Certificate Program



Identifying objectives is not only the first step in building training solutions, those objectives also become the ground rules for meetings with a SME.


They are the anchor point for your instructional design of the content and everything you create, including activities, knowledge checks, assessments, etc, should directly or indirectly cascade up, or map, to the learning and business objectives.


Once you have the objectives defined, you should be able to identify what information you need from the SME. You can use the learning objectives to create a list of questions for your SME to use in a SME Interview. Being specific with this question list is KEY to a successful SME Interview.


#2 Interview the Subject Matter Experts


Now that you’ve got your objectives ironed out and a list of questions started, it’s time to schedule a SME Interview. Your SME is the subject matter expert who holds the necessary information and knowledge that you need to develop your learning solution.


Being an expert can be a double-edged sword, however. On the one side, they have the knowledge you need. On the other side, they know what seems like everything about the topic, which is often more than what you need.


Early on in my career when I was a training specialist, I was asked to meet with a SME to build a training with a specific deadline. I sent the meeting request. The SME and I met and me, with my adorable little pen and paper at the ready, made the common, critical mistake of just asking, “What can you tell me about x, y, and z?”


Fail. Fail so hard.


That SME started speaking high-level gibberish and I, not wanting to look stupid, stared back at them nodding like one of those bobbing chihuahuas on a car dash. The 30-minute meeting ended, and I went back to my desk feeling like my brain had just melted out of my ears.


SME Interview Tips


Prepared with my defined objectives and a specific list of questions, my next meeting with that same SME went a bit differently. Here’s a list of actions to make sure your SME Interviews never make you feel like your brain is melting out of your ears:


  1. Send your list of questions to your SME before the SME Interview. This allows the SME to focus on the information you need and prepare to share any additional information you might need. It also cuts down on wasted time during the interview.
  2. Share the business and learning objectives with the SME.
  3. Take notes. Take all the notes. Even if it’s on content that you don’t think you’ll use. You just never know, and it’s safer to have more than less to work with when developing the training. Plus, it makes the SME feel valued.
  4. Make a rough outline with the SME during the interview, if you can, and connect the content back to the learning objectives. This is what we call curriculum mapping! Expert stuff right here.
  5. End the interview with a restatement of objectives, what the next steps will be, and set the expectation that you may need to reach out again for more information or clarification.


These steps are so important when conducting a great SME Interview.


Keep the Interview Focused


All meetings can lose productivity when people go off on tangents or get off-topic. You will need to keep the focus on the objective of the interview so be prepared to reign folks in. Sometimes SMEs have some gripes about the training need or being taken away from their work to help with the training. Validate what they’re saying and show that you are listening to their needs. Then, you can gently get back on topic.


If I had followed this list, I would have had a much easier time making that first training. Now, you can go back to your desk with confidence and start building the training you need, but you’re not quite finished with your SME.


#3 Frequent Follow-Ups


Through the process of building your training, it’s important to check in with your SME to make sure you’re on the right track with the content. This can be a slippery slope as too much outside input can derail your objectives. It’s best to follow up at certain intervals throughout the building process.


Here’s a list I tend to stick with after the SME Interview:


  1. Send an updated copy of the outline to the SME and all key stakeholders following the SME Interview.
  2. Send a first draft of the training, once completed, with a timeline for review. I usually give a 2-day window for SMEs and all stakeholders to make comments or suggestions. Any longer and deadlines can get messy real quick.
  3. Make edits from the feedback received from the reviewers. You may have 2 to 3 review cycles, so plan for it in your timeline. It’s better to underpromise and overdeliver than to be too optimistic in your timeline and miss your deadline.
  4. Send the final draft. Give a 2-day window for any final adjustments or suggestions.


Following these steps–defining the objectives, SME Interviews, and frequent follow-ups–can help you carry out a sweet plan to get what you need from SMEs every time.


Please. Thank you. Don’t brush the dog’s teeth with daddy’s toothbrush.


3 Steps to Get What You Need From SMEs


Got questions?


My Facebook Group is a great place to add your questions and engage with other instructional designers on different topics related to instructional design, so jump on in and join the conversation. 





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