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How to Win Over Tough SMEs

— by Trina Rimmer


From time to time, we’ve all had to tap into our inner Perry Mason to convince a tough Subject Matter Expert (SME) to let us try something new. Many of us can attest to the challenges of working with skeptical, change-resistant, know-it-all, or overly-involved SMEs. And in many cases, these pesky SMEs are the very people whose strangle-hold over training content has perpetuated the very problems intended to be addressed by training!

Of course, most SMEs aren’t out to annoy you. Some simply feel they have a better grasp of the brand, the product, the “real” problem, or the needs of the target audience. And, while it’s part of our job as trainers to listen to our SME’s input and allow their ideas to inform our designs, it’s also our obligation to act as a voice of reason, a content filter, and a designer.

As designers we must clearly communicate our value to the SME, be prepared to provide supporting evidence for our design choices, and maintain our professional integrity.  Does that means it’s always possible to convince a skeptical SME to abandon a beloved PowerPoint template or re-design a dated team-building exercise?  No.  But at least if you’re armed with some tips, you can start to make headway.

Demonstrate Your Value

When people ask me how I ended up as a training designer I usually respond that I “wandered” into it.  While that’s partly true, the fact is I’ve been doing something pretty well to have thrived in my profession for as long as I have.  And, as I’ve grown more experienced, I’ve learned to temper my humility with a dose of self-confidence so that leaders, clients, co-workers, trainees, and SMEs feel comfortable placing their training in my hands.

Reluctant to sing your own praises? Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Just because you aren’t the expert in the topic at hand, doesn’t mean you don’t add value.  Who better to represent the needs of trainees than an informed trainee (you)? In short, remember that your lack of knowledge isn’t a handicap; it’s a starting point.
  • Share your passion for the work. Sometimes when a stubborn SME sees that you really share their passion they’ll let down their guard and start to view you as a collaborator and a partner, rather than a threat or an obstacle.
  • Do your research. While you may not be an expert on the training topic, you are an expert on training. Anticipate questions or objections to your ideas and prepare yourself with data, case studies, or other relevant examples.

Use Reverse Psychology

In cases where a SME thinks that you’re simply a vehicle for translating their brilliant vision to the page (i.e. I’ll think of everything and you just type it up make it look nice…), then you may need to use some reverse psychology to get buy-in for your design. One trick I’ve used is to actually convince the SME that your idea was theirs!  When describing your work to the SME, use phrases like, “I was inspired by your great work on ____” or  “This design is really just your ideas re-conceived as training material…

Yes; this can be hard to swallow, and no, it doesn’t work on every difficult SME but it may be a good technique to use when you’ve tried everything else.

Don’t Get Defensive

While it’s good to hang onto your principles and maintain your professional integrity, don’t adhere to your beliefs so strenuously that you jeopardize the outcome of the project. If a stubborn SME refuses to relent:

  • Maintain your calm.  There’s nothing to be gained, and a lot to be lost, by blowing your cool.
  • Take it in stride. Sometimes, even when you offer professional expertise coupled with abundant supporting data, your SME still won’t budge. Keep notes on your conversations and what led to your design decisions and move on.

Remember, bringing a SME to the point where they won’t even listen to you does neither of you any good.

Accept Defeat Graciously

Let’s face it, sometimes you’re going to come out on the losing end of the fight.  It happens.  But don’t allow resentment or bitterness to poison your working relationship with a SME.

  • Don’t take the situation personally.
  • Remind yourself that today’s difficult SME may end up being tomorrow’s greatest advocate of your work.
  • Take comfort (cold as it is) in knowing you’ve done your best under the circumstances.

Looking for some tips on how to get through to difficult or skeptical trainees?  Check out these two blog posts from the Mindflash archives:

How about sharing some of YOUR tips for working with SMEs? Go ahead & drop us a line.

Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with twelve years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training. When her skills aren’t being tested by her children, you’ll find her helping others to develop their own training design muscles.

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