Share the Spotlight

By integrating a subject matter expert into the flow of a class, partnering with him or her to enhance the value of the training session, trainers gain an asset and an ally.

By Kent Sipes

We’re trainers—we know what we’re talking about. But since we’re often asked to train about subjects in which we don’t work every day, maybe we’re like physicians: Some of us are general practitioners, while some others are specialists. General practitioners know “the big picture,” while specialists…specialize.

Trainers often work with subject matter experts (SMEs) when preparing training content. SMEs review training materials for accuracy, and sometimes suggest changes in focus. From time to time, an SME will join a training class to answer specific, detailed questions. This can be a concern for some trainers, as we think, “What if the SME challenges what I say in front of the class?”

But if we instead integrate the SME into the flow of the class, partnering with him or her to enhance the value of the training session, we have an asset and an ally. Planning the training session in conjunction with the SME and allocating some time for him or her to present benefits everyone. The expert gets to speak as an authority, and the class gets to hear another voice.

I recently taught university staffers how to use a rapid development tool (UPK), and I happened to have a couple of former trainees, now experts in using tool, less than five miles away. They kindly volunteered to tell my class how they use this tool in their training work, the challenges they faced, the decisions they had to make, and the help the tool has been—it was a great success. (They also said very nice things about my training!)

In a previous position, when I trained cable technicians, I brought in expert troubleshooters to talk about problems they had experienced in customers’ Internet connectivity and how they had solved those problems. The trainees got another perspective, I learned a bit, and someone else got to look smart. The trainees gained a buddy in the field—after all, as I tell all my classes, “Two heads are better than mine!” We all need collaborators.

The key to remember when involving a guest speaker is that it is not our responsibility to train people; only to make sure they are trained. It’s often more effective for them to learn from someone other than us—another “expert” or even from each other. Class members often have unique insights, and information shared by “one of their own” is usually much more meaningful than information from an “outsider.”

Helping others learn by sharing what we know is also an effective way to cement our knowledge and skills, by testing and clarifying them. So, by involving a learner who’s “farther along the road” down which you’re taking others, you benefit that “expert,” the rest of the group, and maybe even yourself. You also strengthen your relationship with your guest expert, because he or she now is invested in your effort.

There are so many reasons to involve others in our training efforts, and so few reasons not to do so. Think who might be fitting to involve in your next training session—then invite that person to participate in whatever way fits him or her, your subject, and your audience. Everyone will be better served in the process!

Kent Sipes is a training, communications, and change management consultant for Io Consulting. He has more than 20 years of experience in communications and training, and has taught subjects as diverse as PeopleSoft applications and pole climbing. His passion is to help people communicate their messages more effectively.

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