Translating Your SME's Tech-Speak

A while ago, I was working on an incredibly complex training project. It involved training on processes and requirements used for contract setup and delivery. The audience consisted of hundreds of employees in a Fortune 500 company.

What made the project so complex was the sheer number of subject matter experts involved. Whereas I was used to working with maybe four or five at the most, this project required the input and approval of no fewer than 13 SMEs. There was no overlap – each was responsible for a distinct business unit, and brought unique content to the table. And some were C-level, meaning their time was at a premium.

Because of the tight deadline, we contracted with a credentialed and experienced instructional designer to meet our deliverables. As I reviewed his work, one particular sentence loomed as a roadblock, hindering my comprehension of the entire paragraph.

What did the sentence mean? When I called the ID for clarification, he said, “I don’t know what it means. That’s just what the SME told me.”

My jaw dropped. If the instructional designer doesn’t know what he wrote, how will the learner decipher it?

Sometimes in our industry, there can be a tendency to funnel source content directly into our training, especially when dealing with a highly technical subject. There are times I’ve become aware of my own laziness, when an editor tethers a puzzled margin comment to one of my phrases.

It can be tempting to reach for verbatim wording in a highly complicated explanation that we don’t fully understand. But our responsibility is to translate for our learners, not take dictation from our SMEs. With that mindset, here are a few things you can do to ready yourself going in to one of those technological/scientific information relays:

  1. Prepare like crazy. This can be hard if the subject is highly proprietary (and it usually is). But try to grasp the 50,000-foot view so you at least know the industry terms. This will make your questions sound smarter. Also, research your SME on LinkedIn. It will provide context for your SME’s responsibilities within the organization, and how his/her perspective and expertise fits in to the project as a whole.
  2. Pry. SMEs often launch right into the details, since the details are what make them experts. But the minute you hit one of those comprehension barriers, ask why, or what, or who. You’re not revealing ignorance, you’re subtly steering the conversation into the shallows – which is where all good explanations need to start. Granted, some things won’t make sense until you get back to the office and start organizing your notes. But you’ll easily recognize when a SME veers into perplexing territory. That’s when you ask, and ask some more. All that preparation you did sharpens the focus of your queries.
  3. Streamline your follow-up. It’s rarely the case that a single interview yields all you need to convert an expert’s know-how into training for your audience. And when your SME is executive-level, scheduling time for that first interview might have been challenging enough. Unless you’ve hit an information blockade that stalls development, try to accumulate your follow-up questions in order to minimize the number of subsequent interviews. When you do meet, it’s helpful to phrase your questions from the standpoint of your comprehension (“Do I have this right? It’s my understanding that … “) because it gives the SME something limited and concrete to react to.

Do you have any tips for interviewing SMEs about incredibly difficult topics? Please share them in the comments below!