Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should 

Or “The difference between being a Subject Matter Expert and being a teacher”

When I was in high school, I was Vice-Captain of the girl’s First XI cricket team. Not because I was especially good, in fact I was average-poor most days, but mostly because only 12 people turned up to tryouts. I was, however, pretty good at keeping spirits up on the field and also pretty good at translating and articulating coach’s instructions on how to execute a particular skill better, even if I couldn’t actually demonstrate it myself. I knew that when bowling you want your body to be almost side-on and the arm with the ball to make a wide arc with your upper arm grazing your ear as you step through.

When my friends struggled with algebra or calculus concepts, or how to interpret the wordy physics exercises or couldn’t wrap their heads around how to conjugate ‘venir’ v ‘ir’ in French, they didn’t often ask the teacher, they asked me. Whereas our teachers might simply repeat the formula or answer or just move on, I could come up with ways to explain or other examples that made more sense or different interpretations of the formula.

When I worked at a linen and haberdashery store during university, my colleagues who had worked there for years and knew the processes and products in and out struggled to work out how to impart that knowledge on me – preferring to make me stand and watch or rattling off step after step with no context.

All of which is to say, just because you know your shit, doesn’t mean you’re shit hot at how teach it to others.*

Recently I sat through** a training workshop by a presenter who was obviously experienced in his topic – he was about 50-60 years old, he mentioned he’d been in the role for some 20-30 years*** and had plenty of personal examples that he could and did**** share. I’m sure on paper his qualifications in the subject area were impressive.

The problem was, the topic was not one that could be effectively transferred in a passive-learner/lecturing format. There were so very many things wrong with the delivery of this session that even when he tried doing something right (physical activity to practice some of the topic info), the entire group had switched off that no one engaged.

And this is my beef with the idea that if you are talented or exceptional in an area you are the best person to impart that knowledge/skill on others. I can think of a number of people who are exceptionally talented in their field – and they are the worst people to try and connect with others, let alone mentor or teach.

So why do we continue with the misguided belief that “if you can, do; if you can’t, teach”? It’s a pervasive yet misguided belief. The obvious situation is higher education, where research-based experts are asked/required to teach students in their field – some successfully, others not so much. Yes, there are some who are exceptional and expert and are also exceptional at sharing that with others. Are they in the majority, though? I would argue that a similar situation occurs repeatedly in corporate sector – you are the procurement expert so you can show our other employees how to follow our procurement policy, you are the software expert so you can show our other employees how to use it, you are the best salesperson so you can show the others how to sell, etc.

One of the many problems with this thinking is that it takes skill/empathy/reflection to go back to when you were not an expert and convey information at that level. It can be far too easy to simply rattle off info you know to be fact without being able to clarify the underlying why or how, because you’ve already moved beyond that.

So, while I can’t share the feedback I gave to the aforementioned training provider, I can share some tips that address common mistake I’ve seen by SMEs when delivering training:

  1. Find out how your audience is different: No one else has the same experience or knowledge as you, nor anyone else, so start by acknowledging that no two groups will be the same. Work with the organiser beforehand or the audience (if you can wing it) to learn about this specific audience – what are their roles, what are their objectives, what are their needs, what do they bring to the conversation, what exposure have they had already to your topic? Then use that design your training session accordingly – what examples can you use that might resonate, what can you change to make it more relevant? While there may be similarities, a good prep is unlikely to mean that you can completely reuse content from a previous session without changing anything. Assume uniqueness.
  2.  Absolutely no absolutes: In a similar vein to the above, avoid the use of the words “never”, “always”, “all”, etc. I’m going to put it out there that it is highly unlikely that there will be situations, regardless of your topic, when what you’re about to say will apply 100% of the time without exception or caveat or edit. To do so, and have someone question you in it, whether out loud or just in their head, lowers your credibility – and that’s what you’re trading on as a SME, isn’t it? Assume ambiguity. 
  3. Talk less, ask questions you don’t know the answer to: Yes, you are the expert in the content, but are you also the expert of your audience’s situation? If all you do is provide examples from your experience, how do you know that they’ll resonate with your audience? If all you do is list facts and figures and concepts, how do you know they’re making sense? Provide information, yes, then ask questions that encourage the audience to put that information into their own context. Provide them with opportunities to work practically with the topic (I struggle to think of a topic that couldn’t benefit from some kind of hands-on scenario-based activity) – think of problem solving, case studies, role plays, group work, facilitated discussions. You could even start with an activity that challenges preconceptions and existing knowledge, if you’re comfortable winging it a little bit. Assume practice makes perfect. 
  4. Create a community: In order to have a space where the majority of your audience trust you and so are comfortable contributing, you need to create a mini-community – do not underestimate safety. Consider establishing protocols about how you will communicate , e.g. I like the silent hand-raised to bring group chats to a close as it provides visual signal, encourages groups to signal to each other, allows important conversations or thoughts to reach a conclusion without interruption – in short, I believe it shows that I value the contributions of the groups enough to let them reach a natural pause while also valuing the community’s needs and objectives. Your words have power, so avoid blanket generalisations, leading questions or forcing (whether by language, activity design or social norm) anyone to contribute. If there’s any chance your topic and activities could call up potential triggers or require anyone to work outside a comfort zone, you should establish that early and provide safe options to not participate. While I dislike dichotomies on principle, resources about supporting personalities and preferences may be useful, e.g. Introverts and extroverts. Assume you need to build trust
  5. Leave intolerance, bigotedness, prejudice and stereotypes at the door: Even if you found out how your audience is different, as in step 1, you probably still don’t know the half of it. You cannot presume cisgender identities, heterosexuality, lack of mental illness or physical disability or learning disability or learning preference just because it might not exist in your worldview or you can’t see it. So start with the lowest common denominator, people, and design for inclusivity in your content, language, delivery style, activities. Assume diversity. 
  6. Invest time in your presentation content: Presenting and speaking publicly with the intent of conveying information and/or effecting change in your audience is a skill. Do not presume that because you are charismatic in small-group conversations or because your colleagues look to you for advice that this will translate automatically into effective presentations. Seek out helpful hints for your slides (because let’s face it, you’re probably going to use PowerPoint, aren’t you). Resources I, and others I admire and trust, have found useful include slideology and this article from The Conversation. Assume your presentation needs (a lot of) work.

This is not an exhaustive list of training and facilitation tips. That’s what training to be a trainer is supposed to give you. If you’re an SME delivering training regularly, consider getting (at a minimum) a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment and reading about adult facilitation. I started with Joan Dalton’s Art of Facilitation and highly recommend it as a resource, especially in relation to language.

*i had to work out a way to fit this quote in here somehow. It’s one of my favourite pro-grammar quotes…

** And I mean literally, 2.5 hours of being talked at while I sat silently and obediently (if you don’t count the frequent frowns and “WTAF” facial expressions)

*** You can see how well I was paying attention, huh

**** Oh, and share he did. At least 1 example for any story shared by the group, where he, of course, trumped theirs.

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