The best way to communicate with subject matter experts

Kerrie-Anne Chinn, Content & Editorial Manager

If you work in eLearning, it’s likely you often deal with other employees who are subject matter experts. With their specialized and in-depth knowledge, these people can provide you with the information you need to create effective online courses for your learners.


In this way, subject matter experts, also known as simply SMEs, play a very important role in the eLearning development process. As well as sharing their advanced knowledge, SMEs can provide valuable insight and feedback on your course materials, helping to ensure the content is accurate and timely.

When communicating with subject matter experts, it’s important to foster a positive and productive working relationship, just as it is with any client or stakeholder. You want the subject matter experts in your organization to feel comfortable and committed to sharing their knowledge with you. How do you do this, in a way that ensures SMEs aren’t feeling continually pressured for their knowledge and time?

Here’s our advice for the best way to communicate with subject matter experts on eLearning projects.

The World of Subject Matter Experts

So who are the subject matter experts in your organization?

Generally, SMEs are employees who have been in their roles for a long time, and are known for their advanced knowledge and expertise in a specific subject, business area, or technical area. Think of them as the “go to” person within a department or company, that other staff approach for information, input, advice and solutions.

With their high-level perspective of the subject, you can expect SMEs to not only answer how things are done, but why. You should be able to rely on these experts to have the requisite knowledge that underlies effective decision-making, and to provide solid recommendations for things like company policies and procedures.

A subject matter expect will also understand all the specific terms and jargon in their area of expertise and can explain that area clearly to others. They should know their subject matter well enough that they rarely have to look up information – and if they do have to, they’ll know exactly where or who to turn to in order to find that information.

Value SMEs Time and Communication Preferences

Like all projects, your eLearning project will flow far more easily when everyone involved knows what’s expected of them and works together as a team.

One of the most important aspects of successful teamwork is recognizing and respecting each other’s time and communication style. The fact is, while your online course might be your own project ‘baby’ and something that you’re very passionate about, a subject matter expert might not feel the same way about it. For them, the time and effort required for collaborating on eLearning course materials could be considered as additional work and just another thing they need to tick off their to-do list.

As Karla Gutierrez, Inbound Marketer at Aura Interactiva, says “SMEs have high-priority, full-time jobs — and not much time to spare.”

So be flexible in your dealings with SMEs, just as you would with any client or stakeholder. After all, you are the one requesting information and help from them, so be prepared to do this in a way that’s easiest for them.

For example, if it’s clear that someone prefers to communicate verbally, and is having trouble getting back to you by email, offer to give them a quick phone call at a time convenient to them – rather than continuing to send them endless emails that will just leave them frustrated. This way, they can simply brief you over the phone and you can take dot points for the content you need.

By making simple changes like this, subject matter experts will appreciate your willingness to work with them in their preferred communication style, saving them time and stress.

Using Positive Language with SMEs

It’s also important to look at the language you’re using when communicating with subject matter experts.

Shauna Vaughan, Lead Instructional Designer and Project Manager at , believes there are three words that should be avoided when it comes to subject matter experts – you, no, and problem or issue.

Choosing other words to use in place of those three words will help keep dialogue and working relationships with SMEs more positive and productive. You’ll also be creating an environment where all individuals feel included and valued for their knowledge and input.

“By using inclusive, positive language, we can build consensus and create an atmosphere of collaboration,” Vaughan says.

She suggests using we instead of you as often as you can. This implies a partnership between the two of you, where you are both working towards the same goal, as part of the same team.

When it comes to the word no, it’s best to rephrase your words to sound less negative and problematic. Instead of saying, “No, we can’t do that, it’s out of scope” try “Yes, absolutely, we can do that. Let’s take a look at our current scope and see what adjustments we would need to make to make that happen.”

Similarly, words like problem and issue carry a negative connotation. Some people can get frustrated and annoyed if they think you are always coming to them with problems to solve. Talk about finding solutions together, rather than launching straight into the issue at hand or dumping the problem on them.

Try these tips for yourself when you’re consulting with subject matter experts for your next project.

And don’t forget – once you’ve launched your online course, make sure you take the time to thank your subject matter experts for their valuable contributions! By writing an email or handwritten note, or finding a way to publically recognize or credit these experts for their contributions, you’ll be helping to build a better culture of collaboration within your organization.



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