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The Essential Guide to Better SME Kickoff Meetings

Author Ken Poirot once wrote: 

“Wise people understand the need to consult experts; only fools are confident they know everything.”

As wise Instructional Designers, it behooves you to accept the fact that you will not always know everything about the topic that you are about to design and develop a course for. As a result, you’ll likely need to consult Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) on specific topics. 

While these experts may not be aware of the pedagogical pre-requisites of successful learning content, their inputs can be invaluable in providing you with the actual content for your eLearning courses. However, meetings with SMEs need to be planned and conducted with a defined strategy to meet specific objectives.

Here are some best practices to consider if you want your meetings with SMEs to achieve the objectives you set out:

1) Less is more

Like any group of professionals, SMEs come with different convictions and ideas; and if you invite a lot of them to attend the meeting, you might not accomplish much.

Grab these tips:

  • Carefully select whom you want around the table
  • Preferably, invite experts that will contribute to a successful outcome, and not just those who “have the right credentials.”
  • If more than one SME for the same topic is needed, ensure they supplement/complement each other’s knowledge

2) Research your invitees

Before you send out a meeting invite to an SME, take the time to research who the potential invitee is. That way you will be better prepared to get what you need out of them:  

Some areas to dig into:

  • What is their educational and professional background?
  • What expertise do they have?
  • Recent publications, speeches, presentations or seminars they have authored/spoken at
  • Check out their social-media profiles

3) Prepare yourself

The idea behind having SMEs participate in content building sessions is so that you, as the lead Instructional Designer, can pick their brains about the subject matter to be developed and included that will most benefit your course participants. However, if you walk into the meeting without having a clue about the topic, the meeting could quickly devolve into a very perfunctory exercise.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Research the topic before the meeting
  • Think like a “newbie” on the subject, and document all your questions and concerns
  • Collect various viewpoints on the subject and include them as points to raise with the SME

4) Craft your agenda

A meeting without a program is pretty much like a course without learning objectives – you’ll never know if you’ve accomplished anything!

Here's what you can do: 

  • Always map out exactly what you wish to accomplish from the session (Course outline; High-level topic introductions; Lesson Plans; Detailed content)
  • Supplement each of the items you want to cover with specific questions you need answers to
  • Preferably, form your questions as open-ended ones, so that you invite comments and thoughts, as opposed to “yes” or “no” responses
  • Remember the “Who,” “What,” “Why,” “When” and “How” principles when crafting your questions. Agenda items must focus on getting a clear understanding of questions such as: Who the target audience is; What they need to learn; How should course content be structured to get learners engaged; What specific content should be included; Why does specific content need to be included/excluded; How will learning success be measured

5) Pre-meeting collaboration

It’s always a good idea to share the agenda with the SMEs in advance of the meeting. Get inputs from your experts on what they think of the items listed, and whether they would like to add anything else.

Grab these tips:

  • Circulate the agenda in Draft form first, and seek comments/inputs
  • When discussing the plan, stress that the session is a collaborative effort to produce course content, and not a unilateral effort (by you!) to pick their brains and create something by yourself
  • Make sure the agenda ultimately provides you answers about what the learner will need to take away from the course and touches upon the best way to accomplish that objective

6) Time the meeting

Meetings that aren’t well timed, especially if participants are passionate about their subject matter, tend to drag on and get derailed with ancillary conversations.

Make sure: 

  • For each agenda item, and in collaboration with the SMEs, time a number of discussions
  • You monitor the proceedings and, if necessary, cut short unnecessary or ancillary discussions
  • Be prepared to take follow-up discussions “offline,” so that you can get through the agenda in its entirety in the time allotted

7) Conduct the meeting

Always start meetings on time, and attempt to finish on time too. If an extension is needed, only push it out beyond the stipulated time with all participants’ agreement.

Follow these proven guidelines: 

  • Play the role of your learner, and ask questions from that perspective
  •  Seek clarity about anything that may be unclear
  • Take every opportunity to “sell” the course as being beneficial to the SME: E.g. It will push the course online, freeing the SME to focus on other opportunities they currently don’t have time to deal with
  • Make sure you document the proceedings to make the SMEs realize you are giving their opinions and expressions due value
  • Resist the temptation of sounding like you are “telling” SMEs rather than “asking” them
  • Triage the information received into three buckets: Must Know, Need to Know and Nice to Know. Then, use that as your guide to flesh out the course content during the design phase

Additional read: Instructional Designers: How to Pick Your SME's Brain in an Interview

8) Post-meeting follow-up

Meetings should always be documented, and minutes and action items circulated to all participants.


  • Make sure clear; actionable items are recorded
  • Assign due dates and responsibilities to each action item
  • Make sure the SMEs know what they need to do and by when they need to have their deliverables ready
  • Provide regular feedback to participants on the progress of various action items
  • Most SMEs appreciate it when the feedback they provide is being included into the course. If feasible, once the course has been designed, invite the same panel of SMEs to provide critique on the design before the development phase.

Also read: The Secret Jedi Formula for Communicating with SMEs

Parting Thoughts

There are two types of SMEs that you might have occasion to meet with: Those who are threatened by the meeting and reluctant to part with information; and those who can’t wait to come together and share excessive amounts of information. By stroking the egos of the former, and carefully moderating the latter, Instructional designers can glean vital course development insights from SMEs.

Regardless of which types of personalities join your meeting, you need to have a clear plan on how to get what you need out of them. By following the outline discussed above, you’ll ensure that your SMEs provide you with all the appropriate information required for you to successfully develop course content that’s engaging, relevant and highly effective.



Karla Gutierrez

Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT. ES:Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT.

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