Success Starts with SME

Meetings with Subject Matter Experts (SME) typically go one of two ways. One, you leave either feeling confused/unsure of what lies ahead with a project. Or two, you leave with a sense that you think you understand what the client wants. Wouldn’t it be great to leave thinking “I’ve got this. I know what they want, what they expect, and they have realistic expectations. This is going to be a piece of cake.”? It is your responsibility to make sure the meeting is not a failure, that you have a grasp on what the client wants, and that you are confident that you can move forward successfully. While we all know this is never as easy as it sounds, there are ways to be successful and have successful meetings.

As we all know, the first meeting with a SME is a crucial point in the project’s success. If that meeting flops, the project is likely being set up for headaches, mistakes, many edits, and- in the worst of worst situations- complete failure. But it doesn’t always have to be that way! In this post, we are going to review some simple, quick details you can focus on to help the meeting run smoother. Using these tips should allow you to leave the meeting feeling confident in the next step.

1: Go in With a Plan

Depending on how your organization works you may or may not have already had email contact with the SME before the initial meeting. If you have, then you should have a general idea of what you are going into. If this is the case, write down questions or concerns ahead of time. Go in knowing what information you need to leave with. If you go into a meeting with a solid plan of what the meeting is for, what possible issues could arise (and their respective solutions), and what you need by the end of the meeting to feel successful, then you will leave feeling confident and ready to get started on the project.

2: Take Notes

Hopefully you already take detailed notes throughout your meetings. But if not, now is a great time to start. Taking detailed notes will help ensure that you don’t forget anything that was mentioned during the meeting. Take notes of specifics like what the client wants and what the client wants to avoid. But aside from simply taking notes, think about bringing a standard outline or protocol with you. Our team has developed a project questionnaire that is to be taken to every initial meeting to ensure that nothing is missed. This is incredibly beneficial to both us and our clients, as a lot of times meetings can go in multiple directions and so many important aspects of a project can easily be overlooked. If you have some sort of questionnaire or checklist to refer to, you can leave the meeting having all of your t’s crossed and i’s dotted and ready to tackle the project.

3: Ask Questions

It’s okay to not understand something, but if that’s the case always be sure to ask questions to clarify. If you don’t ask questions, the SME may think that you fully understand what they are talking about when in reality you could be completely lost. It is better to ask questions up front rather than waiting days or maybe even weeks down the road to clarify things. If you end up waiting, it could appear as though you are unprepared and possibly as though you are inadequate for the job at hand. When you do ask questions, it is best to not interrupt the SME while they are talking. Rather, write your question down so you can make sure you ask it before you leave the meeting.

4: Be Realistic

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of things, but it’s important to what is realistic not only in your own capabilities, but also in your team’s and your program’s capabilities as well. If a client wants to do a scenario, or interactive based training, sure! Let’s do it! If they want a walk-through tutorial with an expert on screen the entire time talking to the learner, no problem! We’ve got it! But if they want a cat that reaches through the computer to pat them on the head when they get a question right in their training…..let’s steer them back to reality and discuss what appropriate things can be done instead. Maybe an audible applause, or some type of screen recognition, or even badges for different tutorials completed. While you want to make sure you stay realistic, don’t just shoot down seemingly unrealistic ideas. Instead work within your capabilities to offer them a realistic alternative.

5: Be Optimistic

You are bound to work with the same SME again, or maybe someone in your office has previously worked with them. Because of this we may have an opinion of the SME and the situation we are about to walk into, whether that be positive or negative. If you go into every meeting optimistic and excited for a project, that energy will emit not only to the SME but your project as well.


Communicating with the SME from the beginning to the end of a project is the key to a successful project. While there will always be bumps and hurdles you will encounter with SMEs, if you utilize these five steps your meetings will be smoother and more effective. As things come up, go with them, learn from your own mistakes, and tweak how things should be done. Everything is a learning process.


Do you have specific steps you take when meeting with SMEs to help the meeting run smoother? Do you have any questions about meetings with SMEs? Let us know in the comments below!

Audrey is a senior Instructional Designer with the Learning & Professional Development team at Northern Arizona University. She has a B.S. in Electronic Media and Film with an emphasis in Entertainment Management and an M.Ed. in Educational Technology from NAU. With her experience as a newsroom weather director and on-screen talent, as well as multiple years of experience teaching in a university classroom setting, Audrey brings a unique perspective to the LPD team.

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