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Experiments in Learning Design: Ex + Lp = Much More Engaging SME Presentations

What's possible when a Subject Matter Expert maps out what they want to say and how they want to engage their audience through a lesson plan, instead of immediately opening up PowerPoint when they have to put a presentation together?
Periodic Table 2 21

Last week I began to share some “experiments in learning design” based upon the following periodic table (which is the basis for my upcoming book, What’s Your Formula: Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Training):

This week we’ll take a look at another experiment. Today’s experiment revolves around the question: Are there ways to support SMEs to help their presentations to be more engaging and effective when they’re asked to train other people?

Let’s briefly define the elements that will be used for this experiment:

Subject Matter Experts (Ex)

An individual who has a deep understanding of a specific topic.

Lesson Plan (Lp)

A tool used to outline the sequence and flow of activities as well as talking points for a training session. Beyond activities and talking points, this often includes bigger picture items as well, such as learning objectives and session materials.

Lesson Plan Updated

The Experiment: Ex + Lp

While it may not be exactly how the scientific method flows in a physical sciences lab, let’s use the structure of the scientific method to explore this experiment a little more closely.

Step 1: Observation/Question. Subject matter experts are typically employed to do things other than to train people. They create, code, engineer, solve, operate, research, sell. When they’re asked to present to or train others, subject matter experts I’ve worked with have had little exposure to adult learning principles or instructional design. They typically do what seems normal, they open up PowerPoint and start capturing their ideas, points and content on slides. They’re “cursed” with deep knowledge and often don’t have perspective on what their audience needs to know in order to do their jobs better, so they share all the information they can, feeling more information equals more value.

Step 2: Hypothesis. I actually have several hypotheses here with this experiment:

  • Subject matter experts do not want to waste their own time nor do they want to waste the time of their audience.
  • Subject matter experts want people to care about their topic.
  • If someone points out the notion that just talking at people and showing them slides doesn’t mean people will actually pay attention to their information, subject matter experts will be open to other ways of engaging their audience.
  • If given some assistance in putting together a presentation outline that includes strategies of how to engage the audience, how to ensure the audience finds the information relevant and how to involve the audience in the learning, subject matter experts would be open to following this outline.
  • A lesson plan offers simple, easy to follow structure that can help a subject matter expert engage their audience and deliver a more effective message.

Step 3: The Experiment. Ask permission to help find ways that SME presentations can be more effective. I’ve done this on scores of occasions and very rarely have I found an SME that will turn down this kind of help (although it happens on occasion). I will typically use the template that appears under the definition of Lesson Plan in this post, and I’ll start by asking what the audience should be able to do by the end of the session. If they’ve given the presentation before, I’ll ask them to walk me through their typical sequence and flow, and I’ll work with them to find areas to add interactivity or engagement, ensuring we’re hitting on the learning objectives.

Step 4: Analyze the Data. Early in my career, I’d try to find hard numbers to prove this experiment was worthwhile, but I would typically be frustrated by Level 1 post-training survey data I’d collect. Often, data from lecture-style presentations would yield comparable numbers with presentations in which SMEs used a lesson plan to add structure, purpose and engagement to their sessions. Anecdotal data, however, on how much better it felt to deliver a structured presentation while aligned to some sort of audience-centered learning objectives and included more than a deck of slides was strong. Several years ago I asked an SME colleague of mine to write about his experience, which he did in a blog post entitled The Evolution of an SME.

Step 5: Report Conclusions. The problem with relying solely on Level 1 post-training feedback is that it’s only one indicator. It measures whether an audience was satisfied with a presentation, but doesn’t measure whether there was a post-training impact. There’s a reason why teachers and corporate learning professionals use lesson plans, facilitator guides and speaker notes, crafting those resources prior to creating their PowerPoint decks. A lesson plan may not be for every SME, but in my experience I’ve found that when they do use a lesson plan, their sessions are crisper, more focused, run on time and are more engaging.

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