Learning about brain syncing with SMEs from Instructional Design

Interviewing SMEs for course design has several parallels with interviewing SMEs for proposal content. Course designers and proposal writers are usually content neutral, and both designers and writers need enough expert information about a topic to clearly describe how a task will be/should be performed. Further, designers and writers often have limited access to experts, resulting in condensed and intense interactions. Given these similarities, it may come as no surprise that a course designer’s process and artifacts for interviewing SMEs align with proposal writing best practices.

Information designer Connie Malamed’s three-part process for brain syncing with SMEs is a solid approach for anyone interviewing a SME for a proposal. Malamed’s three phases and key takeaways from each phase include:

  • Phase 1: Prep Work
    • Read ahead on background materials; gain a general understanding of the subject matter.
    • Write out specific questions in advance and create a plan for the interview.
    • Provide the SME with a time estimate and your questions in advance, if possible.
  • Phase 2: The Interview
    • Be appreciative! Gratitude goes a long way.
    • Record the interview, if possible.
    • Stop occasionally and paraphrase concepts back to your SME to verify you’re understanding the information correctly.
  • Phase 3: Follow-up
    • Review and organize your notes immediately, while everything is fresh in your brain.
    • Listen to the recording to include or correct details you missed in your notes.
    • Note any gaps in knowledge and contact the SME to provide additional information.

This three-step process provides a solid structure with lessons-learned instilled. Winging it or not giving your SME time to prepare can tank what would have been a fruitful meeting, so having a plan and prepping your SME will maximize what you get out of the meeting. Even if you’re a skilled interviewer, remember that your SME may not be familiar with the process, so explain these phases as soon as you can.

To facilitate note-taking and structuring the interview, Malamed provides a content collection form by Abigail Wheeler, a learning and development project manager at a firm that consults to government agencies and nonprofit organizations. While her collection form is geared toward learning objectives, many of questions are similar to those a proposal writer might ask. I reworded the questions but kept the same overall structure to develop this guide for interviewing a SME for a proposal.

Subject Matter Expert Content Collection Form

This form doesn’t replace good prep work and planning, but it provides a structure to organize the conversation and resulting information.

What tips and strategies do you use when interviewing SMEs? Do you use forms or fly by the seat of your pants?

by Julia Quigley

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