The myth of the magic wand

March 8, 2012

I’ve been reading a lot about the shake-up going on in learning, learning effectiveness (or lack of it), and how everyone wants to see learning events like conferences and webinars transformed. And for some time, I’ve been seeing variations of this somewhat-plaintive question: how do we get our conference speakers to stop lecturing and start engaging?

I’d really love to invent a magic wand that with a single touch would transform subject-matter experts (SMEs) into the ideal “facilitator of learning” role we all want them to have. I’d make a fortune selling it to associations and corporations that want their conference sessions and other learning opportunities transformed from, as I said in my TED-style talk a few years ago in the Learning Lounge at PCMA’s Convening Leaders event, “ho-hum” to “oh, wow.” Speakers would lead amazing sessions, participants would always get what they need, and conference organizers would be very happy indeed. Sadly, we don’t yet have that magic-wand-building technology.

Discovering SMEs. A big part of the work I do now and have done over the past couple of dozen years centers on helping SMEs move towards that coveted “facilitator of learning” role. In working with hundreds of SMEs across dozens of professions and industries in both not-for-profit and for-profit organizations, I’ve learned a few things about what makes them “tick,” what motivates them, what concerns them, and what it takes to transform them into facilitators of learning. It’s not magic, although the results can be magical.

SMEs all have one thing in common. Of course, it’s that they know their content (to sometimes varying degrees). At least, they know that content in relation to the work they do. They are typically very good at that work, which is why they are invited to speak to others about what they do and how they do it…about their successes and lessons learned. People want to hear success and failure stories in hopes of either emulating or avoiding what the speaker has experienced. Hearing the voices of others who have trod your road before you can be very powerful.

The thing is, just hearing about such experiences doesn’t mean you are learning.

Learning is a partnership. Effective learning is collaborative. It’s engagement. It’s the sharing of knowledge and seeking meaning and application that makes sense for the learners’ situations. It can and does happen organically, yet a “guide on the side” can offer value learners alone may not achieve. There will always be a role for subject-matter experts in effective learning…that role is clearly changing, though, as the world becomes more connected.

And in case you haven’t guessed, effective learning isn’t just about SMEs. It’s about learners, too. If you’re a subject-matter expert: get over that it’s all about you and what you know. If you’re a learner: start coming to learning opportunities ready to contribute, instead of as an empty bucket waiting to be filled.

Help me define a new series of posts.

I’m planning a series of posts about coaching and working with SMEs so that those who matter most – your learners – get what they need. They won’t involve a magic wand…just some from-the-trenches thoughts and experiences to spark some dialogue about how you can help your SME-led learning opportunities achieve that magic goal of engaged and happy learners.

Frankly, I’m not sure what the timeline will be; however, I’m passionate about the subject! It’s great to lament the need to change things; it’s something else entirely to identify what it takes to achieve, and then do it. Yet there are some fundamental things you can do to make a big difference in the effectiveness of sessions at your next learning opportunity.

Think about it from your own perspective. By the way, I’m a subject-matter expert. You are too, especially if you speak at conferences in your field. Some of what I share will be from my own experiences as an “SME.” You can do the same right now. Think about your experiences as a session leader. What would help you prepare ahead of time? What could a conference organizer provide you that you’re not getting (before, during, or after)? What if you offered those things to the SMEs who speak at your event?

And if you really want a potentially eye-opening experience, identify the best learning experience you ever had: school, work, wherever it was. Then ask yourself: What made it that for you? Write down some one- or two-word characteristics that capture the essence of the experience. What if you could deliver that kind of experience to your learners? What would it take to do it?

Share your insights, thoughts, questions. I invite you to share your insights here. And to help me focus these future posts on what you’d like to talk about, tell me your challenges and success stories and anything else you believe to be relevant. Let’s get a dialogue going, and instead of talking about how things need to change, let’s start changing them.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Maggie McGary March 8, 2012 at 5:40 pm

I think this is a great topic, and one of interest to me–as an SME and a self-professed terrible public speaker! I have no training in learning styles, public speaking, or anything related to either, yet I am frequently asked to speak at events because of my subject matter knowledge. I also have ADHD and group learning was/is not my strong point, and I’m sure that I’m not the only one who deals with this…so when people talk about learning styles and what works best, I often wonder about all the kids these days who have ADHD or some other learning difficulty who have special set ups in school and wonder what happens once they grow up and start attending conferences…where everything is one size fits all again. I know what seems to work for others–e.g. “best practices” when it comes to presentations–doesn’t work at all for me. I am not a sit there and listen or watch a power point and then remember it kind of person, and the more polished/traditional the presenter, often the less I pay attention and/or retain.

Anyway, I’d love to see some posts about how associations/organizations can address non-traditional learners, especially as the next generation of ADHD kids eventually become their new members and attendees.


Kathi March 8, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Maggie, thanks for your comment, and for sharing your challenges as an adult with ADHD. You point specifically to something we know about learning: one size does NOT fit all. It’s important for those who plan learning events (and who work with the SMEs who will speak at them) to consider ways to mix things up to help ensure a multitude of needs are addressed (and I’m not talking learning styles here). Most people – including those who don’t have ADHD – cannot merely sit and listen to a lecture and then go back to the “real world” and implement what was said. It just doesn’t happen. People start forgetting what they heard the minute they leave the room; unless connections are made in the session to real-world application, the application rate drops significantly. And that can affect learners’ perceived value of the session and participation in future events.

The dynamics that create learning effectiveness are more complex than we’d like to think; there are so many variables. Will every session meet every learner’s needs? Not likely; yet there are ways to maximize the possibilities that they will do so more than they don’t. Stay tuned!

I’ll include this perspective in my list of post topics, and in the meantime I throw the discussion back out to readers: do you consider non-traditional learners in planning learning event? If you do, let me know what you’re doing and how it’s working.


Charlotte Henley Babb February 17, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I think that the problem here is that we are used to the sage on the stage from our school days, at least of those of us who are “of a certain age.”

We expect to pay for the sage to give us the “magic wand” of information or incantations to solve our problems quickly and without a lot of effort on our part.

Engagement takes not only the willingness of the SME to be a learner, but for the students to transform the message and apply it to their own expertise.

I know from teaching online for a decade now, with no lecture at all, that it’s much easier to create a teachable moment, when a student wants to know what I know and how ti applies to both the assignment and to his or her life.


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