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Do you need to know the subject to be a good trainer?



As part of a course we have been asked to show our training skills, but have been randomly allocated topics that we don't know anything about. As a trainer I have always taught topics which I have a very good knowledge of and I don't like the idea of putting myself in front of a group as an 'expert' without the knowledge to back it up. I know that there will always be times when something new comes up that you don't expect or someone asks a question that you can't answer straight away, but if I have a very limited knowledge of something, how can I effectively help/stretch the students?

I am not saying that all the knowledge and answers must be with the trainer, but I do think the trainer should be able to answer some questions on the topic.

Am I uncovering my hidden control freak? What do you think? Have you had to train people on a topic you know nothing about?


20 Responses

  1. let’s look at this another way…..

    …it is said that the best way to learn something….


    …to really learn it in depth….



    ….is to prepare to teach it….


    So, as long as you are prepared to accept that you will be standing in front of the group as someone who has studied and knows the theory, (ie is consciously competent), then you don’t need to have years of practical experience. 


    If you think about people who are really, really expert at something (ie unconsciously competent) they are often appalling at teaching it to others (or training others) because they cannot consciously break the knowledge/skill/ability down into learnable chunks.

    As regards the issue of answering questions, you are right that you can’t get away with being a complete "Don’t Know Jockey" but if you use the Four Ds you will doubtless achieve success.

    (If you want to know what the Four Ds are, ask!)

    Rus Slater



  2. blimey Robson that was quick!

    D~Deal with it; answer the question, ensure that the asker understands and move on.

    Delay~If you genuinely don’t know the answer openly admit it and clearly delay giving one; the way I learned to do this in the Army was, "Good question, well presented, deserves an answer.  I don’t know but I will look it up and let you know next time we meet"

    Defer it~See if there is someone else in the room who knows (if you don’t or you want time to think).  You can defer it back to the asker, "What do YOU think the answer is to that question?" or you can defer to anyone else in the room, "Hmmmmm, what does the group think?", you can Pose, Pause Pounce, "So you want to know why X happens………Sarah, why do you think it happens that way?" or, if you have a person in the room who obviously does know the answer you can defer to them, "Nice question, Les, I’d like to pass that to my learned freind Jane….."

    (this is a really good way of getting some interaction going and of taking advantage of other delegates’ past experience/ability)

    Deflect~ if the question is off the wall, tangential to the subject, already going to be answered later or asked just to waste some time/make the asker feel important, you can deflect it either by "We’ll come to that later today, can you wait?" "Would you like to have that conversation with me at lunch break/after we finish this evening", "That isn’t covered on this course, would you like me to put it in a memo to the management to be dealt with elsewhere?"


    I hope that helps




  3. Teach or train?

    Hi Emma,

    You use both terms. Perhaps it is that you can be a good trainer without subject knowledge but you cannot be a good teacher without subject knowledge?



  4. Thanks!

    Wow! Some great responses already! This is something that has bugged me for ages, but has been brought to the fore by this course I am on. I would agree with Steve that I would be comfortable facilitating, as long as it was recognised that that was my skill, not the subject knowledge. What I actually have to do is ‘teach’ a very specific (and technical) concept, and have been trying to find a way that I could do this in a more facilitative style.

    Keep on with your thoughts, they are fascinating!

  5. Training the non expert trainer

    Hi Emma, I agree with everything that has been said above and with your comment about "facilitating" rather than "training" when you are dealing mainly with process (ie enabling learning) and not content.

    I find it a bit strange that to show your training skills you are required to show them through a subject you are not that familiar with – I have done this before, but it has been knowing that the group didn’t need to go into much depth and I prepared myself like crazy to make sure in general, the group wouldn’t feel like I was taking them for a ride. Of course there will always be questions we don’t know the answers to and we will hopefully encourage participants to share knowledge/experience we don’t have – else how are WE ever going to develop! (By the way, the example I give refers to a 2hour workshop on "The Visit" to A level students, in a past life…And refers to teaching, not training.)

    I don’t think you are a control freak at all, just that you care and want to deliver to your maximum capacity! Good luck with the assignment! Pilar

  6. Thank you, Steve

    You argue my point very nicely, Steve.

    Your definition of ‘Training’ talks about ‘developing … knowledge and ‘facilitated by a trainer’. And you definition of teaching includes ‘imparting knowledge’.

    Thank you for your support.


  7. I agree again …

    Yes, you need that expertise for the areas you mention, Steve (oil and gas, I think they were) – but that wasn’t in the original post, which is what I was replying to. You have picked areas where it is completely impractical to facilitate learning.


  8. need to be a subject matter expert??

    are we talking about.. training, teaching or facilitation?


    as the answer is very different for each answer

    You said "trainer" well for that – yes, because it is the little things that make the difference.

    As my old dad used to say (he was a cabinet maker) the only real difference between an amateur and a professional in terms of skills & performance – is the professional knows how to get out of trouble when it happens.

    In this context a "professional" is a person that knowns the content – i.e. is very competent and has the ability to communicate how to do it to others.

  9. What a great discussion!

    Thanks again for all your comments – I think I should clarify exactly what I have to do. As part of the CIPD’s Certificate in Learning & Development Practice I have the training objective that ‘by the end of the session my participants (colleagues on the course) will be able to explain what the critical path is and be able to do it for a simple project’. I had never heard of the critical path before, and am now spending a lot of time learning about it rather than concentrating on how best to display my training skills!

    Am I wrong in thinking that this is a topic which needs proper knowledge? Or is there a way I can approach it in a more facilitative style (which is my preferred method)?



  10. Keep it simple

    Hi Emma

    Part of me is wondering about the benefits of delivering on a topic that you know little/nothing about, and if it will be a useful exercise and produce learning outcomes for you. However, as it is a given I would suggest you talk a bit about what critical path analysis/method is, why and how it is used and then use the bulk of the time to give your learners an opportunity to work through a very simple example that is only loosely work related so that everyone can see its relevance to them. How about planning an office move or refurbishment, or an open day, a retirement party, an induction day or a fun-run for fund raising – something that has lots of activities to be undertaken and tasks to be completed and some of which have to be done before/after others (eg painters have to be finished before the carpets are laid if you are refurbishing your offices, a suitable venue needs to be ssecured before you start to firm up speakers for your induction day etc). You could really engage your learners by getting them to come up with the various tasks and activities, identify the key order of things and then in how to analyse the critical path to success.

    Good luck, happy to discuss further off line if you send me a personal message on my profile.


  11. Know the subject?

    An interesting topic!  Many Facilitators present courses without having an in-depth knowledge of the subject / topic. 

    However, knowledge is power, and in order to present with power, a good Trainer should have at least some knowledge and background to what is being taught.  Failing that, he/she should have ready resources to offer a participant who wishes to delve deeper – these could be additional reading material / books / websites / other experts for referral.

  12. It depends

    It’s a debate that rages, not just in training circles, but also in managerial positions. Is topic knowledge or service/business understanding really more important then the ability to be a good trainer or manager? Personally, I don’t think so.

    If a trainer is given the job of developing and delivering a course based on a new subject, I would expect them to do a degree of research on the subject, but by no means should they be an expert. How can they? It’s more important that they use their professional skills to ensure participants have a good learning experience. Numerous techniques, (which have been identified on previous posts), can be used to fill or deal with knowledge gaps. It’s far more difficult to disguise a poorly structured and delivered training course! I understand, however, that some trainers operate in a particular field and feel KU is vital, but those of us who don’t, need to be more versaitile and adaptable and place more value on our skills as a trainer.  

  13. Sometimes not claiming to be an expert is better!

    Great responses. Interestingly, depending on the topic of the training and your delegates you might be even better off not to claim that you are the best person on the topic! This can be the case for many soft skills courses, such as communication skills, influence skills, interpersonal skills and so on. It is probably better in these cases to focus on increasing other’s awareness about the issues and the latest research than claiming that "I am the best communicator" and so "You should listen to how I do it". This will not work. Hence, people should not be worried about not being the expert, instead they should worry about not being able to pass on a piece of knowledge (meme) or a skill to others. That in effect is the job of a trainer. As it was stated nicely by others, knowing a subject is one thing, being good at teaching it is another.

    Training Materials

    Ehsan Honary

  14. Expert, or not

    Interesting topic and one on which I probably fall on both sides of the discussion. For many years I was an instructor/teacher/trainer and was an ‘expert’ in my field – I’m not sure that being an expert was a good or bad thing. Interestingly, to become an instructor in the organisation I worked for the pre-requisite was to have above average personal qualities not above average knowledge and professional ability.

    I now find myself writing e-learning for a vast cross-section of clients on subjects I once knew little about. Yes I do this by using subject matter experts, and doing a lot of reading, but wasn’t that the way I became an expert in my original field? From experience, the one thing I do know is that I go into writing a piece of training with no preconceived ideas; I write to the identified objectives, not to my expert knowledge. And, if I can understand the subject matter from the course that I’ve written, then the average layman will probably stand the same chance.

    Yes, if you’re going to be teaching a skill, then you’re unlikely to be able to do that without the requisite experience; but for knowledge- based learning I’m not so sure.

    Going back to your assignment, “… to explain what the critical path is and be able to do it for a simple project …” of which you apparently have no experience. Are you sure? How do you sequence training? How do you plan from the general to the particular? How do you take learners from the known to the unknown? Probably along a critical path, but you just don’t think of it like that. Thinking about it, in many ways the only thing that I took into the classroom was a critical path, plus the relevant training aids. I knew where I was going to start and where I need to end up, but interaction with the class would dictate the lesson, all I had to do was stick to hitting the milestones on the critical path.

  15. Expert

    The idea behind this Critical Path exercise is to prepare the lady who posted the question for circumstances when she will be expected to deliver training in subjects she is not familliar with.

    This is wrong on every level and I would seriously question the wisdom of the person who was asking her to do it.

    Ideally the trainer will have 3 qualities…Subject  Knowledge, Training Skills and EI…for extremely Technical Training you sometimes have to compromise on only 1 quality …not ideal  but better than having a bells and whistles trainer who doesn’t really understand the widget…

    If someone showed up here to deliver training in any subject they were not expert they wouldn’t get past reception.

    No wonder "training" gets a bad reputation…

    "Hi, I’m John, Come to teach you about widgets…not 100% sure what a widget is but I’ll give it a go"


  16. Not

    Sorry. Trainer first, ‘Expert’ second.

    A good trainer will research a subject and develop a course suitable to the learner group. As previously stated: the ability to facilitate the learning of the group, using the course material/content and your own professional abilities, by far outweighs the "you must be an expert or you won’t get through the door" argument.

    How long does it take you to become an expert anyway? Years? A lifetime? Being a ‘one dimentional trainer’ would get you nowhere in my organisation, and most others I know. In fact, what a cushy number that would be eh, (if somewhat boring).

    Trainers acheive credibility by how well they perform and via the quality of the experience for the learner. To simply dismiss someone because they are not an expert on a particular subject is complete nonsense and, if training really has a "bad name", maybe it’s the short-sightedness shown by those who’s criteria, when considering a trainer, focuses on subject expertise.


  17. Expert or Trainer

    "Sorry. Trainer first, ‘Expert’ second"

    Your challenge for today is to find me a trainer of Fatigue Design Analysis…don’t worry if they are not an expert…their training skills are far more important…it doesn’t exist!

    For some subjects the subject knowledge expert wins over the training skills expert and here there are many…completely get your argument but it’s not always true or possible.

    I would also argue that the people who learn highly technical subjects are so self motivated that the training skills of the trainer are not as important as they are for less technical subjects?…but thats a subject for another day!

  18. I’m no expert but

    In my current line of work I work with subject matter experts all of the time; and that’s exactly what they are experts in their subject matter. Their expertise is not in teaching; but mine is. The combination of the two works well.

    Now, if the subject matter expert is also proficient at teaching then that is fine; but many are not, and have no pretence to be. Even so, I have worked with some who are both expert and teacher, but have little knowledge of multimedia instructional design.

    A few years ago, in another life, I needed to recruit a Maths and Physics teacher to teach on a foundation course for students going onto a formal course to be airline pilots. The academy I was working for was linked to a university and, because the subjects were seen to be Faculty, they were recruiting and I was a member of the interview panel.

    Faculty were aghast when I asked the candidate to talk me through Newton’s three laws of motion. How could I have the audacity to ask this sort of question of a man with a PhD in Physics? Why was I testing his knowledge?

    Well I wasn’t testing his knowledge. I needed someone who could teach, not split an atom, and I needed to get some comfort that he could explain things ‘in words of one syllable’. The prevalent feeling with the other members of the panel was, he has a PhD ergo he can teach. But, as the song goes, it ain’t necessarily so.

    Using Steve’s example, I probably couldn’t find a Fatigue Design Analysis trainer, but I could probably find a Fatigue Design Analysis expert. Now, the question is, could my Fatigue Design Analysis expert teach? At any level.

    Experience tells me that, given the correct TOs and EOs for the required training – which presumably the teaching-expert would also need – the expert and myself could put something worthwhile together.

    And if Fatigue Design Analysis is so specialised, can we afford to ‘waste’ the expert’s time in the classroom? Or, if it is so specialised, can we afford not to utilise the expert’s time in the classroom?

    There are probably sacred cows on each side of this discussion but, at the end of the day, I think it probably comes down to horses for courses: and so it should.

  19. An ex-spert = a Drip under Pressure!

    Great issue you have posed Emma – and am liking the answers so far. My thoughts:

    1) Never set yourself up as the ‘expert’ (even if you may be!) you are asking for trouble! If you are new to the subject, it is usually best to be honest and important to get from the group what (if anything) they know about the subject.  A quick group exercise is usually best (don’t ask them in open forum or you run the risk of a NIGYYSOB situation!).  Get them in groups to list on flip all the words they might associate with CPA.

    2) Depending on how long your session is (I’m assuming not too long, since the purpose should be to exercise your training skills – so maybe 10 to 30 mins?) – you are only going to need to cover a few basics.  I doubt you will have time to get into the detail machanics of CPA – so stick with a simple defiinition of the term (the path through the network with the least amount of float etc) and then list the associated terms (float, early start/finish, late start/finish etc) – again you could write these terms on a flip & get them to guess what they mean. If you need more info on CPA or how to deliver it – give me a shout!

    3) I have found myself in front of class on several occaisions having to deliver a session (or whole course) about which I know very little.  I have also run train-the-trainer ‘presentational skills’ sessions where I have tasked the learners to do pretty much exactly what you are faced with (e.g. a ten minute presentation of ‘Life inside a ping pong ball’) – the intention is to push them outside of their comfort zone. It’s a training course – if they don’t learn how to deal with awkward situations like the one posed in a ‘safe environment’, when will they learn?  On the job?  Seems a tad late to me! 

    4) Trainer vs ‘Expert’ – There is no doubt – the competent trainer will outperform the competent expert every time (and there is lots of research to back that up), but a good trainer should always know a bit about the subject! It has been said, that the only difference between a trainer & a student, is that the trainer knows what is coming next…a bit harsh maybe – but often true – especially in the situation you pose – if all else fails – go with that and become comfortable with ‘not knowing’!

    I’m sure this debate could run and run, let us know how you get on? I’d be interested to learn how things turn out for you!



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