Communication Preferences: Why They Matter When Working With SMEs

04 Feb 2022


Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are highly regarded in organizations and appreciated for their skill, experience, and expertise. If you’ve been recently assigned a technical project that involves working with a SME, you may be wondering how to get the most out of your conversation with them. 

Effective communication is an art, and while it seems safe to assume that everyone would prefer the same way of communicating in the English language, this is not always true and can lead to miscommunication and frustration for both parties involved.

In this post, we’ll be going over some of the different communication preferences as well as why they matter when communicating with SMEs.

Understanding Communication Preferences

It’s important to understand that people tend to have different preferences and styles when it comes to communicating.

And studies have determined that personality plays a large role in how a person prefers to communicate.

To ensure project success, you need to have open lines of communication. That said, it's important to note that communication may be rendered useless if you don’t approach your SME correctly.

There are numerous directive and non-directive communication preferences. Understanding a person’s preferred way of communicating will help you get through to them more efficiently.

This way, you can relay information in a way that ensures the listener feels understood, comfortable, and engaged.

Think of it this way: You wouldn’t expect a shy coworker to relay information effectively in front of a group of people. In the same vein, when you don’t approach someone with their preferred communication style, it’s easy for lines to get crossed.

It all boils down to how effective your way of communicating with someone is. While emails might work for one person, for example, they won’t do much for another. When you approach someone with their preferred communication method, they’re better able to receive the information.

People can be categorized into four main groups based primarily on their personality and cognitive preferences:

  • Movers
  • Motivators
  • Collaborators
  • Thinkers

Depending on the category that fits the SME you’re working with, they’ll each want to know very specific things.


Movers are more straightforward. They’re interested in learning about facts and the bottom line of what you’re looking for, so it’s best not to beat around the bush.

For example, when speaking with a mover, it’s a good idea to tell them exactly what you need and when you need it.

For example, if you need them to complete the project within a certain time period, it’s important to state this upfront and clearly.


Motivators like to look at the big picture. They frequently ask for the “whys” of situations. It’s best to give them an idea and watch their minds run free.

For example, don’t just tell a motivator that you want something done. Describe the big picture goal you are trying to accomplish.


Collaborators, on the other hand, tend to respond better with a passive and people-oriented approach. When speaking with collaborators, it’s a good idea to explain how you want people to gain from your project.

For example, you could share that you aim to inform your target audience of the best way to handle their identified problems.


Lastly, thinkers are the most detail-oriented of the bunch.

They prefer to know about every aspect of your project from its creation to your goals in the future. When speaking with thinkers, it’s better to focus on giving them tasks to focus on.

For example, instead of telling them what you want done as a whole, give them a checklist of things you'd want them to accomplish individually.

Why Communication Preferences Matter

Identifying your SME’s communication preference ensures a more seamless exchange. Essentially, this may minimize miscommunication and misunderstandings that could result in delays or even project failure.

For example, if your SME prefers to chat over text or email, you may want to cut back on the Zoom meetings to meet their preferences. This will help them process their thoughts more effectively and then relay their insights.

SMEs come in many different types, with a wide variety of personal preferences regarding their respective industries, work styles, and ability to cooperate with others. This means that there are many ways to approach your SME, depending on how they prefer to communicate.

There are five types of communication you should consider:

  • Verbal. This includes video or physical meetings where you’re able to discuss a project openly and freely. It’s a great way to communicate with your SME if they like chatting over coffee or discussing projects along with other people.
  • Non-Verbal.  For SMEs who may not have a good handle on their communication skills, it’s important to pay attention to nonverbal cues such as eye contact, hesitation, or even sighing.
  • Written Communication. Some SMEs prefer to have entire conversations over email or a messaging app. This way, they can understand exactly what you need more quickly, and they’ll have a reference of your conversation moving forward. Keep in mind, though, that this may have a negative impact on your collaboration — especially if one party isn’t able to express their thoughts concisely.
  • Listening.  Make sure you are always open to suggestions and comments. SMEs focus on putting a lot of thought and analysis into the solutions they proffer, so keep an open mind as you can expect their feedback to be incredibly valuable.
  • Visual Communication. Some people are more receptive to visual cues like images, graphs, and presentations. So, some SMEs may prefer to see visual representations of what you have in mind for delivering your goals effectively.

Determining the Best Method of Communication

By now, you’re probably asking yourself how you can determine the correct way of communicating with a SME. In reality, there’s no cookie-cutter way of finding this out.

The best course of action would be to simply ask how they prefer to communicate and build an evolving strategy to best suit their strengths and weaknesses.

This way, you don't make any assumptions, and you're able to meet the needs of your SME immediately from the beginning. To do this better, read on to find a useful collection of strategies that will help streamline the process.

Strategies for Working with SMEs

Working with SMEs can be daunting — especially if you have no prior experience. The good news is this: It’s all a matter of knowing how to approach them. Subject matter experts are people too. And all they really want in the end is to make sure your project thrives.

To make sure this happens, you’ll need to meet them halfway. 

Here are some tested and true strategies for working with SMEs so you don’t get off on the wrong foot.

Set Clear Expectations

Workflows flourish when everyone knows exactly what is expected of them. The same can be said of working with SMEs. Subject matter experts don’t have a lot of free time on their hands — which is why it’s important to treat their time valuably.

Before you get started, it’s important to lay out all your expectations such as:

  • How often or what kind of information you want them to share with you
  • How they can share information with you
  • What kind of results you expect them to accomplish
  • What their responsibilities will be

Offer Flexibility When Planning Meetings

When planning meetings with a SME, it’s important to make sure you make the most out of their time.

As mentioned before, subject matter experts are incredibly busy, so you can’t expect them to sit through 2–3-hour meetings several times a week.

Make sure you ask about their schedule before planning anything. This way, you can negotiate a schedule that works best for all parties involved.

It’s also a good idea to let them know beforehand how much time you’ll need from them. This way, they’re able to organize their schedule more efficiently and their entire focus is on your agenda.

It’s also important to consider which aspects of the project are best suited to their expertise. If they choose to make time for you, you should consider tackling subjects that require their most specific involvement.

For example, if your SME is involved in the marketing process, you should discuss marketing-related topics at the beginning of your meetings. This way, you can get the most important parts of the conversation done immediately, and you’re not wasting their time.

Use Positive Language While Communicating 

SMEs, like any other person out there, respond to positive language better than negative communication. While we don’t recommend praising them for falling short, it’s important to maintain a positive approach when you talk to them.

The London School of English recommends the following tips to facilitate positive communication:

  • Focus on positive phrasing. For example, instead of saying the information is not well-researched, you could say something like: “A more detailed review of the statement might be needed.” This way, you’re able to tackle issues without discouraging your SME.
  • Avoid using negative words. Focus on using “good” and positive words instead of negative ones. For example, if you want to tell them you don’t agree with their idea, you could say: “Thanks for sharing; I’m just a bit unsure about that, though. What else do you have in mind?”
  • Use modifiers to minimize issues.  Instead of exaggerating, you may want to downplay negative news. The use of phrases such as “slightly,” “a bit,” and “quite” could help deliver your feedback in a softer tone. For example, you could say: “I’m not quite sure I understand your presentation. Do you think we might modify it slightly/a bit, to better drive home the message?”
  • Use neutral questions to encourage positive answers. Be less assertive. In this regard, you want to encourage your SMEs to exchange ideas with you. A good way to do this would be to invite them into the conversation by asking their opinion.  

Manage Their Time Properly

When it comes to maximum time management and efficiency, SMEs characteristically appreciate it when they're presented with information in a clear, succinct, and direct manner.

Here are a few ways you can show them how you can help manage their time:

  • Identify content and areas where you can do your own research.
  • Schedule meetings at their convenience so they’re fully committed.
  • Don’t rush them. It’s important to give them a reasonable deadline or notice for tasks that they need to accomplish.
  • Focus on your goals and expectations. Don’t beat around the bush.
  • Give them access to the right tools and resources to help them streamline their work.
  • Give them complete control over their time.

Be Open to New Ideas 

It’s important to listen to what your SMEs have to say. They’re your subject matter experts for a reason. While you may be focused on doing something a certain way, you need to open your mind to suggestions and comments from your SME.

From complaints to information that they think would be beneficial to your project, make sure you always lend a listening ear, as doing so will equip you with vital information that could be crucial to the overall success of your project. This way, your SME knows you value their knowledge.

Besides, there’s no reason for you not to listen to what your SME wants to share. After all, the success of your project relies on how well your subject matter expert performs.

Final Thoughts

Working with SMEs isn’t as hard as you think it is. In fact, if you have the right strategy in place, and you establish expectations clearly early on in the conversation, you shouldn’t encounter any problems at all.

That said, communicating with your SME poses a unique challenge. To ensure project success, you should focus on maintaining open lines of communication while keeping your SME’s communication preference in mind.

Remember that, ultimately, you and your SME both want the same thing: to communicate your thoughts effectively.

With this information, you’re now better equipped to work effectively, with respect for your SMEs time, effort, and skill, all while reducing the possibility of errors, ambiguities, and wasted time.

Debbie Y. Tayo-Odeshilo 
Debbie has been working with clients for almost 10 years providing copywriting, editing, proofreading, rewriting, coaching, and content marketing services. She started her career as an ACCA Certified Accountant with a multinational where she developed an eagle eye for detail and zero tolerance for errors. However, her creativity needed expression, and she made a career change into Content Marketing & Communications. She now uses her skills, expertise, and passion to provide writing, editing, strategy, and marketing solutions to help brands and business owners gain more visibility and profit.

She enjoys life being a happy wife, and loving mom to an active toddler and a Lhasa Apso. She also loves being in nature, relaxing to gospel music, and soaking up family time.

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