Practical Facilitation Tips
This is part of a series on how to facilitate great workshops, and use strategy tools in a genuinely helpful way.
When I first joined The Difference Incubator, I wasn’t a good facilitator.
Not because I was deliberately rude or had bad ideas, I just had a lot of blind spots.
Standing in front of an audience made me nervous, and I didn’t like planning events, so I figured that I wouldn’t enjoy being a facilitator.
Maybe you feel the same.
Interestingly, I found that the opposite is true; by learning about facilitation, I became more confident at the front of the room, and was able to create events I enjoyed.
There are two great things about facilitation:
1. It’s a versatile skill that will come in handy in a lot of of your work in the future.
2. It’s a learnable skill, and you don’t need a qualification to practice.
I was fortunate to have excellent facilitators as mentors, and had the chance to pinch their good ideas whilst also learning from my own mistakes.
Rather than going into the philosophy of education, this is a series of tips that I found useful; improvements that made small but noticeable improvements to my workshops.
When you walk into the room where your event/meeting is being held, you’ll find the tables pre-arranged into a logical shape.
This is a starting point.
You are allowed to move the furniture – no it’s not rude.
Worst case scenario you can move it back at the end of the day.
The furniture configuration should match the type of experience you’re trying to create.
Classroom-style rows of chairs will force people to listen instead of talking.
U-shaped table arrangements (like at the United Nations) make people feel defensive.
Round tables of ten encourage people to talk to their neighbours.
Small tables of five encourage people to all talk together.
Each of these serves a purpose, so pick the layout that matches your content.
Small tables at a conference will encourage whispers and distraction.
U-shaped seating in a strategy day will make people more prone to argue.
Choose whichever option makes the most sense, and don’t be afraid to change your mind.
When I went to the Strategyzer Masterclass in 2013, one of the details that impressed me was their DJ.
Alexander Osterwalder would talk for a few minutes, then set a task for the room.
As soon as he stopped, the DJ would cut in with Get Lucky by Daft Punk, and everyone would immediately get to work.
I was stunned – whenever I set tasks people would sit there in awkward silence, and I would look for an excuse to get out of the room.
By cutting to pleasant, up-tempo background music, people weren’t afraid to start moving and talking.
Here is where I have a strong opinion: the solution is not “play music”.
It’s “play the right music through good speakers”.
If you play random tracks on a crap little Bluetooth speaker, you’ll get none of the benefits.
In fact, participants will find it distracting.
The secret is in building a good playlist, then using bass heavy speakers at a low volume.
Small speakers can’t fill a room, so you have to turn them all the way up, then they sound sharp and piercing.
Good speakers fill the room more naturally, so don’t need to be played as loud.
This is a dealbreaker for me, so I take my Bose Sounddock to my workshops.
It’s a pain and it’s totally worth it.
You need more breaks than you’d think – probably every hour.
Just because you feel that you can get through a presentation in one hit doesn’t mean your audience can process it in one hit.
They also tend to remember the first and last thing you said, so a long middle section will go in one ear and out the other.
Some examples of breaks include:
· The 5 minute bathroom and drinks break (always ends up being 8-10 minutes)
· The 15 minute morning tea (expect 20 minutes minimum).
· The 45 minute lunch (an hour is a bit long, less than 30 doesn’t recharge people)
· The outside activity (people love a change of scenery)
If in doubt, do more than you think.
Worst case scenario, people stay in their seats and keep working.
“The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low prices is forgotten”.
Another category where I have strong views: take your catering seriously.
The idea that you would host an event, sell tickets, put your brand on the line and then serve terrible cold sandwiches is beyond me.
People forget how much is at stake.
A good workshop can change people’s lives for the better.
It can transform participants into loyal customers, and turn bored staff into motivated team leaders.
You scheduled a busy afternoon of good content – why would you want people to go into it with low blood sugar?
Spend the money on proper food and see if it was worth it, I’ve never seen anyone regret it.
As a participant, seeing a stack of pizza boxes show up has the delight of seeing a box of puppies walk in the room, and pizza isn’t expensive.
In terms of snacks, there are two approaches: you can go the healthy “brain food” like fruit and nuts, or the “treats” like cheese and chocolate.
Both of these work, and I’d suggest going healthy in the morning then delicious in the afternoon – giving people the sugar, fat and salt they crave when their energy dips.
Short and sweet; don’t get your co-facilitator to sit at a little desk up the front.
I can’t understand why venues set this up, it looks weird and feels awkward.
A better option is to get your co-facilitator to stand at the back of the room, where they can read to mood of the audience, make quiet changes to the room and give you suggestions in the breaks.
Generally your participants either haven’t thought about why they’re in the room, or their expectations are skewed.
For these reasons, it’s always good to clarify what people will get from the day.
If you’re new to facilitation, this might mean telling the audience what they’ll get.
If you’re more confident, this might mean asking people what they would like.
The benefit of asking is that it can help you tailor your content to the room, and you can reassure people that you’ll be giving them what they want.
Watch as their muscles relax and they look relieved – you suddenly give people permission to lower their guard.
Don’t be afraid to tell people what you won’t be covering – they might look disappointed for a second, but it’s better than having the realisation during the session.
It also makes you look like a pro.
Give Your Team A Flattering Introduction
When I was in Thailand I went to an elephant sanctuary, where they care for elephants who were abused in other tourist traps.
As we entered the sanctuary, our tour guide stopped us to talk about each elephant.
“Today you’ll be meeting five elephants…” he began, then introduced them one by one.
“The first elephant is named…” and then gave their age, history, personality and role in the family.
We get in a bus and drive to where they’re being fed, and suddenly we’re excited to meet these elephants - they have names and character traits, like we know who they are.
It made me realise the power of an external introduction, it completely changes how new people see you.
The tour guide introduced elephants with more dignity than how I introduced my colleagues.
By having someone else give you a glowing recommendation (without you being up the front), everyone will suddenly respect your strengths and look forward to talking with you.
Introducing yourself is not the same, you’ll be too modest.
Ending The Day
Whenever you make a runsheet, you forget how tired people are at the end of the day.
They will need some cheering up, either by summarising their good progress, setting useful homework, or by ending with something engaging or funny.
People tend to remember the peak of an experience and the end of an experience.
For this reason, don’t wing it; take the time to practice how you close the day.
Handouts and Workbooks
People love being given “free” stuff when they arrive – it’s tangible evidence of their learning and feels like a treat.
Of course it’s not free, it’s part of the ticket price.
If you can give people physical materials, I encourage you to do so.
I’d suggest doing just a few, but printing them on good paper and in colour – lots of photocopies sheets doesn’t have the same effect.
Another good tip is to build space for note taking into the workbook, so people aren’t using two different sources of paper at the same time.
Please note, these are often a placebo, designed to make people feel encouraged rather than to be a source of new information.
They summarise and support your main points, and don’t need long slabs of text.
Whiteboards and Butchers Paper
These might be a cliché, but they work.
Whiteboards are great because they give people the freedom to make mistakes in a way that paper doesn’t.
This allows participants to be more creative and less precise, and gives them their own territory.
It also gives a tangible sense of progress from the session, and they can take photos of their work on their phone.
Butchers paper is a fine substitute, either on the table or stuck to a wall (make sure your markers don’t bleed through).
Sending Summaries and Materials
As a rule, I do not send out my slides to participants.
This is often a surprise to them, but for good reason.
Have you ever re-read the full slides of an event you attended?
What you might have looked for is a prompt or a summary – the diagrams, pictures and instructions.
For this reason, I suggest making and sending a summary rather than slides, it gives people what they need (even if it’s not what they thought they wanted).
I prefer to have people ask me questions via email, phone or over coffee – I’ll give them a better quality of answer, and it reveals which parts of the content have/haven’t resonated.
Follow Up, Links, Surveys and Next Steps
People like receiving an email with links and attachments after a workshop, it removes the fear that they’ll forget everything they learned.
You might choose to include a survey, either in person or online.
Be careful what you wish for.
I had a participant give some tough, constructive criticism when I first started, and it drastically improved my workshops.
I had others give bad suggestions and make useless complaints (“I didn’t know you’d have good coffee so I bought one on the way, you should have let me know so I could have saved some money”).
Think through what you genuinely would like to know, and frame the survey around these points.
Good questions include:
“What was your favourite…”
“What was your least favourite…”
“What would have been helpful for you…”
“Would you recommend this session? Why/why not...”
“What would you like from us in the next few months…”
Here’s the most important part: DO NOT READ THE FEEDBACK IMMEDIATELY.
You know in your gut how it went.
Reading criticism, even constructive criticism, will drain your enthusiasm for facilitation.
Go through it ahead of the next workshop, where it can actually be put into practice.
Play To Your Strengths
There are no rules, you can shape your events to your strengths.
If you’re funny, make it funny.
If you’re a good storyteller, include more stories.
If you like 1-1 chats, create more time working at tables.
If you don’t like long monologues, use more videos or case studies.
If you have a nice outdoor space, use it.
If you have experienced participants, ask them to tell their stories.
If you have a good culture, use peer learning to spark magic moments.
If something doesn’t work, improve it.
If it still doesn’t work, bin it and try a substitute.
Finally, here are some good books that helped me:
The Back Of The Napkin – Dan Roam (how to use basic drawings to communicate effectively)
Getting Naked – Patrick Lencioni (how to be vulnerable in a helpful way)
Value Proposition Design – Alexander Osterwalder (how to run prototyping exercises)
Facilitating can become one of your favourite parts of the job.
I hope you can keep strengthening your sessions, and show people how your talents can improve their work and lives.