Facilitator Journal | Issue #0531, March 20, 2012
I'm sure most of us have attended our share of conferences, often leaving
them feeling excited but overwhelmed by all we heard and learned. I'd
venture to guess as well that like me, you may go away not fully processing,
assimilating, and implementing much of what you learned. This week's
article, Conferences: Confusion or Convergence? summarizes
the results of a survey I did on this subject. It looks at how we might
influence the way conferences are facilitated, or at least the way we
attend them, in order to maximize their value. Please let me know what
you think of these ideas and if you have any to add.
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Confusion or Convergence?
ways for the conference arena to benefit from facilitative processes.
How many conferences
have you been to where, like me, you feel inspired but completely overwhelmed
with what to do next? My close friend and colleague, Susan Smith, attended
a powerful conference recently where one speaker, an environmental ecologist
from Oxford, made the most profound statement of all, from a facilitator’s
point of view. He said, “Wow, this conference has many great speakers and
with so many provocative ideas. We all go away overwhelmed. Perhaps we should
have fewer speakers during one day and spend the other two days forming
groups, discussing and figuring out together how we can do something about
Susan response? "I jumped to my feet and gave him my applause. Of course,
everyone else just looked at me and gave him a quiet nod. Everyone
there that I talked to, and I attended with 6 friends, had so many ideas
and wanted to discuss them with the others in the audience who also probably
had great ideas and experiences. Wouldn't it have been a great step forward
to spend some time with everyone there, with facilitator support, to hammer
out action items that we could all do individually or in groups after leaving
My discussions with Susan got us thinking that perhaps sending people to
“unfacilitated” conferences is as inefficient and ineffective as attending
unfacilitated meetings. This inspired a query into my network around this
question, "How can we, as facilitators, impact the conference circuit
and convince the conference developers of the importance of large and small
group facilitation?" A summary of results follows.
It is a waste of money sending people to “un-facilitated” conferences,
as it is in attending un-facilitated meetings.
There ARE folks doing this [facilitated conferences] right now.
Recognize and act on this individually as facilitators. When enough of
us implement this concept into our own work, the shift will evolve.
Participate in any of these activities formally or informally & always
let conference planners & Keynotes know about results of such sessions.
Academic review bodies should require that a certain percentage of academics'
time is spent as a co-participant or just participant (i.e. going to conferences
where they are not speakers and still getting reimbursed).
What Facilitators can do Right Now to Impact the Conference Circuit
Initiate informal discussion groups; send copies of names and notes to
participants and conference organizers. Suggest that these kinds of groups
be formalized at conferences. Suggest that others who take part write
the organizers to speak to the value of the informal discussion.
Contact the speaker of keynotes/breakouts prior to conferences and ask
to partner on the idea of facilitated discussions.
Volunteer to be on conference planning committees, demonstrate how productive
and popular the facilitated approach can be.
Have a blog attached to a conference, post reactions and then even
meet up with others who want to discuss important issues further.
Run chat - like room on breaks with group-ware during conferences.
Focus on audience-centered design of conferences, as most meetings by
design are speaker-centric. Use groupware, visual dialogue sessions, hexagon
modeling, small group interventions, skits, songs, etc. so everyone in
the room can get into the conversation.
Ask for time with meeting owner(s): Ask, how will the room be setup? Almost
universally they set their keynotes up classroom style. Suggest rounds
of 6-8, or 10, and eliminate the classroom seating. When they ask why,
discuss the benefits of interactivity and go from there.
Find out which groups are coming to the local (major city) convention
center and send those groups an informational piece about using facilitators.
Share Examples of conferencing facilitation in practice
Survey meeting planners and ask when/how/if they have used facilitators.
Use the survey to open dialogue for pitching facilitators.
Go revenue neutral, no charge to the conference planner if you can use
a room free and charge those attending the discussion or networking event.
Utilize (or create) spaces for participation that allow participants to
express themselves at any time during the conference. Graphic facilitators
are especially good at putting up walls that encourage participation.
Offer training to presenters on creating more interactive sessions. Influence
the seating arrangement, suggest alternative to typical rows of chairs
facing the podium during large group gatherings
Demonstrate facilitation in the microcosm of your own presentation(s).
Give workshops on the importance of facilitation at conferences.
Provide some kind of formal credit or credits towards a specific accreditation.
of how Conferences Use (or can use) Facilitators
Place 3-5 questions on each table related to the meal's keynote, assign
a table facilitator. Collect emails and send summary of key points to
those at the table.
Conduct hour-long sessions throughout the conference: Beginning: How to
get most from conference, Mid-point: Discuss topics covered thus far,
End: How to use/execute on key points learned.
Assign teams that meet regularly throughout the conference to talk about
what’s being learned and how to take it home. Put people together from
similar occupational fields, and limit the group size to eight. Have volunteer
facilitator for each team to keep the discussion going and on track.
Build in facilitated networking sessions. In groups of 15-30, the fewer
the better, have each participant make up a flip chart outlining 2 things:
Accomplishments that they're proud of and areas they would like help.
Combine the world cafe process with download sessions then use open space
to get to action in the final afternoon.
Combine world cafe with a cartoonist (graphic recorder) who can draw a
long mural as a story of the learning’s and feedback from the group, the
group can see a “record” of their efforts.
that Convince Conference Developers to use Facilitation
Speaker: embeds his/her information when using facilitation. Speaker gets
chance to act as consultant during facilitated discussions and is able
to respond to additional questions as they arise.
Facilitation creates space for reflection, consultation/discussion, collaboration
and implementation strategies for the central themes of the conference.
Lets the audience become a working group to develop applications for information
the speaker shared and increases interactivity.
People are much more inclined to believe their own data, thus provocative
questions encourage exploration and to give “space” to develop practical
applications in collaboration with others.
People prefer open forums/workshops where they are actively involved in
discussions. People learn more through discussion. Survey data shows that
group prefers group interaction to talking heads and speakers.
Acknowledge that all of the knowledge in the room did not just come from
those on the dais, but that everyone has a piece of the wisdom.
Most conferences have a ton of energy that so often dissipates after a
week or so. Information sticks where support system is in place, successful
way to digest and solidify the tools and concepts of the workshop.
Facilitation engages attendees in first hand exercises to experience the
Increased networking opportunities. Addresses primary complaint people
have about conferences: too much crammed into a short period of time with
too little time available for meaningful networking.
People pay (networking groups, roundtables, mastery groups) for the privilege
to talk to each other about leadership, risk, networking...etc.
Hour to an hour and a half speakers generally stay on the surface and
are way too short for anything meaningful to develop. More in-depth learning,
longer sessions are very rewarding for all.
Participant can have an opinion and explore it with others!
The value of people talking with each other about their shared experiences
and working on a shared action plan, rather than just listening to someone
tell them what to do, is immeasurable.
Using facilitators improves conferencing offer, missing some revenue streams
by thinking of facilitation as an overhead.
Be Prepared to Overcome (Possible) Objections, such as:
Being viewed negatively as a purveyor of “soft skills" or “process
Inhibiting the “flow of a meeting,” because of some mental model they
have developed about the field of facilitation.
Unnecessary add-on who might detract from the message the leader or speaker
wants to send.
Creating spaces for people to share views, opinions and healthy debates
often seems daunting (easy re-course is to have the standard Conferences).
Examples of Facilitated Conferencing:
Mel Siberman did a wonderful job of this as a keynote presenter at a recent
North American Simulation and Gaming Association Conference in Montreal.
Robert Chambers (Institute of Development Studies, Sussex) often known
as the 'Guru' of participatory methods, rather than giving a talk--which
would have been largely one sided, designed the 5-hour session in a way
that allowed participation, group work and large group discussion.
Add Your Comments
Please implement at least one of the ideas above or share one of your
own. Or if you have experience with some of these ideas, please let us know. Add Your Comments to share your experiences, questions, or feedback.
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