Master Facilitator Journal

Master Facilitator Journal | Issue #0531, March 20, 2012

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Dear Friends,

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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If you or your colleagues are interested in submitting an article for consideration, please email your ideas. I'd love to hear from you. We hope our work continues to bring inspiration to your world. Thank you for being a part of our growing community and please continue to send your wonderful feedback on this ezine and can better serve you.


Steve Davis


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learning facilitator

The Point

Conferences: Confusion or Convergence?
Finding ways for the conference arena to benefit from facilitative processes.

Group-Facilitation Skill

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 the issues.”

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 the conference."

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.


General Feedback

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.

Examples 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.

Selling Points 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 concepts.
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 driven.”
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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