toddler wearing a cowboy hat on a play horse

As a consultant I treat the work my clients trust me with as a gift. They trust me with their hardest problems, their personal vulnerabilities, and their dreams. I try to handle each one as a sacred heirloom. My goal is to help take something that is fragile (from newness or fear) and make it sturdy and long-lasting. In this work, I find several things the most precious to be trusted with: ghostwriting, media preparation, and facilitation. Today, I’m going to share about facilitation as I’ve had more inquiries about it lately from clients, peers, and mentees alike.

I think facilitation is precious because of the power a dynamic event or meeting can generate. The endorphins from an inspiring collaborative session. The access to a national expert to inform or change thinking. The new ways to approach a problem and/or work with a team. Basically, a well-designed and thoughtfully facilitated event can crank folks up for good or squash their spirits.

At this point in my career, I have spent thousands of hours facilitating – from a planning session with a small non-profit to 300+ person multi-day offsites for the federal government. Through these sessions, I’ve come to rely on seven things that help me design and facilitate sessions that client and participant alike rate highly. I thought it would be helpful to explain them within the context of a national childcare care summit I did this month. Here we go…

Start at the end.

I do not do any work on an event until the client clearly and specifically answers this question: “When the event (meeting, offsite, session) is over, what three things do you want to have occur and/or have in hand?” I get this answer to be as precise and granular as possible. For the child summit, it began as “get recommendations” and ended up as “two recommendations from each group which address the what, the why, and the how for one single thing.” The preciseness enabled me to create a breakout session that was (1) interactive, (2) contained quite time for personal reflection, (3) templates to capture all the discussion and additional recommendations, and (4) targeted prioritized recommendations.

Think wholistic.

While each event has a desired outcome, it’s not just about the work. It’s about how the whole experience enables the outcome to occur. It’s for this reason I ask each client, “How will you know the event was successful… what will you feel, hear, and see?” This is an activity in visualization which helps everyone begin to see the event together. It’s important to give the client time to think about this and let their vision occur – in other words, don’t pounce on them with “would you like…” questions. After all facilitating is about making space for ideas. For this event the client wanted a casual environment that helped people of various backgrounds and titles feel equal and empowered to share their ideas. This resulted in name tags with only a person’s first name, a commitment (see next item) that focused on getting everyone’s input, and breakout room facilitators prepped to reduce dominant voices and amplify others.

Commit to common behavior.

Many facilitators call these “norms.” But after thousands of hours facilitating, there is nothing normal about how groups come together, and some things that are perceived to be a “norm” is not a typical group dynamic based on their organization or team. So, I recently changed to offering “commitments.” This is how we will commit to work together in this space in community… and after I presented them (reading them as I statements) I asked the childcare summit group to give me a resounding “wooo hooo!” to show their commitment. For this event it was, “I commit to…”:

  • Quiet my technology and be present
  • Focus on overarching issues and solutions (verbal side note – this isn’t about your personal problems)
  • Listen to learn and speak to educate
  • Seek out input from every participant
  • Use “yes, and…” when I respond to build stronger recommendation (verbal note: no one can respond with no or yes, but…)
  • Create singularly focused recommendations

Think about the participant.

So often facilitators get caught up on the client and their needs. It’s important to always ask yourself, “Would I like to attend and participate in this event?” or “How would I feel about spending # hours of my time in this way?” So many planning sessions and events I attend are geared to auditory learners (lots of time listening) and external processors (also known as extroverts who think with their mouths). It’s important to have something for every type of adult learner.

For the childcare summit I included the following:  visual learners got some PowerPoint slides, written instructions, and a worksheet to follow; kinesthetic learners got fillable worksheets; auditory learners got speeches and verbal instructions; Linguistic learners had interactive group discussions; Logical learners got a three-step process in the workgroups and polling data. Intrapersonal learners (introverts) got several reflective quite times built into the plenary session and workgroups. Interpersonal (extroverts) had social breaks and collaborative work sessions. Everyone had one or two ways to function in their preferred learning environment which helped them be better contributors to the purpose at hand.

Also, always do a walkthrough of the event… from opening the email or invite the night before, to transportation, registration, seating, heating/air conditioning, time to move between sessions, bathrooms, and more. Move like they would, look around, and think about the problems they might run into, questions they might have, or tools they might need in order to get and be there in a calm and productive state. For this event, the walk through resulted in a few more pre-event logistical emails, event signage, escorts through the large building, pre-ordered lunch options, and more microphones.

Oh, and speaking of microphones… never let a speaker convince you they don’t need one due to their loud voice. A mic is not for them – it’s for the participants; many of whom have hearing deficits which you won’t know about. If they cannot hear they cannot learn, think, or contribute to your work at hand.

Make it appropriate.

From your ice breaker to your activities, everything should align to the topic and add to participant’s connection to the cause or work. For example, at one two-day planning session on rural health, I had enormous photos of rural images from across the United State literally wallpaper the room. Anywhere someone sat or worked in a group it was like they were looking out a massive window at a tranquil rural vista. This relaxed participants, made the internal windowless conference room less morbid, and reminded folks why they were in the room.

For the childcare summit, playfulness was appropriate. Preschoolers learn so much through games, imagination, art, and song. I wanted participants to reconnect with their inner child. I opened with a mindful meditation on nine photos of different clouds (with the guidance that the day was for “blue sky thinking”) and folks picked which cloud best represented their mood. I made mention of daydreaming, stretching for dodgeball at recess, and sang part of “where is thumbpkin.” I also had the room play Simon Says as part of a mid-day knowledge check. In small groups, participants used this model to introduce themselves: (1) say their first name, (2) explain what they did for a living to a five-year-old, and (3) share their favorite children’s book, song, or movie. Each small element generated a more playful – child-like – session and it showed up in the participant’s energy. In case you’re wondering, “I’m Emily. I get folks to think about and do things using words and pictures, and my favorite children’s book is Dandelion.”

Also, I created a day-off event text for the four-person client team, myself, and two teammates so we could easily stay in touch and make adjustments. To set the tone for the day, I kicked off the text stream with the photo on this blog of me as a toddler “rearing to go” on my favorite bouncy horse pony toy, with the reminder to keep our “child-like wonder and enthusiasm throughout the day.”

Center yourself.

While the client itsthinking about the event and outcomes and staff/team are working on logistics… you need to work on yourself. What do you need to be successful in the moment? I found that a detailed facilitation guide is a must have. It’s less a guide and more like a full out play script of things I might say or questions I might use. I found that when I write it all out by time slot, that I can find :

  • Areas that feel bumpy which makes me re-explore them for a new solution
  • Areas that are too wordy that I need to rethink, cut, or put on a screen or pre-read
  • Areas that are stagnant due to too much listening or not enough movement, and redesign them
  • Areas where I don’t have the right tools or set up in the room which I resolve
  • Areas where I didn’t allocate enough time and rejigger the agenda

Creating it and practicing with it also helps me internalize the flow and instructions so I can be more present and responsive in the moment. I think less about what I have to do, and more about what I need to do when I’m at the event interacting with participants comments, fears, confusion, and ideas.

This guide also helps me show the game day event very clearly to the client as a final check that we’re on the same page. I always include the caveat that is a starting place for me and that I will, at some point, leave the guide which means my words will change or even a planned activity because it’s about being fully present in the group and responding to the needs in the room… but always with the clear understanding of the three things that must be in hand at the end of it all.

I also found I need to block off 1 hour each day the week leading into the group to truly get my head in the game. I do this by visualizing, reviewing the script, and prepping my outfit which impacts my mood, motion, and success. I also dedicate half of the day before the event to do a full mental walkthrough of the entire event and practice my parts, especially how to pronounce names. On the day of, I pack a bag of water and protein-based snacks with some chocolate, get there before the team for quite time in the space, and try to have time alone at lunch to recenter. Finally, I block the day or weekend after for quite time as my introvert battery is depleted.

Get feedback.

It’s important to understand how it all came together to help your client get necessary resources, to understand how participants valued the time they gave to the work, and to grow as a facilitator—from what you design to how you deliver it day of. This can be as simple as a +/- on an easel pad to capture “what worked” and “what needs improvement.” It can be five rated questions emailed the day after the event so folks have time to process the experience. Or in the case of the childcare summit, we did a few polling questions – from questions with a 6-point scale (6=outstanding, 1=lacking), to forced choice questions (pick the one from a list), or build a word cloud (we used mentimeter website), such as “one word that describes your experience at the event.”

I also like to do a post-event “hot wash” where we capture what was great, what worked good enough, what didn’t work (and how to fix it), and what was missing. I always directly ask about my job as a facilitator – either in a formal event assessment, to some participants, or with the client; as everyone has a different perspective and helpful input.

Finally, if you’re looking to learn more about facilitating these are my go-to recommendations: 

  • Whole Mind Facilitation by Eric Meade … he and I have facilitated at various times together for a decade and each time I learn something new from the collaboration.
  • The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker … it covers all kinds of events from national conferences to dinner parties, and how to make them intimate, compelling, and creative.

 Good luck out there, and please share your facilitation lessons learned!

7 Approaches for Purposeful Event Design & Facilitation

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