Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio April
Back to Basics
BY MARTHA JO DENDINGER, CMP
The Art of Facilitation
Hiring session leaders to steer meetings in the right
Every meeting manager wants attendees to walk away from
educational seminars with something they can use on Monday morning.
Yet, when workshop evaluations are littered with comments like “The
speaker did not discuss the topic” and “I wanted to learn one
thing, but the speaker covered a totally different aspect of the
topic,” it is time to reconsider who is conducting the session.
A planner reviewing such evaluations probably scratches her head
and wonders where the event went awry. The speaker came highly
recommended, was knowledgeable and seemed thoroughly prepared. Or
was he? Perhaps what the workshop required was a different
type of speaker, one who goes beyond the standard,
didactic lecture format. An advanced instruction technique called
“facilitation” may be just what the meeting doctor ordered.
The term “facilitator” has been batted around a lot in training
literature lately, describing everything from a small-group leader
to a teacher using strategic, interactive methods.
In typical meetings, people play one of two roles: leader or
participant. Sometimes, the leader is also a participant, but not
when a facilitator is involved. He remains neutral, controlling the
meeting and guiding it toward its objectives. A facilitator is a
servant of the group, responsible for promoting discussions,
question-and-answer sessions and in-class exercises. Some examples
where a facilitator is desirable are focus groups,
strategic-planning sessions and conflict-resolution meetings.
WHO IS RIGHT FOR THE JOB?
Knowledge of the subject at hand isn’t as important for a
facilitator as it is for a podium speaker. The facilitator at a
strategic-planning session for a real estate referral organization
doesn’t have to be a real estate expert. He has to know
strategic-planning concepts and processes and how to get the
attendees to use their expertise to create a viable plan. He can
learn the basics of the industry by reading collateral material and
interviewing top staffers. The key asset he must have is a wealth
of people skills that transfer to a group of any size or makeup. He
has to adapt his instructional style to different situations;
analyze group dynamics; interpret nonverbal messages; use
competition, cooperation and behavior-modification techniques, and
subtly direct the group toward its goal. The one rule to emphasize
is that the group is the session’s reservoir of knowledge and
Not all of these characteristics are equally important. Many
depend on the type of meeting being held. A facilitator handling a
strategic-planning session needs to be a master at motivation and
at keeping the session fun, because strategic-planning can be a dry
process. Facilitating a workshop where a new subject is being
learned requires the ability to use an open discussion method in
concert with a flexible agenda.
Many of the same guidelines for finding a good speaker apply when
looking for a facilitator. Start by getting recommendations from
colleagues, auditioning candidates via tape or in person and
checking references thoroughly. When asking how effective a
facilitator was, planners should determine that the situation in
which he was working was similar to the event for which he is being
Here are some other elements to look for: someone who is
comfortable in front of a large audience, is able to think on his
feet and knows how to handle difficult participants. Look for a
facilitator who can digest complex issues and industry-specific
items quickly and who has great endurance, since many strategic
meetings can go on for days.
Beware of candidates who want to implement their own programs
before reviewing the group’s needs. A good facilitator will want to
conduct individual interviews with some of the participants prior
to the meeting. He will want to meet with the planner or other
members of the management team to discuss goals and hot buttons,
and to learn something about the organization and its industry.
Associations such as the American Society for Training and
Development in Alexandria, Va., and the American Management
Association in New York City are good sources for facilitators.
Also, many large accounting firms have facilitators available
through their management or organizational development
Facilitators can bring the result that is the ultimate goal of
every meeting: Attendees feel they have had a valuable experience,
and the event’s objectives have been met.
Martha Jo Dendinger, CMP, is an independent meeting
planner in Atlanta.
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