Conference facilitator tips

The facilitator’s role is vital. A breakout discussion session that rates 6 out of 10 could have been a 8 out of 10 session with more skilled facilitation. This advice for facilitators can get you there. A facilitators’ role is to ensure everyone gets the most out of their time – what could be more important than that?

There isn’t one way to be a good facilitator. You don’t necessarily have to be a mad, microphone-loving, limelight hugging extrovert. You don’t have to have a professorial knowledge of the subject matter being discussed. If you recognise the importance of the role and work through the following you will do a great job.


Start and finish on time.

Welcome people, explain any housekeeping  and more importantly establish ground rules so people know why they are there and what is expected. Be clear that participation is expected and that the audience itself has huge influence on how worthwhile the session will be.

Tips for facilitators

Master facilitator Squiggle brings another audience to heel.

Introduce speakers: this is more than reading the given introduction in the program. Boring! Add some observations of your own to the introduction. Don’t be afraid to beef up a humble introduction or downplay an introduction that is over-the-top. Generally speaking, a shorter introduction is better than a longer one. An audience only needs to know the aspects of the speaker that are relevant to the current topic so judge what is and isn’t relevant.

Relay / repeat comments if they cannot be heard by everyone. Ensure contributors can be heard and seen. Attention quickly wanders if audiences can’t connect with speakers.  

Interpret and clarify comments made that might not be clear.

Extract contributions form the audience in various ways. (More on this later.)

Spark discussion through your words, pictures and handouts.

Key Performance Indicators

This a less specific list of the qualities that a better-than-average facilitator may display:

The audience feels awake, engaged and included.

Keeps discussion things on track and in the direction of Interesting.

Creates a better, more focussed, more satisfying session than would otherwise have occurred – even with the same audience.

Keeps the bastards honest. By this we mean that the facilitator challenges assumptions, asks people to explain, counterbalances and plays the devil’s advocate. (aka advocatus diaboli in Latin). Be willing to play devil’s advocate in all directions – not just when someone says something that you find disagreeable.

Facilitator is in control. He or she is the glue, the driver, the picture frame – but not the main attraction.

No one person is allowed to dominate.

Gains contributions in various ways beyond speaking such as writing via one-to-one conversations between participants which are then reported to the group.

Issues vs questions

Don’t think of your role as asking and answering questions, think of it as a chance to create a discussion of a number of related issues.  Asking questions is one way to explore an issue but this can quickly fall flat in a quiet room. Ask questions but also extract responses from your audience in lots of ways – ask for personal stories, sparking conversations by showing images or distributing handouts for feedback. Play a word association game. Heck – have people perform a 2m play and ask for feedback. Poll people, get them to discuss your issues in small groups and report to the room as a whole. The choice is yours. 

Tricks of the trade

Rove: don’t get stuck behind the lectern, rove the room with a handheld microphone and a clipboard if necessary. This is just a little more dynamic and when combined with some vox popping really keeps your audience awake.

Vox popping: don’t wait for people to raise their hands – barge up to them, ask a question and pop the microphone under their nose. This is called vox popping. Ask a simple Yes / No type question and pick someone who seems as if they have the wherewithal to respond.

Dorothy Dixers: set up some questions, anecdotes or comments beforehand from friends or connections in the audience. This is a great way to cut straight to content that you know will be interesting.

Displays / handouts: pictures tell a thousand words so, be ready to shown or distribute relevant pictures or stats or graphs.

Trivia quiz: throw in one or few trivia questions. These can be a quick way to highlight some misconceptions and spark responses. Have a small fun prize for respondents – chocolate works well.

Personal stories: by asking for one person’s experience you can gain contributions from people who don’t feel they have an answer but do have a relevant experience.

One-to-one or small group chats: this can break up longer sessions nicely, enable people to get to know each other and extract contributions from shy people.

60 second stretches: if the crowd is getting restless give them a strict 60 seconds to stand up, stretch and have a quick natter. Then it’s back to work. This can energise a crowd.

Written responses: ask for written responses to key questions. Again this allows the shy or scandalous to contribute.

Ask the audience room for its immediate response to each others’ contributions. This can create a debate. “Anyone disagree with that?” “Anyone have any improvements to that suggestion?”

Breaking it down

Let’s say you have a 45 minute session. In reality that’s not one 45m session but a number of shorter sessions about various the various related themes. Don’t just have a general discussion about the previous session – break it down.

Have a list of such themes. Attach specific questions, comments, Dorothy Dixers and exercises for each theme. As you listen to speakers before your session note down any content that may be relevant to these themes.

Remember: facilitators aren’t always about warm baths – we all need a cold shower to wake us up every now and again.

Preparation for facilitators

1.            Think about your audience – who are they? what do they think? what have they got to say?

2.            Prepare your introduction / welcome and explaining of ground rules.

3.            Break the session down into various themes.

4.            Think about ways you will extract contributions for each theme beyond just asking straight questions. Consider your Dorothy Dixers, exercises, polls, handouts and slideshows.

Nothing too bad will happen.  And please – enjoy it.

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