How to emcee or facilitate a session
The call comes unexpectedly. It’s the event organiser:
“Would you mind facilitating a session at the upcoming event? No big deal. A few speakers, some intros, some Q&A. You know the deal. Cool?”
“Sure. Why not.”
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 microphone-loving, limelight-hugging extrovert not attend my upcoming Presentation Savvy workshop. 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.
Make the speakers comfortable. This might mean sorting out their audio-visual needs with the techie, pouring them some water or going over the format. What the speakers do not want to hear is: “Oh I don’t really know, I’m just doing this as a favour.”
Start and finish on time. It’s tempting to wait for stragglers but don’t. It sends a bad message to all concerned and is plain rude to those who have turned up. Starting late means that your speakers will be cut short, Q&A time will be sacrificed or you’ll run over time. No option is OK.
Get the show on the road: welcome people, explain any truly essential housekeeping and more importantly establish ground rules so people know why they are there and what is expected.
Re-establish the overall theme or session topic, intro the speakers and outline the format.
If you want audience participation (we sure hope you do) be clear that participation is expected and that the audience has huge influence on how worthwhile the session will be.
If organisers insist on housekeeping – sponsor thankyous, exhibitor plugs, dietary options etc – leave it to the end of the session. Mentioning this stuff at the beginning saps energy and wastes precious time.
Introduce speakers your own way: this means doing more than reading the given introduction in the program. Add some observations of your own. Perhaps you have some observation about the person’s employer, expertise or have worked with them before. If so, draw on it.
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. Less is more.
Encourage contributions from the floor: 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.
Gains contributions in ways beyond speaking such as writing notes and having audience members have short one-to-one conversations.
The facilitator or emcee should always be ready to ask the first question of the speaker.
Keep the bastards honest. a good 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.
Tricks of the trade for more contributions
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, 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.
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. Booze works better.
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?”
Keep them awake: you need to inject energy so that the audience feels awake, engaged and included. I regularly ask audiences that have been sitting for too long to spend 60 seconds standing and stretching to reinvigorate.
Keeps discussion things on track tangents and conversational cul de sacs must be identified and corrected. The facilitator is in control. Never let one person dominate.
Keep speakers to time in a manner that you agree upon beforehand. A bell, a nod from the front row – whatever works.
Nothing too bad will happen. (This isn’t brain surgery.) Enjoy it.