Audiences now demand more opportunities to engage and contribute at conferences. They want more interactivity and relevance from speakers. Hiring a professional facilitator who is well-briefed and clear about the meeting objectives, can make a significant improvement to the delegate experience and the meetings’ outcome.

Before any briefing takes place, you need to fully understand the differences between an MC/compere/host and a true facilitator.

  • A facilitator can fulfil the role as compere, but a compere rarely has the necessary skillset to be an effective facilitator. If you are told they can be briefed the night before when they get on-site, they are absolutely not a facilitator!
  • Their fee must include adequate briefing time – at no extra cost.
  • A compere can be brought in after all scripts and presentations have been finalised. By contrast, its highly recommended you book the facilitator at the beginning of the planning and content creation stage. An experienced facilitator can help you transform the meeting design whilst simultaneously building trust with your senior team, develop a deep knowledge of your desired outcomes and the challenges you face, and absorb invaluable knowledge about your organisation that will help build credibility with your audience.
  • A conference facilitator’s role is to be ‘constructive’, to help build a bridge between the on-stage contributors and the audience. They should be the conscience of the audience at all times. Just because radio and TV interviews are invariably confrontational, that is not always appropriate for conferences. Make sure your chosen facilitator knows and respects this, especially if they are broadcasters. An effective conference is not designed like a radio or TV show.

The more ‘business’ focussed your meeting is, the more important it is NOT to hire a celebrity who can sometimes distract attention away from the purpose of the meeting. It’s your meeting. Your people need to be the stars of your show!

Allocate more time for your briefing than you think you need. Involve the most senior stakeholders in the briefing. Be open to having an initial conversation that may appear to be going nowhere for the first 30 minutes or so. Have patience. Discuss with your facilitator in as much detail as possible, why you are holding the meeting “We always have an annual conference.” is not a good answer!

These are useful questions to open up the briefing discussion:

  • How will you know when the conference has been a success?
  • What do you want the audience to think, feel or do differently after the meeting?
  • What thoughts, feelings (or fears) will the audience bring with them into the conference room?
  • What else is currently pre-occupying their minds right now?
  • What do you want them to hear from you?
  • What do THEY want to hear from you? (this question is often more important than what you want or need to communicate).
  • Tell the facilitator what you want to achieve. But resist the temptation to instruct him or her HOW it should be done. After they’ve had some time to reflect, a good facilitator will offer you a variety of options, many of which you may not have thought of.
  • During your conversation be aware of how many searching/insightful questions the facilitator asks you and your colleagues. Avoid anyone who keeps saying “Hmm.. that’s interesting. Tell me more.” They may be bluffing with NO idea what anyone is talking about! You, and more importantly, your senior colleagues need to feel comfortable with the facilitator’s understanding of your business, your challenges and your objectives.
  • The best facilitators don’t need you to supply them with questions. Facilitators are particularly adept at steering discussions to your ultimate destination without being constrained by a detailed script.
  • If you want meaningful discussions – don’t over-pack the agenda with too many speakers. You must give your meeting room to breathe.
  • If any of your top-team are poor speakers, don’t put them (or the audience) through such torture. Get the facilitator to interview them instead. Find out what the speaker needs to say – then let the facilitator draw out that content in a more relaxed environment. It also adds variety to the event by breaking up a ‘conveyor belt’ of Powerpoint presentations.
  • If you are using event tech of any sort, ask how familiar the facilitator is with the technology you have chosen. Set aside time for detailed step-by-step run-throughs on-site. Rehearsing in front of an audience is never a good idea.

Consider involving your audience as part of the briefing. For internal conferences especially, consider sending your colleagues an email about 10 days before the conference explaining that you are bringing in an outside and independent facilitator to draw out of the speakers and the issues that are most important to the audience.

Invite them to supply the facilitator (to their email address – not to your company) with the answers to questions such as: “If you could change anything at your organisation, what would it be?”, “What do you like most about working for the company?” And “What questions would you most like answered by the executive team and speakers?”

Explain that all responses will be treated confidentially and anonymity is guaranteed. Although add that the facilitator will discuss the broad topic areas with the company ahead of the conference. Keep the email brief. Broad questions such as those above can provide a facilitator with priceless insights about the mind-set of your audience.

The number of responses will indicate the level of engagement. Are the overall questions ‘big picture’/ strategic’? Or are they about more detailed operational issues? What people generally like about the company provides insights into their well-being, culture and how well they work together.

If the same topics come up about what needs to change – address those issues up-front right at the very beginning of your meeting. Be seen to listen to your people. If those issues are complex, a trained facilitator will know how to navigate that discussion. Dealing with what’s on the minds of your audience in this way will also send a clear message that your meeting is REAL – not just a propaganda exercise. You’ll find that your audience will then engage more fully with any event tech you’re using.

Facilitators also know that the most successful meetings are not just about ‘content’. Experienced facilitators are always highly attuned to the ‘energy’ within a conference room. They instinctively know how and when to shift gears to keep engagement levels high. They will also bring the event to life by pumping energy into the room – without coming across as a game-show host.

Do all the above and your speakers and contributors will feel safe working with someone they can trust. And once the facilitator is happy they have been fully briefed, I urge you not to micro-manage us!

Roy Sheppard is a specialist facilitator of large conferences and small, strategic ‘C’ suite meetings.