Avoid Canned Speeches: Grow Facilitation Organically

By Kevin E. O’ConnorKevin E O'Connor

Farmers and chefs know that we love to eat foods described as “organic,” because we know it means natural, pure and without pesticides. Most people have never seen advertisements for an “organic meeting” or one featuring an “artificial speaker,” yet meeting attendees will tell you that interactive games feel “stale,” group discussion questions seem “generic,” or many speakers give a “canned” speech. When done well, an audience views facilitation—defined as, “the act of productively making collaboration easier for an audience”—as a normal, important conversation. When you fearlessly facilitate, the audience will know that they are in good hands.

It’s easier and less expensive to bring organic content to your next meeting than you might think. Just like organic foods, organic facilitation is less known, healthier in the long run and takes time to perfect.

1. Organic facilitation is less well-known. Most organically grown food is less well-known than other brands; often it isn’t branded at all. The same holds for the activities designed for great facilitation. While “off-the-shelf” games, case studies and role-plays can certainly be used to help people learn and apply concepts, use caution. Today’s audiences quickly figure out when they are being manipulated to employ a strategy or system. When you develop customized discussion topics, surprise interventions and audience involvement from scratch, you stand a better chance of engaging people. You also bring the wonderful element of surprise to them.

Presenters today often confuse noise, repetition and ego for useful, engaging content. Traditional speakers say, “Audiences won’t want to participate,” “Facilitation is too hard!” or “All they want to do is listen.” The experienced speaker, though, knows that it’s nearly impossible to connect with a group of seated people in a windowless room by talking at them for several hours and then expecting them to learn!

2. Organic facilitation is healthier in the long run. Fewer pesticides and carefully-supervised growing conditions make organic foods healthier. The common tomato is a clear example; bright red full tomatoes from your neighbor’s garden carry more nutrients than the pinkish, waxy imports grown in a commercial greenhouse. When involvement—led by a skilled facilitator with a watchful eye—occurs naturally, conversation becomes more natural, productive and fun.

At your next meeting, consider being the skilled farmer who tends to the participants, watches them closely, and arranges them in specific ways. For a meeting with a small group, arrange attendees in a circle with no tables (yes, this is possible!) and begin the discussion at the point of their pain (e.g. current stressors, challenges, or number-one priorities).

3. Organic facilitation takes time to perfect. Fearless facilitators see perfection as the appearance of imperfection. When a speaker is too polished or perfect, audiences see the presenter as unapproachably distant. Furthermore, because traditional training emphasizes “giving” over “probing,” these sessions omit the audience’s innate brilliance, experiences and contributions. There are many ways to enhance and perfect the flow of organic discussion.

Solicit “burning questions” (i.e. what people most want to learn after their time with you). Because outcomes are vital for the meeting planner and participants, a good set of burning questions, gathered at the start of the meeting, will create an informal agenda. Meet, address, or answer those questions and you will have one happy audience! Form small groups to discuss or solve a problem and let them talk to one another. Toward the end of your allotted time, pull out one question at a time and ask, “What did we say about this one?” Don’t answer it yourself, but have them do so. Write what they say on a flip chart, and have them explain it to one another. They know more about how it hit them than you do, and it is a great way for you to discover what outcomes they really received. Ask how they will apply the skills that they just learned tomorrow, at their next team meeting and in one year.

Give your content in targeted chunks or “lecturettes” of no more than 8-12 minutes before you ask the audience to talk again with one another. If you believe that you need to talk for 45-60 minutes, know that you have lost them by the 13th minute! They may appear to be paying attention, but they are certainly thinking elsewhere.

Revise your internal mindset: Move your audiences in a direction that will engage their astute listening and creative thinking on the spot. It will not always come easily; it takes time and many imperfect attempts to discover the timing and appropriateness of the involvement.

Acknowledge what few professionals allow themselves: it is okay, and often preferred, to be imperfect and to go with the flow. Know that your audience is there for the experience together and not just for the experience with you.

When you take the stage, call the meeting to order or begin your presentation, remember that engagement is always more important than the notes that the audience takes. At so many conferences, people fill legal pads with ideas, yet rarely apply them to their everyday work. When you facilitate a dialogue that produces engagement, learning and partnership, you build connections and develop influence and you help them begin to implement which is the goal of the meeting anyway!

Kevin E. O’Connor, CSP (kevin@kevinoc.com), is a facilitator, medical educator, and author. He focuses on teaching scientific and technical professionals how to influence and lead teams of their former peers. He presents and coaches over 175 times per year around the world to corporations, individuals, associations and non-profits about how to move teams from conflict to consensus. His latest book, “Fearless Facilitation: The Ultimate Field Guide for Engaging (and Involving!) Your Audience,” is available in bookstores now and online at kevinoc.com.