Conference facilitation: Seasoned pro or home-grown talent?

Conductor illustration

How you can have the best of both worlds

Great conference facilitation can make or break your event. But who should it be: an independent, seasoned facilitator hired in for the show or a member of staff with enough stage presence to lead proceedings? In fact, recent work suggests a combination of the two can work really well.

How to facilitate a conference shouldn’t become a difficult topic; after all, the definition of the verb ‘facilitate’ is to make easy. And making it easy is what I’ve been doing as a designer and facilitator of conferences and events for over 25 years.

That means making it easy for presenters to play to their strengths, making it easy for CEOs to remain statesmanlike and not have to explain where the restrooms are just before delivering their opening address, making it easy for delegates to become participants and making it easy for the conference producers and technicians to add their sparkle.

And more recently, I’ve been making it easy for staff from the client organisation to step out on stage as conference facilitators themselves.

External facilitators

External facilitators should bring years of unflappable experience to the party. They’ll be able to focus on process, not content, seamlessly link messages with a red thread and summarise key themes in an instant. They’ll be able to call on a wealth of well-rehearsed ad lib lines, be independent and challenging, even add a bit of showbiz polish when the situation demands.

What this delivers, as you can see from this video, is managers who are fired with enthusiasm by live events. You’ll always be in safe hands if you go down this route.

But external facilitators will never be seen as ‘one of us’ and may be treated with suspicion by some delegates. Also, because good facilitators make it look so easy (at least they should do!) audience members can be forgiven for thinking anyone can do it. And then, of course, there’s the perception of cost: “Why are we spending money on a fancy MC when budgets are tight?”

Internal facilitators

Well-chosen internal facilitators can have instant credibility and rapport with the audience. They’ll better understand the tensions and hot topics that exist in any business, be very familiar with recent events and understand the market. They may even be able to gently poke fun at leaders because they have the insider knowledge. And of course, they’re already on the payroll!

However, they might find it tricky to challenge business leaders because it’s politically difficult, even career-threatening. Their deep subject knowledge can sometimes see them drift towards editorialising, creating the perception of bias or a personal agenda. And when there’s a hitch, as there inevitably is in a big event, it’s the first time they’ve ever dealt with it – and it’s live in front of hundreds of their peers.

Effective conference facilitation: External coach, internal star

But it doesn’t have to be either-or. I strongly believe a combination of external facilitation expertise in the background and internal facilitation up front on the day can be a great route to success. It’s something I’ve helped clients with lately by acting as consultant and coach to their chosen internal facilitators.

This approach is based on two best-practice principles: prepare and rehearse.

In terms of preparation, you’ll need much more than an at-a-glance agenda. Instead, I insist on creating a conference walk-through document. Once signed off, it becomes the go-to source of information about the conference for everyone involved. It contains the purpose and objectives, the key points each speaker will cover, the links, the handovers, the timings, the interactivity, the technical cues and so on.

It also forms the ‘playbook’ for the facilitator; and, when that’s an internal person, it’s the focal point for the coaching I provide. My job then, as the seasoned pro, is to share my experience, tips and techniques to equip and inspire internal facilitators to look good and thrive in a live event.

Then we rehearse and rehearse and rehearse – presenters and facilitators alike – to ‘make it easy’ on the day.

And when that time comes, I’m there for the home-grown facilitator, dressed in ‘show blacks’ and hidden behind the control desk they return to after each session, helping them as the event unfolds, feeding them lines, and keeping them on time, on track and on message.

I really enjoy this role – and it works. It’d be indiscreet to share names and companies, but here’s a quote from the internal facilitator of a recent global event I supported: “Chris made a huge impact and really helped all of us deliver an even better conference. The script and the flow were great and well prepared and made our jobs so much easier.”

Delivering benefits

The benefits of effective conference facilitation are clear. There’s a neat summary of what it brings in the excellent blog The Competent Collaborator:

  • Improved delivery of the meeting outcomes
  • Effective use of the time dedicated to the meeting
  • Professional management of disruptive or inappropriate behaviours
  • Enhanced participation by leaders, free to contribute to content, freed up of managing process
  • Greater levels of interactivity, leading to higher levels of ownership of the outcomes.

Whichever route you choose, it’s our job to do the hard work – behind the scenes in some cases – to make all this easy.

Read more about Axiom’s approach to conference facilitation.