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Conference facilitation: Seasoned pro or home-grown talent?

By 2nd November 2023November 21st, 2023Blog, Developing communication skills
Conductor illustration

How you can have the best of both worlds

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

The definition of the verb ‘facilitate’ is to make easy. And making it easy is what we’ve been doing as event designers and conference facilitators for approaching 30 years.

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

We also make it easy for staff from client organisations 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, is participants 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 can sometimes 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, saving their business money, but potentially putting the success of the entire event at risk.

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.

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.

If you are going to go down the route of harnessing internal resource, some skills development and coaching will set them up for success.

Effective conference facilitation: External coach, internal star

But it doesn’t have to be either-or. A combination of external facilitation expertise in the background and internal facilitation up front on the day can be a great route to success. We’ve helped many clients by quietly coaching their chosen internal facilitators behind the scenes, and often at the live event itself.

This approach is based on three best-practice principles: prepare, rehearse and react.

In terms of preparation, you’ll need much more than an at-a-glance agenda. Instead, create 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 we provide. Then, as the seasoned professionals it is our job to share 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, we are there for the home-grown facilitator, dressed in ‘show blacks’ and hidden behind the control desk they return to after each session, helping them react as the event unfolds, feeding them lines, and keeping them on time, on track and on message.

Delivering benefits

The benefits of effective conference facilitation are clear:

  • Improved delivery of the meeting outcomes
  • Effective use of the time dedicated to the meetings
  • Professional management of disruptive or inappropriate behaviours
  • Enhanced participation by leaders, free to contribute to content, freed up of managing process
  • Remarkable levels of energy and infectious enthusiasm
  • 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. Contact us today!