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During a recent four-day conference, we facilitated more than 20 speakers and varying presentations, each citing distinctive topics ranging from embracing social responsibility to utilizing Google® Hangouts for small groups. Participants applauded our approach, and we decided to share it here to help you become a more effective facilitator.

How to Facilitate Speakers and Conference Presentations

Challenges Associated with Facilitating Speakers and Conference Presentations

As observed recently at a PMI (ie, Project Management Institute) event, speakers are typically preachy and not facilitative. Which means more moving of lips and less active listening, resulting in less audience response and interaction. Session challenges include:

  • Lack of any conflict to resolve, which makes for a boring session
  • Unclear deliverable (i.e. “increased understanding” doesn’t have enough urgency for most participants)
  • Uncertain method (preach, Q&A, applause—there is nothing compelling or consensual about this approach)
  • Lack of a glossary and unclear use of terms

Begin with the End in Mind When You Facilitate Speakers and Conference Presentations

Begin with the conference purpose, scope, and objectives (ie, deliverables) clearly stated and mounted on large format posters throughout the week for immediate reference. Two other preparatory sheets which should be mounted and clearly visible to all are the Simple Agenda and appropriate Ground Rules (eg, silence the electronic leashes).

Over the course of multiple presentations, some speakers will encourage questions during their presentations and others will ask participants to defer questions until their presentation have completed. In either case, insist that questions be directed through the facilitator with clear reflection back to both the audience and the speaker. This enables you to repeat the question to ensure that all participants have heard it. Also, verify with confirmation that you “got it right” as you distill questions into fewer words using less commentary. After each speaker’s response, provide reflection as required in Active Listening, and distill their response into the fewest words, using their terms, that directly addresses the question.

Focused Q & A for Speaker Presentations

During conference presentations, most Q & A (ie, questions and answers) revolve around clarity and, as facilitators, you must strive to ensure clear understanding. But don’t stop there. Further challenge the topic, as appropriate, with questions about “anything substantive” that may have been missing. If you ask a smart group of people “Is anything missing?”, the answer is invariably “yes” because there is ALWAYS something else. Therefore, stress the concept of “substantive” or “critical” or “important” to prevent the discussion from drifting. Next, seek for general agreement to ensure the participants can support the primary takeaways from each of the conference presentations, and that no one insists that something is highly erroneous or blatantly wrong.

During Q & A, carefully document the Key Findings, as emphasized by participants. After each Q & A, transfer the focus back to the conference purpose and deliverables.

In one of the conferences we facilitated, the deliverables were to provide answers to three discrete questions. We asked participants to link their new knowledge and understanding from presentations back to the three questions and, one at a time, asked them what it meant by re-phrasing their input as a direct response to one of the originally posted questions. Two of the three primary questions demanded future recommendations or actions. Which brings us to…

For each session, capture actions that need to take place after the conference has ended in support of the conference purpose. Another way to phrase this question that works very effectively is . . .

“Now that we have heard or learned (summary of participants’ Key Findings), what will you do different tomorrow?” — Facilitator

Bad Habits Die Hard

Nearly everyone conducts a question and answer session when new evidence or information has been unveiled. Typically, we then give the speaker a round of applause and take a break or dismiss. Apparently, the assumption is that we all heard the same thing or that our interpretation will automatically lead to consensual changes and coherent behavior. Such is not always the case. In fact, sometimes meeting participants take off in opposite directions based on their interpretation of new content.

Consensual Content Management

Structure of the Trivium (or, Taleb’s Triad)

The Trivium Helps Facilitate Speakers and Conference Presentations

Some will note the basic structure below follows a strong sense of will, wisdom, and activity. Ranging from Plato’s Trivium (i.e., logic, rhetoric, and grammar) to a Use Case (ie, input, process, output)—simple structure follows the basic flow of WHY before WHAT before HOW. To develop consensual understanding, deploy the following structure. Especially compel audience participation in steps 2 and 3 below; that is . . .

  1. FACT (or, evidence or example or something significant the speaker has contributed—the WHAT part)
  2. IMPLICATION (ask SO WHAT? from the audience separately for each FACT captured above)
  3. RECOMMENDATION (ask NOW WHAT? (we should do about it) from the audience separately for each IMPLICATION captured above.

The method begins optimally before the speaker’s presentation has begun. Namely, ask the listeners to be on the look out for (take-aways), why we should care (implications), and what we may want to do different that will make us more efficient or effective (recommendations). Speaker presentations should stimulate participants about what they can do different. Therefore, conduct a review session with the same logic, breaking down the “many-to-many” into a clear path of manageable takeaways:

  1. Solicit the take-aways such as facts, evidence, or examples newly learned by the meeting participants. This list provides the WHAT factors.
  2. For each WHAT factor from above (ie, one at a time), develop consensual understanding about the implications and why we care. Strive to obtain objective measurements that properly scale the gravity of each implication. This list provides the SO WHAT factors.
  3. For each factor (ie, one at a time), facilitate consensual understanding about what changes in our lives, what we should do different—develop recommendations based on the implications rather the facts. This list of new behaviors is why we took the time and money to listen to the speaker—it comprises a list of NOW WHATs.

Wrap-up and Close Your Conference Presentations Effectively

Be disciplined about documenting their comments. Finish with MG RUSH‘s four steps of an effective close:

    1. Review and confirm documented findings and actions
    2. Manage the Parking Lot for any open issues
    3. Conduct FAST’s Guardian of Change to agree on what participants’ will tell others they accomplished during the conference
    4. At minimum, lead a Plus/ Delta to find out what worked and what could be improved.


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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