Facilitator’s Notebook: Star Speakers

We are just going into a week of facilitating learning and conversation activities and no doubt we will have some learning to share on this blog. Here is the first post for the Facilitator’s Notebook:

Lights, Camera, Action: Working with Star Speakers

Here is a lesson that I absolutely need to learn as a workshop facilitator: No matter how well you brief a plenary speaker who is a subject matter expert, no matter how much you discuss their presentation and the key points, or even how frank you can be with them about keeping it short and to the point – if you give them X (pick any number from 10 to 100) minutes for their presentation, they will go over the time.

So what, you might ask, is an additional 10 minutes here and there? Well, when you have 3 speakers on a panel who do that, that is 30 minutes over time, and where do you make up that time? In the discussion. So instead of a nice 45 minute discussion where the audience can actually share and exchange their opinions on the topic, and ground their learning in their own experience, you are down to 15 minutes. One or two participants with two-part questions will finish that off nicely.

What is it about standing in front of a rapt audience (or even a few rapt people in the front row) that woos our speakers to the limelight? That puts stars in their eyes and genuinely compels them to put on a really good show for their audience? And how can we manage all that good intent as Facilitators?

Short of creating a scene, cutting someone off mid-sentence, or sending out the gaff, there is not much you can do. Obviously if it is extreme, then extreme measures are called for (see previous sentence). However, normally it is not extreme, it is just those extra 10 minutes that you really wanted to use to get people thinking, connecting and conversing about the topic. Here are a few things you might try:

  • Telling people they have 15 minutes to speak and building 20 minutes into the schedule (maybe speakers expect this and that is why they do it? Where did they learn that?);
  • Using timecards (green card – 10 minutes to go, yellow card – 5 minutes to go, red card – STOP)(AND some speakers are very skilled at focusing on a different part of the room than where you are wildly waving your cards);
  • Appointing a chair for the panel that is not afraid to tell people to finish up and can do it diplomatically (Chairs can also, however, be tempted into the same limelight with lengthy introductory and final remarks);
  • Designing a session to follow a plenary that is either expendable or contractible (like coffee break and lunch – make sure that they have been allocated enough time to absorb this eventuality, otherwise prepare for revolution);
  • Asking people to make their presentations ahead of time online, or by paper and then having them present to only take questions from the audience (you have to manage participants expectations to get away with this)
  • Don’t include any plenary speakers, or at least don’t stack them up – stick with one keynote speaker if you wish to have one (this is actually a serious option);

Frankly, designing your workshop to absolutely account for this, and being able to effectively manage with run overs is probably the best place to start, especially if you have an incredibly engaging speaker. It is a pity to cut off a unique learning opportunity for people, and a good facilitator will know when to let things run over. Plan for it in as many ways as possible, especially by allocating substantial discussion times (even after they get cut down) so that this critical part of the learning process is always there to help people follow your star.

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