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Complex Event? Anatomy of a Facilitator’s Notebook

I recently facilitated an enormously complex 2-day event, with over 100 people (numbers shifted hourly), multiple process owners, and a continuously evolving agenda. The more exciting things got, the more interventions were sought (e.g. seat on a panel, announcement, chair role, changing speakers, changing titles, etc.) The nature of the event meant that each request needed to be accommodated if possible without jeopardizing the overall coherence.

AND this was an incredibly important international environmental governance event, and I needed to be able to turn down the volume on the pulsating process enough so that I could listen, and be most effective in helping guide the discussions.

I knew it would be like this, this was a preparatory event for a much larger week-long political conference (600+ participants), with high stakes and even more moving parts. So in going into this exhilarating environment as the main process holder, I needed to make sure that I had a hand on everything possible and could find it quickly. Being awake, well rested, and centred in my appreciative frame, was necessary but not sufficient. I had a stack of paper, emails, and last minutes instructions and changes that made up the body of input materials.

What I am about to write might seem totally basic, and still I wanted to record this, as often I go into events with my pink labelled GTD manila folder with papers loose inside. Once at the event, I just use my Facilitator’s Agenda and my loose process notes, prepared session-by-session. I write them on a rectangular coloured Facilitation card, one per session. I use it to prepare notes for three fields: Preparation, Materials, and Script.

This time there was just too much stuff and it was still coming in fast and furious. It took me about 3 hours – I put together a Facilitator’s Notebook for myself to help me avoid shuffling through papers or worse, forgetting something critical while standing in front of a hundred people.

Facilitator’s Notebook

Two ring notebook
12 Dividers

Additional Materials: 
Hole punch (which I took with me so I could add things on the spot)
Label machine (mine is a Brother P-touch 65)
Day-glow post-its
Facilitators rectangular cards (different colours)

1. I labelled the folder and then all the tabs, so they would be easy to read and look good to me and others (thanks to David Allen for my addiction to labelling things);
2. For tabs I used the following fields:

  • Agenda: This was first as it was my main guide. This included my Facilitation agenda, and also the Participants agenda so I could see how things were framed for participants (and how much info they had on each session) I also made for myself a one page snapshot agenda – which was essentially a matrix overview of the 2 days with the timing, and session titles, so I could see the overall logic and flow and communicate that to participants (hard to do from a 13-page Facilitators Agenda). I also included it in a blank page for notes, to include any last minute changes to the agenda.
  • Session-by-Session tabs: I had one called “Open”, then Sessions 1-5, then “Close”. Behind each of these I extracted that appropriate section of the Facilitators Agenda and reprinted it, so I could see the coherence of that particular session to introduce it. After that I had the bios of the speakers (if there were any, and there almost always were from 1 to 7!) After that I included the background papers that were being used and referred to in that session. I printed them 2 pages per sheet recto-verso so they wouldn’t take up so much space. I used this on the plane to prepare myself, so the papers were marked up with my own notes and highlighted with essential points pulled out again for briefing purposes. I also included copies of any templates or job aids that we would be using in that session.
  • Participants: Here I had the composition of the participants groups in numbers, as well as the Participants List.
  • Notes: Under this section I had 5 pages of blank lined paper and I used it to take process notes under headings like: “For next time” and “overall”, as I needed to write a short report afterwards with suggestions on what worked and what could be different. I didn’t want to have to sift through everything to find those, and there were plenty of free moments during the event when I could jot down ideas here.
  • Logistics: This section had filed all the logistics information I had been given, everything from my own flight and hotel details, participants logistics information note, to the layout of the room. Again more was added to this section once I arrived.
  • TOR: In this section I included my own TOR and a copy of the contract, for reference.

3. On site, I used the rectangular Facilitators cards to write my script for each session. I actually used different colours for each session so I could grab them and not mix them up as there were so many of them. I also had a blank one of that colour to keep in my hand to write notes, such as the speakers list and announcements etc. I used the hole punch to put them in the right section before using them, and then put them back in the book when I was done so they were not flying around in my bag.

Finally, the post-it notes came in handy for last minute notes and reminders, which I could stick anywhere and make sure they stuck out of the edges of the book so I could find them again quickly.

The whole idea was to minimise the “noise” of extraneous paper, notes etc. by organizing it in a logical way so that I can listen and help the group most effectively. It also helps me to have a system that can grow organically (thus the hole punch in my bag),  and helps me not lose important information and changes (e.g. writing them on a slip of paper and forgetting it in my pocket). I simply had the book open on my designated desk and could walk back and get anything I needed or add things as they came up.

So simple, and perhaps you do something this already and have some learning to share? I have been making these Facilitator’s Notebooks too for some time, I dissect them (sorry, perhaps pushing this metaphor a bit too far there) after the event which is what I was doing just now, when I thought I would pause and look again at the anatomy of my notebook…

1 reply
  1. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    I use a similar system for complex events I am participating in…where I have several roles in different sessions over the course of a week or two. I usually us a plastic folder that has several transparent plastic folders inside (I have an old one that I re-use). I use old printer label or tabs of paper and tape to label each of the plastic folders like you did the dividers, and take extras for on the spot additions. We even used the system to organise our really vital documents to bring to Africa.

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