The chemistry of magical facilitation (2b) – And play more with the BOSSY HERALD!


Participants: Who are they? What are they coming for? (credits: ILRI)

Participants: Who are they? What are they coming for? (credits: ILRI)

In the second part of this second chapter on the chemistry of magical (event) facilitation, I will examine the attendance (the participants), the location and the dynamics of the event, the other three crucial elements to make the HERALD play for you, as well as the matter at hand: the content.

Attendance (the participants)

The people that participate to your event are perhaps the most important and delicate part behind the success (or failure) of your entire event because you can prepare and mould every other bit of the event, but not your participants.

So when looking at your attendance, think about: presence, profile and relation (both now and after the event).

Presence of participants
Presence relates both to their physical and to their emotional/intellectual presence.

First of all, you need the physical presence of your participants. How many are planning to come? How many are effectively coming? There are always last minute cancellations or problems… Knowing the approximate number at earliest will help you design the workshop and find most appropriate facilitation approaches, methods and tools – and a venue that can host them all.

Secondly, what really motivates them to attend the event? Did they come on their own volition or were they sent to ‘represent’ their organisation?  Were they sent ‘to be trained’ on something? You need participants that emotionally or intellectually connect with the agenda (or with other participants) so they are interested and willing to learn and do something during the event.

In addition, what might be their ‘secret agenda? Some consultants come to events to sell their services (which is fair enough but it helps knowing this upfront), others come just to find out who is in a network etc. Knowing what your participants are in it for is not easy but it makes your event easier to design and the dynamics you shape straightforward too.

Ideally you end up with active, motivated, curious, knowledgeable, keen on sharing, respectful, humble participants – the recipe for their learning and interaction. They have to play the game of the event and should be happy to do so.

The selection of participants – particularly for training courses – is crucial in this regard. The worst case scenario is if you end up with people sent to the event without any personal interest (n)or prior information about it: you then usually end up with a very difficult event (because participants are not motivated) or a rather ineffective event (because beyond the event, the persons are very likely not to bring anything back in their (net)work). If you can, help select the people that come over; if you can, include an exercise where the profile and the aspirations of your crowd becomes more obvious.

What is the profile of your participants?
Once you have participants, you need to understand who they really are:

  • What country do they come from? What country are they working in? Do you know about their cultural background and are there any specific things you need to keep in mind (in relation to ease or difficulty in public speaking, specific rituals, degree of formality etc.)?
  • Do they feel comfortable with the language(s) used in the event?
  • Are they self-employed? Do they represent an organisation – thus perhaps an organisational mandate?
  • Are they men or women (I recently ended up facilitating a workshop for 45 participants of which only 2 were women!!)?
  • Are they junior or senior? If the latter, can they actually move, see and hear well?
  • What decision-making power do they have? This might affect your potential to draw plans and assign responsibilities, if that is part of the plans.
  • How high are they in their hierarchy and how much should you pay attention to that hierarchy? I, for one, always try to bring down hierarchical barriers in the workshops I facilitate, but sometimes you cannot avoid the cultural sensitivities to prestige and seniority.
  • Crucially: how knowledgeable are they about the topic / focus of the event? How much do they know about it and how much do they have to say something about it because they are ‘experts’ (it always helps to find out who are the resource persons because they might take a lot of time to speak publicly)?
  • Are they introverts or extroverts? One doesn’t facilitate the same way for both groups – as suggested in this blog post.
  • Do they tend to agree or disagree? There are natural ‘devil’s advocates’ which can greatly help but can also disrupt the dynamics you set, recognise it upfront.
  • How big of an ego do they have – who might be the ‘difficult material’ to play with here?


Relations (before, during and after the event)

How much do participants know and engage with each other before, during and after the event?

  • How much do they already know each other?
  • Do they come from the same institutions or different ones? If from the same institution, do they come from the same (e.g. country) office?
  • Are they all working on the same initiative?
  • Do they have similar or different professional functions? In other words is this an audience of peers, which allows you to assume they share some jargon and approaches?
  • Do they all speak the same language?
  • How much of a common culture do they share?
  • Is there a hierarchy among them and should it matter in this workshop?
  • Are there tensions among them?
  • Do they need to develop strong relationships during the event because they will work together afterwards?
  • Can you build engagement before the event e.g. by means of online discussions, a phone conference, reactions to a blog, sharing their personal online profile etc.?
  • What follow-up activities might bring (some of) these people together again?
Once you know who you’re dealing with, it becomes much easier to know which approaches to use or to avoid.
Location (the venue)
Pick your venue carefully (credits: Dave Murr/FlickR)

Pick your venue carefully (credits: Dave Murr/FlickR)

This is an often overlooked aspect and yet it can have so much impact on an event positively (usually without participants noticing) or negatively (usually with participants noticeably complaining about it) .

From the participants’ perspective, it helps a lot when the venue is: quiet; open, with a lot of space (not confined, which drives claustrophobic participants crazy) and can anyway easily host the amount of attending participants; located in a beautiful area, particularly for a retreat where people need to find peace of mind and inspiration; possesses an outdoor space, even a forest or a beach, where you might want to organise some activities too; has enough natural light – or a great artificial lighting system – to not tire them too quickly.

From the facilitator’s perspective, all the above applies, but it’s also important that the venue: is modular, with tables and chairs that can be rearranged at will (unlike conference venues with translation facilities and fixed desks chained to one another – as we know that the administration of chairs matters a lot!), doesn’t have pillars blocking the sight; has walls that can easily be used to pin sheets and cards etc.; has extra space, possibly other rooms for break-out groups or spectrum exercises or energisers thtat require space – outside facilities are even better if the venue (and weather!) allows; has great acoustics (do you need a microphone?); has a good internet connection and all other facilities required: video projector and screen, laser pointer, flipchart and sheets, markers, colour cards, post-it notes, translating equipment if required, conference audio system or mini speakers, microphones etc.

Once that is checked, you can think about the final bit before – and influencing your choice of – facilitation approaches: the dynamics.

Dynamics (the conversation style)

You can decide to stimulate a certain conversation dynamics for your entire workshop (and for each session, related to a facilitation method) so what kind of conversation dynamics do you really want to encourage for your event?

  • Is it an exploratory event, where you want everyone to question openly, blue-sky, brainstorm and unearth new possibilities?
  • Is it an informational event, where you want participants to learn more about a given issue?
  • Is it a vocational event, where you want participants to learn new know-how for their work – i.e. is it a training event?
  • Is it a reactive event, where you want them all to give their opinions about, criticise or question a specific event, a document, a proposal, a law, an idea, a movement etc.?


In addition: Is it a meant to be a productive (co-creating) event, where you hope that participants will come up with a specific output at the end or does the conversation matter more than anything? Do you want participants to argue or to agree with each other? Arguing can really push boundaries further but can also cringe relationships, while agreeing builds relationships but might lead to stagnant thinking. Improvisation theatre’s ‘Yes and approach’ might be a good ‘in-between’ perhaps (see more about ‘Yes And’ in the video at the bottom of part 1 of this blog series)?

Of course, in practice an event tends to borrow to many or all of these dynamics, but overall your event itself probably has a major inclination towards one of these dynamics. Be aware of and perhaps even take control of it as it informs your flow (read more about the flow in part 2 of this blog series). And if you are not sure, just give it a try, go with the flow, let it be. You might fail but no great person in history ever just had successes and it is totally liberating to try out new approaches…

Now on to the matter of the event…

What are we talking about? The content!

What's your content then? Not all of it can be planned like this (Credits: ByronNewMedia/FlickR)

What's your content then? Not all of it can be planned like this (Credits: ByronNewMedia/FlickR)

Finally, assuming you have an overall focus for the event, how are you going to source content matter to chew on. Remember: process and content are the two wings of your event bird. Too much content and not enough process means potentially a terribly ineffective and boring event; but too much process and no content means everyone’s really wasting their time.

Where does content come from?
It can come from previous work (publications, reports, films, previous workshop) and ideally should include different formats (written, video, audio) to cater for different learning styles (see more on this in learning cycles basics and on ‘what is learning’). This is usually a key source for technical events – although again overloading too much content into your event usually means less time and space for interaction and leads to this

But a much more powerful source of content comes from event interactions themselves:

  • From questions that are raised by participants. Questions are particularly powerful as they do not close conversations but open them up to other areas. The art of powerful questions can be a great guide in this.
  • From conversations that take place inside the event – as part of the sessions – and outside (it can be useful to ask participants what their reflections are after a coffee break or at the beginning of the day). One of the key objectives of an interactive event is to precisely elicit that content from on-site conversations;
  • From the process documentation and social reporting taking place and unfolding conversations with the outside world: social reporters tweet or blog about their reflections or observations about the event, intriguing statements or strong quotes etc. They put the word from the event out to a wider arena. Both this content created on the side of the event and their interactions with outsiders can feed the event with interesting questions and comments that provide more, interesting content.


Your content will keep on morphing throughout the event. And it’s probably for the better. So long as you keep your objectives/outcomes in mind. With all these elements in mind, you are now ready to think about which facilitation methods will be useful – which is the object of the next post in this series.

The presentation below, ‘Organizing effective events and conversations‘ summarises a number of the aspects touched upon here.

Related blog posts:

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