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Tips on facilitating sessions at conferences

My previous post “Simple tips on effective public speaking, particularly at conferences” got a few responses and comments. One respondee suggested I do a follow up on facilitating sessions at conferences and meetings, which made me think.

Now, after facilitating five or so conferences and smaller meetings in the last few months, I’ve finally found a little time to think through recent experiences, and reflect on what I’ve seen go well, and badly.

So here’s a few random tips. Let me know if you think I missed anything.

We show this at the start of every conference

Overall, to deliver well for the audience, you have two choices: Either really know your stuff and be prepared to wing it a bit, and see where the conversation leads, bringing it back to core themes or tough questions. OR, do some serious preparation.

So if it’s not the first, you have to do the hard yards on the prep side, and make sure your questions are the right ones, by researching the area properly. I got this right, and wrong, recently. Lesson learned. I hope. Here’s a few more tips:

  • It’s not about you, as the facilitator. Sorry, but your ego has to handle this one. Your job is to make the focus on the speakers and what they are saying.
  • Ask the tough questions. You can be really quite provocative as long as you tell people in advance that’s what you are going to do.
  • Keep speakers/panellists to time. This is SO SO SO important. I got it wrong again recently. So then I timed them all on my phone (out of sight) and then told them I would wave at them when they had a minute left, and then interrupt them on exactly five minutes
  • Relax. Remember, everyone in the room REALLY wants you to succeed as the moderator, so if you relax and smile that helps you, and everyone else. Which leads me to the next point…
  • Use humour. Not everyone can do this. Some prefer a ‘straight bat’ with a bit of poker face, which can work. I like to use humour wherever I can to make people relax and speak their minds. The best way to learn how you might do this, is to watch stand up comedians. Good ones are the masters of this. Develop some stock lines you can always use to lighten the mood (one of mine is “if there are no questions, we can sit here in increasingly awkward silence, that’s fine for me, I’m British”) and bring them out when needed.
  • Keep your interjections short. No-one is paying to see you, your job is to keep things moving, and focus on the key questions. I get this wrong sometimes, and start adding some anecdote I shouldn’t and I usually always regret it. No problem throwing a stat or fact or claim out there, just don’t start telling war stories and rambling on. Not your, or anyone’s job.
  • Be provocative. This is easy if you tell them in advance you will play a provocateur role. Or you can do the journalist thing and say “your critics have said that…” Or “when I googled your company, I saw some claims that said…” and keep it neutral.
  • Don’t let them off the hook. If you ask a question, or an audience member does, and it’s relevant, the speakers damn well need to provide and answer. Make them do so. That’s your job.
  • Stop people from earnestly framing the challenges and then saying “and that’s why we all must collaborate”. Sustainability conferences in the US have more of this than elsewhere, even ours. I can’t tell you the number of sessions I have chaired, pen and notebook at the ready, and 15 minutes later haven’t taken a note, because they just said what we all knew, and had no solutions. There simply isn’t time for this kind of vagueness. Crack down on this immediately, in fact, do it in advance with your speakers, very clearly.
  • Interrupt people if you need to. This particularly applies to the audience. Tell them in advance you will, and you can. Then make sure each questioner or commentator has one, and only one, question or comment, and crack down on any extras. Walk around the floor if you need to, and gesture for the microphone back from waffly speakers. It’s important, and your audience appreciates it. Better one annoyed attendee than 100, in the worst case scenario.
  • Be clear to your speakers about what you want in advance. This is a tricky area. Some facilitators / moderators like to arrange long conference calls with speakers in advance to discuss sessions. In my opinion this is a mistake. Sessions can come across as overly planned and scripted. I suggest really clear session copy that describes the objectives in the programme (you can do a version that the customers don’t see all the details of), and minimising slides to 1-2 max. Then tell them the two or three points (one or two is better) you want them to cover, and that those will be the focus of your questions as moderator. Keep it simple.
  • Don’t allow speakers to break your PPT rule, if you have one. Consistency is so important. 1-2 slides or images, not text, max.
  • Q&A’s work really well if you plan them well. Consider making as many sessions as possible into Q&A’s with some advance prep as above. This is more work for you in advance, but gives so much more interactive discussion time, and allows you to bring the audience in much earlier.
  • Try to take notes as you go, and offer five or so key conclusions at the end of the session. This is really hard if you are doing Q&A’s but you can do it, it’s really helpful for the audience. Offer to distribute them afterwards.
  • Involve the audience, as early as you can, but control that. Don’t let one question that’s slightly off-piste lead to three more. Related to the point about interrupting, make sure they know to stay short, and on track with the session objectives, but do leave enough time for them. Making speakers focus on one or two key points in their opening is key to having enough time for this, particularly if you have a panel of three or four speakers (never have more than four, it doesn’t work).
  • Stop on time. Don’t over run without permission, and only if it’s an exceptional debate, and only then by a few minutes. On that note, I’ll end here.

Look forward to comments and thoughts from readers.

Meantime, check out all the free podcasts and analysis on our site here:

And here’s our plan for next year, I hope you can join us at some of these, and get involved in the debates and discussions!

How business and government can tackle modern slavery

2-3 April, London. Hosted by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Sustainable apparel: How business can drive innovation and supplier engagement

9-10 April, Amsterdam

How business can tackle modern slavery and forced labour

30 April-1 May, New York. Hosted by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

The future of food USA
21-22 May, Chicago. Hosted by Walgreens Boots Alliance
With a theme of: trust, traceability and transparency, and how business can drive food sustainability, build resilience and deliver on customer expectations

The future of food Europe
4-5 June, London
With a theme of: trust, traceability and transparency, and how business can drive food sustainability, build resilience and deliver on customer expectations

The bio-economy of energy, chemicals and materials: Does it add up?
17-18 or 25-26 June, London

How business can measure and manage climate impacts
Late June, London

How business can manage plastic footprints: innovation and single use in retail
October, Amsterdam

How business can measure and manage climate impacts
October, USA

Sustainable landscapes forum 2019
November, London

The bio-economy of energy, chemicals and materials: Does it add up?
November, USA

If you want to know more about any of these, contact me at tobias DOT webb AT

1 Comment

  1. I particularly like – It’s not about you. Attended a conference recently where one moderator took over with his own views and opinions (he was an expert in the area so prob not a great choice as moderator) followed by another who clearly didn’t know much but seemed to feel that she had to add something to the debate which just diluted the whole thing.