Facilitating Large Meetings

A grouping of more than ten people who want to discuss issues requires a different style of facilitation than committee meetings or lectures.

A typical committee or business meeting includes fewer than ten people and typically drives toward acheiving one to three goals. These goals might include sharing the status of an on-going project, developing a recommendation for decision makers, or deciding on a course of action. Effective meetings require planning, coordination and purpose. Effective meetings stay on point and adhere to the publicized agenda. Effective meetings are summarized in minutes.

Large gatherings are different in a number of ways. These gatherings tend to be one-way communication, like lectures, with time set aside for questions at the end or multi-faceted discussions intended to surface various point of view. They tend to focus on one subject, but can be expanded to focus on many.

If you are facilitating a large multi-faceted discussion intent on surfacing various points of view certain minimal structures are critical to your success.

  1. Introduce the Topic(s)
  2. Address Maintenance Issues
  3. Ensure Everyone Understands the Topic(s)
  4. Subdivide the Conversation
  5. Re-address the purpose of the meeting

Introduce the topic or topics of discussion. People who thought you were planning to address something else can leave at this point.

Address maintenace issues separately. Any gathering of people, for any duration needs to understand a few basic things about the gathering. Devote less than five mintues to this. These are things not open for discussion.

You are informing the group about hygene issues, e.g.

  • bathroom at the end of the hall on the left
  • food and drink at the back of the meeting space
  • facilities people have badges

You are also discussing the mechanics of the meeting, e.g.

  • please raise your hand to ask a question
  • we will (or will not) be taking breaks as a group
  • you will (or will not) have a chance to share your opinion with the group
  • these are the activites and times planned for this meeting

Ensure everyone understands the topic and the reason for gathering to discuss it. For example, “We are here to discuss Situation X and possible solutions.” If people disagree with the description of Situation X, you may need to take time to hear divergent views of the situation before moving to the discussion of possible solutions. You, the facilitator, get to decide how much time you will devote to this discussion and how you will describe the situation to discuss. If people want to discuss a different situation they may do so elsewhere.

Subdivide the conversation. There are basically two ways to do this: as a group or in sub-groups.

If everyone needs to hear everything as it is presented, you might set up three to five speaking stations, each devoted to a broad categorization of views. Allow each speaker a specified time to speak (say two minutes) and rotate permission to speak among the stations. At the end of this open-speaker portion of the meeting, summarize the views shared at each station.

If it is not critical for everyone to hear everything as it is presented, small group discussions can be very effective. Participants self-select groups broadly representing their views. In these groups, participants share the reason they hold a particular view. Each small group summarizes their position and presents it to the group. This is similar to the faciliators summarizing the views shared at each speaking station.

Re-address the purpose of the meeting. You’re on the home stretch. The group has agreed to the topic(s), surfaced important ideas about the topic(s) and gained a perspective about the topic(s). If this was the goal, great, you’re almost done. If you’ve gathered to decide on an action, now is the time to poll the group. In a perfect world, the group agrees on an action and everyone goes away happy. Sometimes they need a second round. That’s okay, but it’s not part of this meeting.

Publicize the results. You thought you were done, didn’t you? If no one can remember what was decided, you’ll end up re-hashing the whole conversation later. Summarize the major points of the meeting and share it with everyone you invited.


Being Heard w/o a Microphone

Democracy depends on participation. Democracy depends on you.

You deserve a chance to speak. You deserve to be heard. Here are a few tips that can help you project your voice without exhausting yourself.

The basics: Air – O – Ah:

  • Air: Breath deeply a few times before you address a large crowd. This will calm your mind and support your voice.
  • O: Focus on the vowels, they carry your voice
  • Ah-ha: Speak to the person furthest back in the crowd. They will smile and get it.

As you inhale, imagine you are filling your lungs all the way down to your feet. As you speak, feel that air coming up from the ground below your feet and effortlessly carrying your message as far as you want it to go. Give a little more time to your vowels, they will thank you for it by making your voice easier to understand.

Two additional points:

  • Relax. This isn’t the only time you’ll get to address a large crowd. You don’t have to race to get everything you want to say into one quick breath.
  • When competing to be heard, choose wisely. The airplane will always win.