Photo: Steve ThomasEver been to a conference that followed this pattern? Opening words from the organizers, followed by a long keynote speech with confusing Powerpoint slides and a coffee break. Breakout sessions with more presentations from the panel followed by a Q&A session dominated by rambling questions and no common thread. I bet you have.

This classic “Talking Heads” pattern is popular with conference organizers because it is easy, predictable and flatters those on the panel. Unfortunately it also fails to engage the intelligence and expertise of the audience and, more often than not, to generate results.

What can you do if you want to break this pattern?

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

Let’s assume you know exactly why you are organizing your event, who is participating and what you want to see as a result. You do, don’t you? Let’s also assume that you’d like to engage your participants in a meaningful conversation about your subject and that you’re stuck with a theatre-style room and a list of speakers.

As a chairperson, master of ceremonies or facilitator, here’s what you could try:

  1. Make space for conversation. Take a few minutes at the beginning of the session where participants discuss their own interest in the session’s topic in small groups of 2-4 people. Do the same at the beginning of the Q&A session: Have participants share their questions and aha moments with each other. The facilitator could then start off the session by asking for a few brief impressions.
  2. Dare to give speakers constraints. Constraints force speakers to focus on the essentials and on their message. What would happen if they could not use Powerpoint? What if there was a maximum number of words for each slide? Instead of a 30′ presentation, ask for just 15 minutes. Use the remaining time to ask a few follow-up questions to the speaker and try to elicit the most relevant points for the purpose of the conference.
  3. Think talk show. A good talk show constantly calls on new voices and resources to fuel the conversation. How can the expertise of those in the room contribute? Can you ask a few people to briefly share their story in relation to the topic? Who could add new examples or points of view to the discussion? You don’t even need to restrict your search to those in the room: Ask for written contributions in advance – or record a short video statement from someone who couldn’t come.
  4. Remember to lead the conversation. It is your role to ensure that the conversation remains meaningful. Instead of asking “Are there any questions?”, try focusing the debate by restating the purpose of the session, paraphrasing the contribution just made and asking for specific examples, ideas, points of view. Try visualizing the flow of the discussion and keep reminding the group of the shared objective.

These are some of the simple facilitators’ tools you can use at your next meeting. If you want to go deeper – or have a specific question for an agenda you are working on at the moment, do get in touch.

Beyond Talking Heads
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2 thoughts on “Beyond Talking Heads

  • 11 April 2011 at 10:32

    These are great ideas, and just to add that I do think challenging speakers with some guidelines is very helpful (even if it makes more work for them!). There are many new opportunities out there to use Pecha Kuchas, Ignites, to use Prezi instead of PowerPoint, to let them watch a few TEDTalk vides and then share with them the TED Commandments for speakers. I have used all these recently with speakers in workshops and the results have been wonderful and much appreciated. Also, it places the speaker in a learner role and out of the expert role, so they can be a bit humbler and join the group in learning about whatever it is they are there to exchange!

    • 12 April 2011 at 06:37

      Oh wow, absolutely. I think we often shy away from challenging speakers because we feel like they are already doing us such a favour by participating. It needs a confident organizer and advance planning, but it makes for so much better events. Love the idea of framing it as a ‘learner role’.


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