Your lips are moving – all I hear is…

“How much information do participants in a meeting need to make wise and informed contributions?”

Facilitators must grapple with this key design question as they work with their clients to find the right balance of information delivery, discovery and discussion.

“A lot!”  – tends to be the answer of most Subject Matter Experts (SME).  As a result, meeting participants are often required to sit through detailed presentations with all the facts, details, and exceptions on a topic before being given an opportunity to contribute at all.

“Key data only!” – is the facilitator’s answer from the perspective of engaging  participants, and perhaps even, “no data-dumping  at all – during the meeting”.

Why would this be so? Your client has likely carefully crafted an invitation list so that the right people are in the room; their contributions, expertise, and eventual support are important to the meeting outcome. The intent of the meeting is to tap their collective experience and knowledge, and to bring many perspectives to bear on the topic. Their time in session is valuable; don’t waste it! Participant input does not replace SME knowledge, but rather serves to enhance and expand it, with a view of balancing other considerations that may not have been given equal weighting from a specialist’s analysis.

Here are six strategies for offering specialized content within a session, keeping it relevant and compelling, while protecting maximum time for participant input:

  1. Create Pre-Readings/Video. Circulate as pre-work to participants in advance, a highlight of key information and related links to more substantive articles and readings. You might consider asking  the SME to create a video to be viewed by participants before the meeting.  Make it clear that early in the session, participants will be expected to discuss their understanding of the key points from the pre-work. Then, when the meeting begins, follow the next five strategies to optimize the impact and value of the SME presentations.
  2. Just Enough Data.  The plain truth is that SME’s lose their audience when they’re spilling out information as if they were speaking to their peers, weaving in all the ‘juicy details’ that very few may really care about or need to know for the work at hand. After 7 minutes, most participants will zone out and lose the central plot. Were we to see what is going on in their heads, it might resemble something like an empty bubble with the words “blah blah blah….” encased within it. Coach your SME’s to state their main presentation points, make their points with just enough information, and then restate the points just made in summary – all in 7-10 minutes chunks!
  3. Speak Directly/Don’t Read. As much as possible, have SME’s deliver their information without relying on detailed slides. Encourage them to keep the bulk of their presentation verbal, supported with very high level/visually provocative slides that emphasize the main points they are making. Participants can read four times as fast as people can speak. Don’t waste valuable meeting time going over detailed information downloads. If it is essential to the meeting purpose, then either provide time, before or during the meeting, to have participants read the complex and necessary information. Devote precious meeting time instead to engaging participants in learning conversations devoted to deepening understanding, generating new knowledge, and as relevant, developing practical solutions.
  4. Pull Versus Push Data. Often SME’s mistakenly assume that participants cannot fathom the complexity of an issue. In fact, the research shows that on most topics, participants already know something related to as much as 70% of what the presenter is going over. Rather than pushing a heap of data at the audience, invite presenters to stick to the main points, and then give small groups an opportunity to digest, react, and formulate thoughtful questions together around the material presented. After 10-15 minutes, in a focused Plenary Forum, invite participant comments and questions to pull the required level of detail/complexity into the whole.
  5. Remember Your Key Meeting Purpose. The purpose of the session is to gain valuable participant insight – not to turn them into specialists. Keep returning to this purpose, and balance the relative value of time spent by SME’s delivering content versus participants contributing input.
  6. Keep It Engaging. If there’s just no way to avoid delivering a lot of content, then deliberately build in short pauses to allow pairs/trios to quickly buzz for 2-3 minutes on the key insights, reactions from the past 7-10 minutes. Nothing need be done with the buzz content. This is simply a strategy to keep participants actively listening, but providing some time to ’empty’ a bit of the accumulated internal conversation that has built up as the SME is speaking, and to create mental room to receive the next batch of information.

Interested in learning more about how to adopt facilitative strategies to your session and meetings? Check out The Facilitative Instructor: Best Practice for Active Learning and other Masterful Facilitation Institute courses.

Author: myriamlaberge

M.A. (Economics), Certified Professional Facilitator Founder & Managing Director