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10 Things Great Facilitators Do (and Don’t Do)

Whether you’re a seasoned facilitator or just getting started, the following tips will enable you to take your learning events to the next level. They’re rather straightforward, but don’t let that fool you. According to Aristotle, “The better part of learning is being reminded of what we already know.” Real improvement comes from applying what you know. 

Always begin and end on time. Starting late or ending early shortchanges your learners. It can be tempting to wait for everyone to arrive, and there are always participants eager to wrap up early. However, delaying the start is unfair to those who arrived on time and ending significantly early suggests there wasn’t enough content to fill the entire time slot, leaving some to wonder whether they received full value for their time and investment. 

Never say, “Before we get started.” Once you say something, you’ve begun. First impressions are everlasting, so don’t squander your one and only opportunity to make a great one. Imagine going to a concert only to have your favorite artist step up to the mic and announce there is a car in the parking lot with its lights on. It would never happen! The first moment sets the stage for the entire performance. Similarly, the opening scene of any great cinema or television drama is an attention getter that immediately draws viewers into the plot or action. Great facilitators do the same thing. Next time you facilitate, don’t begin with housekeeping items. Open with a bang! 

Begin with an entertaining story, rhetorical question, controversial statement, or unexpected experience. To gain the interest and attention of your learners, you must immediately say or do something interesting or thrust them into an experience of their own. You have a limited amount of time to get them engaged, so do so immediately. Don’t tell them what you’re going to tell them; just tell them. Catch them off guard by jumping right into the good stuff. You can always take a “commercial” or “advert” break to introduce yourself and add context afterwards. 

Don’t just communicate with your learners; connect with them. Before you can help them learn, learners must first choose to embark on a journey with you. And they will be much more likely to come along with you willingly if they like and trust you. There is merit to the cliché, “People don’t care about what you know until they know that you care.” Prior to attempting to fill people’s minds, great facilitators seek to touch their hearts. Before asking anyone to focus on what you have to say, you must first let them know you are focused on them. 

Talk about them, not you. Learners are there for their own benefit, not yours. As interesting as you and your war stories may be, ultimately it’s not about you. Great facilitators realize that learners want to know what’s in for them. Share your own failures and successes, but be sure to make your stories and examples relevant to the world in which they live and work. Explicitly connect any principles, concepts, and lessons you share to their situations. And when you’re not sure about the relevance of what you are discussing, ask them. 

Involve your learners by asking questions, taking polls, and encouraging them to speak. How are the points I’ve mentioned so far relevant to the learning events you facilitate? Are there additional things you do to help others learn? Why am I asking so many questions? By a show of hands, how many of you hate boring training? Me, too! Who would like to share why they hate boring training? What else should we consider? Whenever you want to engage or reengage your learners, stop speaking and start asking. It’s amazing how many people look up after you ask a probing question. Try it. 

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Engage thinkers and feelers by including both logical and emotional appeals. Another way to engage each person in any room, and to engage them fully, is to stimulate both sides of their brains. Rather than focusing on the cognitive or affective domain exclusively, integrate right-brain- and left-brain-based learning. Give learners opportunities to experience, think, reflect, conceptualize, feel, create, and apply. Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT system provides an effective framework for getting everyone’s neurons firing on all cylinders. Check it out. 

Integrate current events to illustrate the timeliness of your topic. Relevance and applicability are essential to learners. No one wants outdated solutions to yesterday’s problems. They want to know that the concepts, principles, and solutions you share work today. In addition to your own experiences, find and share timely examples from trade journals, white papers, news articles, and other current sources. Doing so will not only convince them your topic is timely, it will assure them you are proposing relevant and proven solutions. 

Speak with conviction, not caution. No one wants to listen to you beat around the bush. Let me be direct here. You cannot influence people to think, feel, or act differently unless they sense you believe wholeheartedly in what you are saying. That’s why great facilitators speak with conviction. If you believe you are guiding people in the right direction, a direction that will help them solve problems and get where they want to go, tell them so with confidence. If you seem tentative or uncertain, they will be, too. Speak with conviction and they will sense it. And they’ll be much more likely to consider what you are saying.  

Be authentic. Always be truthful, transparent, and sincere. Great facilitators walk the talk, and talk about their walk. Be honest about yourself and your topic. Open up about challenges you’ve faced and overcome and show genuine interest and concern for what others share. And be yourself! It’s OK to emulate other facilitators and speakers, but let your personality shine through. Authenticity is attractive.

© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
As a professional consultant, trainer, and public speaker, ASTD Links Field Editor Don Levonius draws on more than 15 years of leadership experience. He has directed talent development for 23 Disney hotels, 200 retail and dining locations, a large transportation system, a security division, an international college internship program, and a global professional association. Today, Levonius is principal consultant with Victory Performance Consulting, where he provides OD and talent development solutions that help clients do what they do best, only better. He holds a master’s degree in HR development and a second master’s degree in business and organizational security management.
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