Facilitating learning

Tim Scott presenting at CIPD NAP 2016
Me speaking at CIPD NAP 2016, thanks to Mark Gilroy
I’ve done a lot of learning by observation in my career. I’ve seen a fair few practices and approaches to people stuff and business in general that I have wholeheartedly taken on board and used myself. I’ve also seen a lot of things that I have filed away under “I need to make sure I never do x/behave like x did then/make sure that if x happens then I don’t do y”.

I’ve never gone and sat on the often-mandatory “Presentation Skills” module. My speaking, presentation and/or facilitation* “style”, if I have just one, is pretty much self-taught. But I have had the benefit of observing lots of speakers, presenters and facilitators over my almost 20-year career, especially in the last few years as I have covered a wide variety of conferences and events on social media. And that has taught me a lot about what I want to do and avoid when I’m working with a group.

I’m taking the time to reflect on this because I’m excited about attending the first Facilitation Shindig on Thursday. I’m not 100% sure what this will entail but I understand it will be an opportunity to hang out with some damn cool people and think about facilitation. I think it’s something that I’m going to get a lot of benefit from as I have been called upon to do quite a bit of facilitation – whether of small meetings or big groups – throughout my time in HR and that doesn’t seem likely to be changing any time soon.

There are some people to whom all this stuff seems to come so naturally. They are funny, engaging and take you on a really valuable learning journey. There are others who frankly should never have stood up in the first place. I’ve had some good feedback over the years, so I hope I’m nearer the first than the second, but I am an HR professional by trade (lest we forget) and so as a facilitator I’m both experienced and enthusiastic – but ultimately an amateur compared to someone who has made this their career!

Against that background then, what have I learned so far about doing this stuff?

Well firstly, lots of practical things. There are many accepted norms to facilitation and training within businesses. People expect certain things, like starting off with where the toilets are, what time lunch is and the usual stuff like that. Those things are generally important in most circumstances – though as with any norms, I have learned there may be occasions where you want to do them differently just to shake things up a bit.

One of my first big lessons was that having (what you think is) a good PowerPoint deck does not mean you will run a good session. I often use a slide deck to help me structure my thoughts as I put a session together and then delete as many slides as I think I can get away with (bearing in mind it’s sometimes helpful to have something for people to look at).

I also learned early on that any form of interaction you can put into a session to get away from you being the “sage on the stage” all day is worthwhile. Nobody ever has all of the answers and I guess the skill of a true facilitator (rather than someone just delivering a talk) is to use the expertise in the room to the benefit of everyone present.

A more advanced lesson is one I have learned from watching people who I consider to be naturals at this stuff – people like Julie Drybrough (who is organising the Shindig) and Kev Wyke. The first time I saw Kev facilitate an Open Space session at an unconference I was almost open-mouthed at both the concept and the way he delivered it. It made complete sense to me but I’d never heard it formalised in such a way. I resolved to use it myself at the first opportunity and I didn’t have to wait long, using it at an event I was running for a client shortly afterwards… It went brilliantly too, with excellent feedback.

So those are four things I’ve gained from a career involving regular facilitation. I’m looking forwards to contemplating what else I have learned and considering what else I would like to learn in future on Thursday. No doubt I’ll let you know how I get on!

*I fully appreciate that speaking, presentation and facilitation are three distinct things and that some people will be annoyed by me lumping them unceremoniously together for the purposes of this blog. I’m arguing that for the in-house/generalist practitioner at least, they require similar key skills…