Facilitation tips and techniques for meetings

Few things used to scare me more than the prospect of standing in front of a room of semi-strangers and facilitating a meeting. What if I say the wrong thing? What if the conversation goes down a rabbit hole and everyone’s time is wasted? What if halfway through I realize that I have no clothes on and this is actually a nightmare? 

Over the last few years of consulting, both at Stride and Pivotal Labs, I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate a variety of meetings with anywhere between three and 70-ish people. And now that we’re working remotely, I can say that I’ve facilitated meetings across multiple continents…even though I was still here in NYC. Still counts!

Here are a few key things to keep in mind that have helped me.

 

1. Know the desired outcome, and state it

How often are you in a meeting and you ask yourself, “Why am I here?” Don’t let the participants in your meeting have that thought. I use the phrase “We will know this was a success when…” to guide me. This is important step in establishing the purpose of the meeting.

Recent examples: 

  • “We will be successful when we have aligned on a strategy to remove this blocker.”
  • “We will be successful when we have generated x artifact to share with the greater company.”

If everyone knows the outcome, defending against rabbit-holing is far easier. If the conversation is going off track, you can steer folks back with a gentle (but firm) “That’s a great point, but since this meeting is focused on [outcome], can we put that in the parking lot and return to it later?”

Additionally, if you manage to achieve the outcome before the end of the meeting, you can end early!

 

2. Make it facile for people to participate

Fun fact: the word facilitate comes from the French verb faciliter, which means “to render easy.” Thanks, high-school French, for cluing me in to that!

(Another fun fact: facile is also an English word, but I can’t recall encountering it in the wild and only learned this while researching for this blog post. It has a negative connotation in English, implying oversimplification, so we’ll stick with the French version, in this piece.)

Anyway, if we’ve followed step one, everyone in your hypothetical meeting will be aligned on the goal. So then it’s your job (as the facilitator) to make it as easy as possible for the participants to accomplish that goal.

The first way you can make it facile is with your choice of activities and tools. If the goal is to brainstorm, you probably shouldn’t prepare a long PowerPoint presentation. If you’re trying to share knowledge about a particularly gnarly piece of software, you probably shouldn’t have a sticky note–laden Miro board. Align the tools and activities to the outcome. 

Secondly, it’s a facilitator’s job to make sure everyone is participating or at least feels safe to do so by encouraging participation. You might need to call on someone who hasn’t spoken up—with something as simple as “We haven’t heard from you in a while.” If folks are routinely silent in your meetings, think about asking for feedback on why. Maybe there’s something you can change. Maybe they don’t need to be in the meeting—making it facile might also mean making it easy for them to leave!

 

3. Timing, timing, timing

Good facilitation is good time management. There are three easy ways to accomplish this:

  1. Come to the meeting with a written schedule. Share it. Hold yourself accountable.
  2. Share the timeboxes: “We’ll run this activity for y minutes.”
  3. End. On. Time.

I can’t stress that last one enough. Quick peek behind the curtain: I almost made it its own high-level point. It is that important.

If the next activity is 10 minutes long and there are 5 minutes remaining, don’t do the activity for 5 minutes. Say “we’ll pick this up next time” and give people their 5 minutes back. No one will be upset if you give them more time in their day.

Being a good facilitator is a crucial part of my job, and of many others’. You can do 90% of the work of facilitating by understanding the goals and outcomes of a meeting, shaping the meeting to ensure that it is facile for everyone to participate, and then making sure you stick to your schedule. 

 

I hope those three tips help you better facilitate your next meeting, or, if you’re new to it, gain confidence to try it out! Now get out there and put your new facilitation skills to work!