aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

Posts Tagged ‘facilitating’

Off on a Tangent? Good!

Posted by Ellen on June 11, 2011

There are two types of travellers: those who plan a specific route and stick to it, and those who have a general idea of where they want to end up but leave themselves open to side trips. We’ve done both in our “on the road” lifestyle — they each have their benefits and pitfalls.

A specific route can get you someplace faster, with fewer possibilities for things to go wrong — and you don’t want things to get ugly when you’re driving what’s considered a “big rig” — an RV and vehicle that can be 60′ or longer). Keeping to the major highways means you’re likely to fit under the overpasses without peelng your air conditioning unit off your roof, and there are usually places to stop that are made for truckers, where you can park and stretch your legs.

But you’re also missing out on a lot. No stopping for that homemade jam the farmer’s wife is selling by the side of the road. No picnicking beside that picturesque river.

What does this have to do with alearning?

A lot.

There are two types of trainers: those who have a specific agenda and stick to it, and those who have a general idea of where they want to end up but leave themselves open to how they’ll get there.

If you think meandering through a training session sounds like a disaster in the making, you’re probably half-right. But just as travelling with an open agenda can lead to much richer experiences, so does training without a minute-by-minute agenda.

How many times have you been in a session — as observer in your role of education leader, or as a participant — and someone asked the very question you were pondering (or better yet, hadn’t thought of but as soon as you heard it you thought, “Great question!”), a discussion started around that question, and — before any resolution was discovered — the session leader said something like, “This is a great conversation and we should continue it at some point, but we really need to move on to [the next item on our agenda… or lunch… or something]” ??

If it’s a great conversation and it’s engaging several learners, why move on? Isn’t the beginning of understanding happening right then? Obviously those participating have found relevance to their own situations and they’re motivated to explore the topic.

What makes the next item on the agenda more important than that?!? Nothing, that’s what.

The best session leaders are those who follow the lead of the learners — adapting along the way. Of course you don’t want to throw out the map, you don’t want to get everyone lost in the woods, but who says you can’t head down this road instead of that one if you know it will eventually get you to the same destination?

An agenda is a guide — it’s a way of building your session so you cover enabling content when it’s appropriate, for example — but that’s all it is.

Here’s a real-life example: In a intensive face-to-face course that lasted about five days and covered about a dozen related topics in as many sessions, learners later reported that they got the most out of a discussion that arose from one participant’s issue related to one of the topics. The group of 18 learners explored the situation by hearing the challenge, sharing their own experiences, suggested ideas, and turned the agenda inside out in the process. This spontaneous learning ended up being what they remembered best, and later applied most frequently.

All because someone asked a question and the session leader let the group tackle the challenge behind it. Here’s the bonus: because the session included professionals at varying levels in the same field, the veterans in the group provided varying examples from their own experiences while those earlier on in their careers made suggestions and asked questions that often opened up new possibilities. Everyone took away something from that conversation.

What happened to the agenda? It was still there, waiting. Did the discussion put a hole in it? Yes. But that hole was filled because the conversation covered content that didn’t have to be handled in the same way later, saving time in the long run.
What About Volunteer Content Leaders?

Thrilled to be asked to lead a session, your expert volunteers tend to err on the side of traditional session leadership, aka “Sage on the Stage.” They spend time crafting their session, and they want to be sure they cover everything.

The best thing you can do for those volunteers? Urge them to

  • Trust their peers
  • Be willing to learn from the session themselves
  • Be alert for openings in the conversation that can lead to a broad range of perspectives, and to exploit them
  • Ask the group if they’d like to pursue a tangent rather than stay on the agenda — let the learners decide what they most want to learn
  • See tangents as opportunities rather than interruptions

“But what about the learning outcomes?” you ask. “Won’t following tangents jeopardize meeting the objectives?”

Not necessarily. Usually a tangent opens up because it’s related to the topic and will lead you in the direction of the same objectives and outcomes — it’s just taking the session down a different road to get there. If the session leader keeps those objectives in mind, he or she can guide the conversation through questions and comments.

“Okay. What about those participants who want to show off what they know rather than learn something — those people who like to try to take a session off-track just to prove they’re experts, too? How do you handle that?” you ask.

Good question. This situation is always a challenge, but it doesn’t need any special handling if you’re willing to follow tangents. As a matter of fact, being willing to follow tangents means comments and questions from these folks can be used to even greater effectiveness. Shift the question to address an objective by re-stating it, or hand the comment back to the larger group for further comment are both ways to repurpose them to shape the conversation.

To use our metaphor: someone bulldozing the road shouldn’t be allowed to get tear up much of the asphalt until another road is paved.

Think of it this way: all roads should lead to the learning outcomes. Which roads you end up following are up to everyone in the room — not just the session leader.

You’ll probably discover what others have found — that the scenery was much more interesting and much more memorable.

That’s what it’s all about after all, isn’t it?!?

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Presenting Vs. Facilitating

Posted by Ellen on April 14, 2010

Let’s get something straight:

Just as there’s a difference between meetings and educational events*, there are differences between presenting and facilitating.

Unfortunately, issues arising from boring presentations are the result of morphing meetings and educational events into these oddball concepts of  “conferences” and “conventions.” Presentations that can work in meetings don’t travel into the area of educational events very well.

And that’s our problem. Here’s why.

A presentation is usually when an individual (sometimes a pair or a few people) formally address a group:

  • A vendor representative wants to win your LMS business, and visits your office to show you, your executive director/CEO, your education staff, and your education committee what their LMS can do. She leads the conversation by walking through the features of the LMS using projected images from her laptop onto a screen. This is a presentation within the context of a meeting (though you are still likely to learn something, it’s not the objective of meeting nor the presentation to teach you the system, so this is not an educational event).


  • You need buy-in from your board of directors to fund the new LMS to advance your association’s educational goals and they have included you on their meeting agenda. You walk them through some PowerPoint slides that show projected costs, revenue, break-even analysis, features and uses of the LMS under consideration, and other key points. This is also a formal presentation within the context of a meeting.


  • An expert is invited to give the keynote address at an association’s annual conference. The conference is expected to attract 1500, about a third of whom will probably attend the keynote session. The expert asks for 40 minutes, as she’s well aware that no matter how engaging she is, attention spans are short and the chairs are uncomfortable. The event organizers say they can’t justify her fee for just an hour and that the keynote session is scheduled for 90 minutes. With 500 people in the room, she does what she can to fill the time and keep everyone engaged. This is a presentation within the context of an educational event.

The first two make sense, don’t they? Sometimes we just need the facts and information, and to have the opportunity to discuss the issue or choice and clarify it. Within a small meeting, these sorts of presentations can do all of that: at the end of the presentation by the vendor rep or your presentation to the board, through questions and answers and discussion, everyone is better able to place the decision they need to make in the appropriate context.

The third example is what Jeff Hurt’s been blogging about over at Midcourse Corrections. Nixing the tried (and no longer true) lectures that plague our conferences.

Here’s my contention: Though Jeff offers a few good ideas, the speaker in the third situation I’ve described is limited in what she can do to open up the session:

  • First of all, what educational objectives frame her presentation, if any?  Keynotes are usually not organized based on learning objectives. Neither are general sessions. Instead, they’re meant to “motivate” or “inspire” or “get people talking.” You can’t expect learning to occur if the intent of the session isn’t to educate or train in the first place.
  • Second, how can she effectively lead learning to a group of 500? Especially in an “active” way?

Be careful not to put lipstick on the pig. A keynote is a keynote is a keynote. A general session is a general session is a general session.

Which brings us to facilitating:

  • An LMS company representative visits your office to show you and your staff the advanced features of the system. He starts by finding out from everyone what they feel most — and least — comfortable doing in the system, and what they most want to be able to do. In an organized way, he walks everyone through the steps and tasks, then has those who are less sure of themselves perform the steps and tasks until they are comfortable with the new tasks too. This is facilitated training. This is an educational event, though it might have been on everyone’s calendar as a “meeting.”


  • An association member has been using Twitter at her institution to promote safety procedures at a time when several avoidable accidents have occurred. The association asks her to present on her experience at an interest or concurrent session at their next annual conference. She asks that the room be equipped with Internet access as well as the usual AV. She designs her session so that she can “show and tell” on the screen, and then has the participants practice on their own while she answers questions and helps anyone who gets stuck. In this case, a “presentation” quickly moves to “facilitated exercise.”


  • You’ve had such success with the launch of your new LMS that you’ve been asked to present a case study on how you scoped the project and selected your vendor. You’ve been paired with another association leader whose organization has also successfully implemented an LMS, though they came at the process from a very different angle. The program description is so popular that you find out you can expect 150 people in your session. Despite the size of the group, you don’t want to present each case study followed by Q&A — you want the attendees to learn through the process, too. So you split the room in half and deliver the problem of your case study to one half and the problem posed by your partner’s case study to the other. You ask each table to determine how they would define the scope, what vendor selection process they would implement, etc. You reserve time for various tables to report what their group discussed and the hurdles they encountered. You and your partner provide the endings to your stories as well as a chart comparing the two different processes each of you used, and decision-making aids the learners can implement or adapt for their own use. As a facilitator, you’ve adapted the large group as best you can to accommodate participation in the case studies via practice with the process, rather than just “presenting.”

We’ll often be in non-ideal situations, but knowing we have choices is key. Understanding how to implement those choices will benefit our members in ways they can’t even guess right now.

And it starts with identifying…

  • Where we are: Is this a meeting or an educational event?
  •  Why we’re there: Is the purpose to make a decision? To motive or inspire people?  To open up conversations? Or to elevate someone’s skill level?

Presenting has its place. Let’s just make sure we leave it there.

* Quick review: Meetings are held for the purpose of advancing business, are guided by an agenda, and sometimes use Robert Rules of Order as a organizational structure. Educational events are held for the purpose of enhancing knowledge and understanding and elevate skill levels, are guided by learning objectives, and are organized based on the the type of content and delivery medium.

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