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April 16, 2008

A guide to getting the right facilitator

It’s important to have a clear definition of the different types of external support available, and to understand which type is most appropriate for your event.

Master of Ceremonies

Most commonly a newsreader/journalist or documentary programme presenter.

Benefits: They will give a very polished performance and will be able to pick up and run with a script at short notice. They will be invaluable if you want someone to run the Q&A sessions with a bit of “edge", holding the speakers to account and pressing them on the difficult topics. They bring a “wow” factor to the event and can make the delegates feel special. Beware, however, that in tough trading conditions they are not seen as an expensive luxury. Their day rates are likely to be high, but they are unlikely to need much preparation time (a day of planning/ briefing is typical). The good MCs will also have a “feel” for the audience – spotting a drop in energy or concentration and taking responsibility for keeping the agenda to time. They will be comfortable using their independence to remind the CFO of the importance of not running into the lunch break.

Drawbacks: Newsreaders/ journalists are not business people and cannot be expected to have an understanding of your industry. They typically will not have the time or the appetite to “get under the skin” of your business. Their performance is dependent on the quality of the briefing they receive (both on the content and the process you want them to follow). Finally, you may need to book them early, possibly before you have decided what your event is really about.

Use when: You want to give a more polished and professional feel to the event, you want to run a “Paxman-style” panel session or you want to “wow” your audience.

Finding a good one: If you want to use an MC start your search as early as possible (to give you the widest choice of people available on the day of your event). You may not be able to meet them before engaging them, but if not they or their agents should be able to provide references. Your event agency should be able to provide a list of appropriate candidates. Try to look beyond someone your CEO wants to meet!

An Industry Specialist
Sometimes also a journalist or analyst who very often has a consultancy offering as well.

Benefits: They will have a deep understanding of a particular industry sector and will be able to apply their knowledge to your organisation’s situation. They will engage with the presentations delivered and provide their own eloquent perspective when required. They have the same independence as the MC, so will be able to probe and quiz the speakers as required.

Drawbacks: In some cases, you need to understand the motivation behind an industry specialist MCing at conferences. Do they have a recently published book? Is your organisation a candidate for their consultancy offering? If so, these factors may become apparent to the audience (although I am not suggesting this is always the case).

Use when: you want to bring an external perspective to your conference.

Finding a good one: Industry experts are not so clearly defined as a category and frequently do not promote themselves as event MCs. If your organisation is already working with a consultancy it is worth seeing if they have someone appropriate. Alternatively, check with the research companies which operate within your industry sector (e.g. Gartner or IDC for the IT/ Telecomms sector). Check also with the organisations running public conferences in your sector as they are likely to have worked with a wide range of analysts.

A Professional facilitator
Usually a management or communications consultant perhaps specializing in your industry sector.

Benefits: Will be able to take a key role in designing as well as delivering the agenda. Is likely to devote more time to planning the event with you and will brief and may even write content for speakers and sponsors as required. On the day itself, you can expect them to run the event for you, providing all the links between presentations, running work sessions and energizers and even briefing the crew. You can also expect them to inject real creativity into the agenda.

Drawbacks: Not all consultants are born facilitators, although all will offer facilitation as one of their skills. A good facilitator will have a philosophy or methodology which underpins their approach to events. If you don’t understand or like the methodology, you are unlikely to get the most out of the facilitator. Equally, if the sponsors want to keep a very tight reign on the agenda, and have a tendency to insist on wall-to-wall presentations there will be little that the facilitator can add. Finally, their expertise is likely to be in facilitation or communication so they may not have a deep understanding of your industry.

Use when: you want to bring a fresh approach to the conference, and you have a sponsor team who are open to suggestions on how to run the event differently.

Finding a good one: There are hundreds of professional facilitators in the UK, so a search on Google is likely to give you too much choice. Personal or peer recommendations are best (so subscribing to, for instance, an online networking group like internalcommshub.com might be a good place to start). Your HR department may also know of good contacts (many good facilitators tend to be HR consultants as well). If you are using an event agency, they may have strong views on who they can work with most effectively. Bear in mind that there can be considerable overlap between the role of a facilitator and an event agency so the agency may be wary of working with a facilitator they do not know.

Chris Elmitt
Director, Crystal Interactive

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