How to facilitate a session 

Facilitation is about ensuring a session runs smoothly. It involves different types of communication, bringing people together and ensuring everyone is able to contribute. 

  • Need to be prepared, but flexible and responsive to any changes. 
  • Need to be confident to speak but not dominate conversations. 
  • Need to make sure you are understood, and everyone knows what is happening. 

In this article we aim to cover some handy aspects of what being a facilitator involves and skills that you’ll need to use when facilitating a session. We’ve assumed that you’ve planned the event, advertised it or invited your audience and you’ve arranged your venue (online, in-person or hybrid). 

What does a facilitator do? 

A facilitator anchors an event by: 

  • engaging the participants 
  • encouraging and managing participation 
  • ensuring the session keeps to both topic and time 
  • asking thought or discussion prompting questions 

Range of session types

Sessions can be considered in terms of the degree of audience participation required. Typically, the greater the amount of audience participation, or the larger the audience, the more involved it’ll be to facilitate. 

Here we’ve broadly grouped a list of common session types from most interactive to least. This list isn’t exhaustive or set in stone!  

1. Highly interactive, lots of audience interaction required 

2. Moderate interaction, a reasonable degree of audience interaction required 

3. Less interactive, a lower degree of audience interaction required 

Session formats 

Here we’ll touch on three session formats; in-person, online, and hybrid (simultaneously has an audience online and in-person). 

It’s also worth considering how you facilitate your event if you’re recording it. Consider the purpose of recording the event. Do you want the recording to enable participants to have an aide-memoire for later? Or do you want the recording to become a resource that people who didn’t attend live can get an equivalent outcome to the live participants did? Consider if recording the session will impair the openness of discussions or conversations. In you are recording a live event ensure that you have the expressed permission of the audience members and anyone else involved. 

Regardless of your session format there are some common tips. 

When planning the session think about how many facilitators you need to effectively run the session. The more participants or technology involved will typically require more facilitators. 

Take care not to cram too much into a single session. Be realistic about how much you can achieve in the given time. You can always plan for more but adapt on the day, in response to your audience. 

Don’t try to be both a participant and a facilitator simultaneously. Consider which tasks you can usefully delegate to participants. This could include things such as note taking, spokesperson, time-keeper for a specific activity and so on. 

Remember to build in thinking time, silences and pauses. Your audience will likely consist of people with a range of learning styles so it’s worth aiming to use a range of approaches to appeal to everyone. 

Start the session with house-keeping. If you’re in person this should include the location of fire exits, toilets, drinking water/refreshments and if a fire drill is expected. If you’re online, you might want to invite folks to switch on their cameras and mute their microphones. You may wish to say if you’ll take questions throughout the session or at the end and if you’ll do this via the chat or raised hand and so on. 

Set out how the session will run. Set the expectations of your participants, tell them the format of the session, when breaks will be (and how long for), the nature of any interactive tasks, and when can they ask questions. Take this opportunity to let the participants know how you plan to facilitate the session, especially if you’ll step in to stop a discussion in the interests of time or going off topic. Ask the audience ‘What are you hoping to come away with?’, ‘What are you hoping to get out of this session?’, ‘What do you want to achieve in today’s session?’. 

End the session with a brief recap or review. Summarise any actions and next steps at the end of the session. Encourage the participants to do this for themselves. Thank all for their participation. 

Skills you need as a facilitator

The ability to ‘read the room’. Can you gauge if your audience is engaged or not? Are they unclear on what their task is? Check in with them if you think they may be disengaged, ask ‘Is this resonating with you?’ 

Be flexible and adaptable. You have prepared your session but you may find that you need to adapt to the needs of the participants in front of you on the day. Challenges you may face could be things such as the venue set-up wasn’t as described, the duration of your session has changed, the size of the audience has changed, the audiences needs or priorities are different to what you’d planned for. 

Communicate effectively. Are you able to clearly communicate with participants so they understand what’s required of them? Can you listen attentively? Are you able to summarise and check-back with participants contributions?  

Manage the participants. Can you moderate the event in order to make space for everyone to contribute? Perhaps you could go around the room, rather than always asking for volunteers to help encourage quieter participants. 

Keep to time. Think about how you’ll keep the event to time. Will you move the conversation on in the interests of time? Will you use a timer or buzzer to keep on schedule?  

Stay on topic. How will you steer the session back onto topic? You may wish to have a ‘car park’ to capture off-topic thoughts and comments which can be reviewed at another moment. The ‘car park’ is simply a blank sheet of paper (or virtual equivalent) the whole group can access and write their off-topic thoughts onto. 

Be enthusiastic. You don’t need to be an extrovert or have a very outgoing personality to be an excellent facilitator. Be engaged with your topic and audience and show your enthusiasm in your voice. 

Set the tone. Be clear on what the purpose or outcome/s of the event your facilitating is. What do you want the postdocs to know or be able to do by the end of the session that they couldn’t before? 

Facilitating a hybrid session 

Facilitating a hybrid session, where you have both in-person and remote participants, presents some unique challenges.  

Recommendations 

  • Plan your session well in advance (consider doing a full run through to boost your confidence if you’re a bit unsure) and keep to time  
  • When advertising your session ask participants to let you know in advance if they’ve a disability requiring any adjustments to the way the material is presented or the session format. 
  • Decide if you need more than one facilitator (for example the co-facilitator could monitor breakout groups, take notes, record the session, manage any technology and so on.) 
  • If you have additional speakers, ask them to arrive 5 to 10 minutes early (if online) perhaps more like 15 to 20 minutes early in-person, so you can brief them on the session and do any last-minute checks (such as screen sharing, microphones, polling, recording and so on). 
  • If in-person, factor in 15 to 30 minutes for yourself ahead of the session to arrive and settle in, getting refreshments and so on. If you’ve technology to setup or need to alter the configuration of the room, consider giving yourself more time.  
  • At start of session, cover any housekeeping (things like are there any scheduled fire alarms, where restrooms are, refreshments, state if the session will be recorded and if people are not happy with that, if virtual then to switch off camera and mic, if in-person to let you know at the end.) Say how session will work in term of audience participation.  
  • Introduce the topic of session and learning outcomes or objectives for the session and prompt your audience to consider what they want from the session right from the start. 
  • Aim to schedule in a short break if sessions are over 45 mins in length  
  • When taking questions or comments from audience, tell them how this will be done (such as by raising hands - real or virtual). Go around the room so can hear as many voices as possible and use encouraging language to hear from people that might be reticent. Avoid putting people on the spot. Encourage people to expand on their comments and questions. Ask for any clarification as necessary. 
  • Be attentive to the audience to gauge their mood and look for contributions.   
  • Use slides thoughtfully. Don’t put too much text on each slide. Talk around content on slides and leave open to questions.  
  • When setting group activities, consider asking each group to assign a speaker to feedback a key point (or two) to the room when activity ends. 
  • Collect feedback at end of session, however you’d like to do so.  
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