Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

How To Be An Expert Facilitator

My dear friend, Linda Coles, an absolutely superb speaker, author and social media expert from New Zealand, sent me a note the other day asking if I had read any really good books on how to be an expert at facilitation of meetings. I thought it was a great question, and one that I’ve gotten several times in the past, so I decided I would post my response to her – in hopes that it might be helpful to you. Here is exactly what I wrote to Linda: 

Linda – sorry for the slight delay in my response, I have been traveling and did not have access to my library. I looked around – and I do not have any really good books specifically on facilitation. So let me take a moment to share with you what I’ve learned over the last 15+ years of being a facilitator.


The number one goal as a facilitator is to have a clear map for where you’re trying to get to by the end of the event. As Mr. Covey would say – “Begin with the end in mind.” I sit down and think very, very carefully about what an absolutely perfect result would be. Actually, this is one of the first questions I always ask my client: “At the end of the session, if everything went perfectly, what specifically would a great outcome look like?” I try to get them to talk about the three or four things that MUST happen for it to be a successful event – and get them to, as clearly and specifically as possible, describe for me what an “Ideal Outcome,” would look like. I then use that as my goal and build a plan backwards to the beginning of the event to make sure, as much is possible, I end up in the right place at the end of the session.

The second thing I try to keep in mind is that my job as a facilitator is: To be a… Guide on the Side – not a Sage on the Stage! In other words, facilitation is about assisting, cajoling, pushing, coaching, refereeing – but not offering MY opinions or directing the conversation in the way that “I” think it should go. So I try to create a very clear path from the beginning of the session…… to the end of the session (with workshops, interaction, discussion, presentations and consensus building moments) and then I am simply there to make sure that everything goes smoothly as possible and progresses exactly as I’d like it to from point A – to point B – to point C – to where I want the day to end at point Z.

Another thing that I’ve learned over the years is that I use a progression of: Delivering information at the beginning of the session (setting the stage, setting the context, getting everyone on the same page, creating a shared language – and shared ideas around where we are going for the day and what is most important) —–  I then transition from me presenting and talking (only for about 30 to 40 minutes) to getting people into individual workshops (usually I have them read a Harvard or Wharton article on the topic of the retreat – strategic planning/leadership/high performance teams — or the results of a survey I have conducted before the retreat) —– Which then lead to small group workshops (3-8 people) —- Which leads to each of the small groups presenting what they have developed to all the other group —– Which leads to me as a facilitator synthesizing and combining all of the various feedback from the groups into one overall idea that I can then gain commitment and consensus on.

To me that is the true definition of a facilitator– guiding and facilitating the discussion – helping them learn together, helping them teach each other,  helping them gain consensus on what they think is important… and what they want to do about it. After all, if it is the group that is teaching each other – exactly what they feel they need to do, what they’ve all agreed on, and what they are all 100% committed to – it is much, much stronger than any presentation I could ever deliver!!

Lastly, I typically follow up all my facilitations with a two or three page “Management Memo” helping the group understand what they focused on during the retreat or session, what they created together, the synthesis of everything they agreed on, and some ideas/feedback/suggestions for how they can make sure to stay focused on what they developed and implement it successfully in their organization. If the group had a particularly challenging session I will also sometimes send them four or five additional articles that they can read in the coming weeks/months keep them focused and help them stay on task and on track.

I hope you found this helpful Linda – this is the framework I’ve used for the last 10 years or so and it has been exceedingly successful for me. Please let me know if you have any questions at all, as always I am here to assist you in any way that I possibly can. Good luck on your next facilitation – my very best to you – John

**** I encourage all of you to offer any insights and advice you might have for Linda – and recommend any really good books you know about how to be a superb facilitator.  Let’s start a nice conversation around this topic and see if we can all help each other. I very much look forward to your ideas and feedback.

***** ALSO — As many of you know I have recently been nominated as one of the “Top 100 Small Business Gurus in America” and a big part of the competition is based on how many votes I get. I have placed a button right below this paragraph for you to vote as part of my “Cheer Squad” – ANYTHING you can do to help spread the word and get me lots more votes would be awesome (you can vote every day) – it would be fun and a great honor to be named a top small business guru!! Thank you very, very much for any help and assistance you can offer – John


  1. Excellent topic for your next book John? You are powerful as a facilitator and your advice on how to become one is greatly appreciated.


  2. John,

    Those are solid, practical suggestions for facilitation as it relates to teaching and training.

    However, just in case Linda is also interested in books that relate to facilitation as it relates to helping a group reach a decision, I would enthusiastically recommend Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner.

  3. Linda, (and John)

    I liked The Secrets of Facilitation by Michael Wilkinson,very relevant information as well as specific scenarios of how to handle disengaged participants. Step-by-step methods from preparation to presenting. Id be glad to share my copy.

  4. Hi everyone, Thanks for the book choices, I will look them up.

    John, I think Isabell has a point, you should write the book, some great points in your post above and so very helpful. Thanks!

  5. John,

    Thanks for this. It’s lays it out very clearly and powerfully. I also think it would make a great book topic.

  6. great post! I would also add it’s a nice touch in small groups to each each participant to share the single idea/concept they’ve gained with the group before heading off to break and/or at the end of each day. You’ll often kick-start sharing during breaks and get a handle on what’s important to the group rather than what YOU think is important. Best wishes!

  7. Excellent timing! I’m preparing for an upcoming workshop under an aggressive timeline and your article helped bring focus to the planning.

    And I have a group of leaders in training that would benefit from your advice to remember that “facilitation is about assisting, cajoling, pushing, coaching, refereeing – but not offering MY opinions or directing the conversation in the way that “I” think it should go.”

  8. John,

    I highly recommend the book, The Art of Convening, by Craig and Patricia Neal. It is about authentic engagement in meetings, gatherings, and conversations and offers some rich suggestions.

  9. Spencer Penhart says:

    Hi Linda. As a former National Sales Trainer for a Fortune 100 company, I was fortunate enough to be put through a couple of superb presentation/facilitation courses. One was called The Executive Technique ( they have a really nice weekly tip email you can subscribe to (

    Some key tips I took away from the course were:

    1) 3-second eye contact. It feels very wierd at first, but staying focused on one person’s eyes for 3 seconds creates an amazing connection with that person, and makes you appear confident and connected to your audience as a whole.
    2) “Arc and Park”: When moving around the room, move with a purpose instead of aimlessly wandering. Pick the spot you want to move to, go there, then stay there for a good amount of time (I recommend at least 20-30 seconds).
    3) Vocal projection, inflection, and pauses: Speaking from the diaphragm will make you sound and feel confident and assertive. Avoid speaking in monotone and be sure to vary the volume and pace of your speech. Also, “powerful” or “pregnant” pauses of 3-5 seconds or more can be highly effective tools for emphasis on key points, as can repeating key points.
    4) Never turn your back to the audience.
    -Try not to look at your slides on the projection screen. When possible, always look at your laptop.
    -Don’t point your slide-clicker at the computer or screen- it works the same wherever you point it, and will keep you from turning away from your audience.
    -Your laser pointer is not a light-sabre. Don’t wave the laser pointer across the screen. Instead, hold it steady and focus the laser dot on the content you wish to highlight.

    -Preparation is the key to confidence.

    -Empty your head when fielding questions/comments and be a superb listener (this usually is a function of being prepared and confident in your subject matter and presentation).

    Hope this helps and best of luck!

  10. Charlie Neal says:

    Excellent practical approaches! I especially liked the “Guide on the Side – not a Sage on the Stage!”

    Below are a couple of helpful approaches I’ve used in workshops/breakout sessions:

    1 – If possible, work with the sponsor to develop the agenda.

    Tying the “process with the pace” … including speakers, logistics for breaks and lunch, and the “last day gotta catch a flight syndrome” are important for assuring the schedule flows with the steps, keeps the participants engaged, respects the time given, and supports progress check-points. A flow chart /timeline of the process in concert with the agenda helps keeps everyone on track! This is critical when there are multiple breakout groups and facilitators all trying to deliver their team results – complete and time

    2 – Encourage the use of “sound bites/headlines”.

    One of the best guidelines for working in break-out groups – especially larger groups of 10 to 20 – is to introduce the use of “sound bites/headlines” as a way to first communicate input to the group. Instruct the participants to first “think about the 3 to 5 key words for their input/concept”; say the “sound bite/headline”; then follow-up with a brief statement. I’ve found this really focuses the group and helps the facilitator/scribe team capture the salient content.

  11. Wow!!!!!!!!! Great comments by all — very helpful – your participation is truly appreciated! Thanks so much — John

  12. I thoroughly enjoyed both the article and responses – thanks John (and Linda)!

  13. Rob Walsh says:


    Thanks for sharing this, very interesting and useful. I work as a full-time facilitator and so rarely end up being the one bringing the content in the presentation bit but other than that completely agree with your post.

    I find the competencies for a facilitator as defined by the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) very useful – and the books by Ingrid Bens (Facilitating with Ease) and Dorothy Strachan (Making Questions Work) are both invaluable resources.

    Always start with the end in mind and plan backwards – you’ll be amased on the first thing you say, or even the way you invite people to the event can contribute to the end result.

    Happy facilitating!

  14. Thane Haarhoff says:

    Hi all

    I attended the first module of “The Art of Facilitation” with Dale Hunter and John Dawson (find them on Linked-in).

    I was stunned to find that the thing I needed to do to become a better facilitator was not to learn new skills and techniques … but to look inward first and facilitate myself.

    I would venture to suggest that the bit about being the guide on the side as opposed to the sage on the stage is a lot more fundamental than we imagine, and requires a far more radical re-think about who we ourselves are – not just what our role is as facilitators.

    To some extent – you cannot BE an expert facilitator – if you think you can achieve that by adopting a formula you may be on slippery ground.

    Dale Hunter has written a book with the same title “The Art of Facilitation” but if you are serious about facilitation and are in New Zealand I would strongly recommend contacting Dale or John at Zenergy about attending a workshop.

  15. Great info everyone, thanks for sharing 🙂 Linda