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23. Some tips on how to facilitate discussions

A few months ago, I was the moderator of a panel discussion at the Living Games Conference in Austin, Texas. In truth, I wasn’t really sure how I was going to run it, since I didn’t know how many people would be there. But since we ended up being around 25 or so, I opted for a circle format. Afterwards, I received a lot of very positive feedback that humbled me.

Jason’s notes

  • Circle up. Use the empty chair rule to invite new people in throughout. (The empty chair rule is a simple social rule I started using at conferences some years back, which states that if you want company, you should always leave an empty chair. It has since spread to the official codes of conduct for several conferences, for which I am very grateful. In some other places where it has evolved, it’s known as the N+1 rule)
  • Ask everyone to keep their comments very brief, and enforce this as politely as you can. But enforce it.
  • Keep to one question at a time. After the question du jour is asked, ask participants to raise their hands if they’d like to comment on it.
  • As facilitator, write down names in the order people raise their hands. That’s the order they get to comment in, except:
  • If it is your first time commenting, you go to the top of the list.
  • If only men are on the list and you are not a man, you go to the top of the list.

John’s notes

Set expectations, that were specifically mentioned

  • You do not have to participate directly. It’s ok just to be here.
  • Keep answers short (towards the end this turned into, keep answers less than 1 minute, then when we had little time, keep answers less than 30 seconds).
  • The goal here isn’t to exhaustively answer a question. I might even move to the next question at the height of interest to encourage all of you to use this talk to spawn new talks!
  • If I miss someone, point at them.
  • Before you talk, state your name.
  • First time speakers go first.
  • Keep a list of who wants to talk.
  • Forecast what is next. A, B, C person will go next. X, Y question are next.
  • Remind people of time. We have 10 minutes left. We have 5 minutes left.
  • Thank people after they make a contribution.
  • Use hand gestures to indicate someone should wrap up their comment.
  • Point out trends. “Let’s all keep in mind that 6 men just spoke in a row.”
  • Call out what everyone is thinking before they can say it and tangent the talk, “Before we all jump in and argue about why so and so country failed in WW2, let’s agree to disagree and move on.”
  • Use alibis and appeals to outside authorities when moderating people in ways they might react negatively to. “That’s a great point, but in the interest of time with 5 minutes left…” “Great topic, let’s tackle that topic in its own conversation after this…” “Congratulations, that only took 1 minute and 45 seconds, let’s see if we can beat these times to keep things shorter and shorter so we can hear from everyone.” “Awesome, 59 seconds, who can do 45 seconds next time!”
  • Be handsome and smile!!!

Video example

If you want to see how this worked out in real life, here’s a link to a video that was recorded by the awesome people running LGC 2016. The first 24 minutes are introductions of the four experts (panelists). The actual debates starts at around 24:00, and if you go completely nuts and watch it all, there’s also a Part 2.

Written by

Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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