Nothing worse than a facilitator?

June 9th, 2011

This stopped me in my tracks. I’d followed a link on Twitter to an interesting article on “How to give an academic talk V4.0′ when this jumped out at me: “In recent years, PowerPoint’s bullet list structure has been so overused that it can be more of a turn off than a facilitator.”

There’s some very sound advice in this paper by Paul N Edwards from the University of Michigan (and some I don’t agree with either, but that’s okay because I’m pretty sure not everyone agrees with all that I write either!).

And I’m not even that concerned about the bald statement about facilitators. What I am is curious. I want to know more. I want to know why facilitators can be a greater turn-off than a bullet-point list on powerpoint. I want to learn so I’m not one of those facilitators. After all, it’s how I make my living, so I should be interested.

There’s no easy way of engaging (the paper is a pdf), but I eventually found an email address.Β Here’s some of what I wrote.

I couldn’t find any further comments/evidence/examples/discussion (probably because it’s not a paper about facilitation, but one on presenting, so that’s fair enough). But I remain curious, probably because I make my living as a facilitator and would like to know more. Maybe it was tongue-in-cheek, maybe not. If not,

What experiences have you had of facilitation?

What has specifically turned you off? What other reactions have you had to facilitation?

What, in your opinion, do facilitators do wrong? Do right?

Are you just referring to academic presentations and the (often superfluous) role of a facilitator, or are you referring to all facilitation, including workshops?

I hope Paul responds. In the meantime, maybe you’d like to answer these questions too.

9 Comments so far

  1. Viv McWaters on June 9, 2011 10:05 pm

    Looks like I got the wrong meaning πŸ™‚ Here’s Paul’s response:

    Hi Viv –

    Glad you’re interested, but there’s a misunderstanding here.

    You are using the word “facilitator” as a noun to describe a role for a human being, but I am using it to describe the facilitation [easing, improvement, helpfulness] of presenting for the presenter, as in “bullet lists do not facilitate communication with the audience any more.”

    So – “more of a turnoff for the audience than a facilitator of understanding for the audience” would be a more spelled-out version of my sentence.

    I think facilitators are great – no snub intended!



  2. Dwight Towers on June 9, 2011 11:53 pm

    Hey Paul,

    thanks for clarifying, but I’m gonna pick up the gauntlet that Viv thought you’d thrown down and *I* am gonna throw it down!

    Viv – facilitators who make it all about them. Facilitators who over explain stuff because they haven’t done the preparation (writing things on paper and putting them on the tables to which the different groups have gone). Facilitators who constantly break into small group processes (usually from the centre, with a microphone, but the ‘chummy’ how are things going can be just as bad) with updates and “encouragement”. Facilitators who facipulate at the behest of their paymasters, providing the sheen of consultation while demoralising participants, patronising them and making real empowerment/participation etc that much harder next year because everyone has gotten cynical…

    How’s that for starters? (And if I thought you were capable of any of that above, we wouldn’t be friends!)


  3. Stuart Reid on June 10, 2011 9:46 pm

    What a nice exchange to read, between you and Paul! You were genuinely curious and non-defensive, and he was clear and warm in his response. Nicely done πŸ˜‰

  4. Viv McWaters on June 10, 2011 9:48 pm

    Thanks Dwight – I reckon it’s good to explore the shadow side of facilitation. I was reading something the other day about designing a presentation by Nancy Duarte where she said to make the audience your hero (rather than think of yourself as the hero) and I think too many facilitators put themselves in the hero role: I’m here to make it easy for you blah blah blah. And its true – I am capable of all of the above. The effort in facilitating is constantly trying to not do all those horrible facipulative things πŸ™‚

  5. David Herbert on June 12, 2011 6:17 pm

    What an interesting post and comments. It’s unfortunate that powerpoint’s default presentation is the bulleted list. The language itself is aggressive and masculinist and for me represents an unfortunate body language. It’s like the pointed finger that jabs away aggressively. Bullet points punch the message home. It is brutal. When I’ve suffered too many points made at me I begin to feel very needled. I used to feedback to people through bullet points – it made it look neat on paper but was perhaps too pointed for the receiver.
    What I find difficult is when the facilitator takes all the space/room – when there is no room left for questions and discussion.

  6. Viv McWaters on June 17, 2011 9:47 pm

    Thanks David – I completely agree with you about the facilitator taking up all the space. For me it’s all about handing over the space to the participants.

    My friend Chris Corrigan says bullets kill. Period.

    I agree.

    Cheers, Viv

  7. Chris Corrigan on June 25, 2011 12:05 pm

    I was just about to say that!

  8. Chris Corrigan on June 25, 2011 12:06 pm

    Also, Dwight…excellent comment. As facilitators we rarely get useful feedback and we even more rarely get to see bad examples of other facilitation ( I only work with geniuses, so I figure I’m the dimmest one in the room!).

    It’s good to hear what is a turn off for people, even though I can see where some or all of what you have listed are helpful strategies.

  9. vera on July 21, 2011 11:42 am

    A facilitator ought to come once, and teach the people in the group to facilitate as part of the gig. Teach them to fish… rather than creating a dependency.

    I have not run into a facilitator like that yet.

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