10 Tips for Facilitators (and why I hate public speaking)


Several years ago, I participated in a train-the-trainer program to become certified to facilitate a sales training program for my then-day job. As we were mock-facilitating sections of the training, the leader was giving us feedback. She said to me, “I’ll bet you were really good at speech class when you were in school.”


Confession: I was NOT good at speech class, neither in high school nor in college. Kind of an odd admission from one who spends much of her career in front of a classroom or audience. In fact, if you told me then that I would be doing anything remotely similar to “public speaking” for a career, I would’ve said you were crazy. When I began leading training sessions, it didn’t take long to realize what my issue had been: I was getting hung up on the formality of “giving a speech”, when “facilitating” is, in fact, a very different thing.

Facilitating is not all about the intro, the body, the conclusion. It’s not all about putting your thoughts into an outline or clutching a stack of neatly-written note cards in your sweaty hand. Sure, you need these things (or some variation), but the art of facilitating lends itself to a much more improvisational delivery, which I learned that I’m really good at. Over the years, I’ve been able to refine my craft; now, I can look back 20 years (another unsettling confession) and think of the advice I could give to circa-1993 Michelle…how I could have helped her get through those dreaded Speech classes and given her the confidence to know that she had some facilitation mojo just waiting to surface.

New trainers, sometimes-trainers, managers and subject-matter-experts who must lead training: this one’s for you! Here are 10 tips for becoming a more confident facilitator:

1. Make friends with your audience.

If you look at your audience as nothing more than strangers, they certainly will be…and your training session will likely be more stiff, reeking of formality. If you project warmth and friendliness, you put your participants (and yourself!) at ease, making them more likely to engage in the content you’re delivering.

2. Find your fans.

As you are facilitating, seek out the folks in your audience who are really interested in what you’re saying. These people are the ones who are making eye contact, nodding their heads, eagerly taking notes, asking and answering questions. Their engagement can be a huge confidence boost for you – clearly, you are making a good impression…keep it up!

3. Use your voice.

Sometimes, a subtle volume change can make a big impact or help you drive home an important point.  Your voice tone, volume, cadence, clarity and projection are all huge factors in successful facilitation. We’ve all been in a training session or other event where the leader had less-than-dynamic presentation skills. Or maybe you were seated at the back of the room and couldn’t hear very well. Keep those moments in mind; vow to NOT be that facilitator!

4. Get your audience involved.

Dr. Phil says it best — “It’s not about you!” Sometimes it’s hard for a facilitator to remember that. We often focus on our own delivery, our visual aids, our stellar presentation skills and the general razzle-dazzle we bring to our sessions. But it is about them.  About the audience. About the individual participants. Leverage thought-provoking discussions, small group exercises, strategically-placed questions and other interactive elements that immerse your participants in the content. As a facilitator, the magic often happens when you introduce a topic…and turn the audience loose to explore.

5. Practice makes confident.

I know, the expression is “practice makes perfect”. But you know what? Nothing’s perfect. Nobody is perfect. Technology fails. Markers dry out. Batteries run out of juice. In spite of the things that can go wrong, YOU can prepare, check, double-check, and be ready to power through any glitch that might come your way. Experienced facilitators, I’m sure you could provide dozens of examples of things that have gone wrong…and I’m sure you can provide dozens of examples of how you overcame the issue. Feel free to share in the comments – I’d love to hear your war stories!

6. Arrive early, stay late.

Showing up at least an hour before your session is scheduled to begin is a good rule of thumb. This allows you to get everything set up, run through your material a final time, and get your bearings before your attendees arrive; this will help alleviate any last-minute jitters!  You’re also there to greet your guests as they arrive, which sets the stage for rapport and “making friends”, like we discussed earlier. At the end of the day, stick around to answer final questions, exchange contact information or warm up potential leads for future events. Think of the impression one leaves when they show up at the last minute, and are packing up as soon as the session ends…yeah. Don’t be that person.

7. Remember that you are the expert.

And if you’re not the expert, keep working so you can become the expert. Keep in mind that the participants are looking to you to lead the session, and you have the expertise to provide the information they need. Knowledge leads to confidence.

8. Consider your room arrangement.

We can’t always change the room setup – sometimes we have to work with what we have. But whenever you can, make sure that the room is arranged in a way that is conducive for learning, collaborating, moving around…whatever your objective might be. For some topics, a classroom setup might work best; for others, you might try round tables. Maybe a U-shape…it varies!

9. Dress appropriately, but comfortably.

Know thy audience. If you’re presenting to a group of executives, you would probably dress differently than if you are working in more of a casual setting. Find the style that works for you and for the setting. Once you determine what would be appropriate, make sure you are comfortable! Facilitators are on their feet a lot! Make sure your outfit isn’t too tight or constrictive. Does it have buttons or ties that you might be fidgeting with all day? You might leave that one hanging in the closet.  And then we have the shoe situation – if anyone knows me, you know that I am definitely a shoe girl. I love my heels! I have my go-to heels that I can tolerate for a long day of standing…and I avoid breaking in a new pair on the day of the event (been there, done that, dealt with the blisters…not fun). Like I said, appropriate, but comfortable, is the name of the game!

10. Smile. Better yet…laugh!

Now, I might be a little biased, but facilitating is a blast. Convey your passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter, and ENJOY your audience!  Your authenticity, sincerity and knowledge will speak volumes to your crowd. Even when things don’t go as planned (and it happens!), maintain your sense of humor. Have fun with it!

It’s your turn now…veteran facilitators out there, what tips do you have for trainers or presenters who might be getting started or finding their stride? What lessons has your experience taught you? I’d love to hear your stories!

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11 thoughts on “10 Tips for Facilitators (and why I hate public speaking)

  1. Jeff Welch says:

    Michelle, yet another great post!

    I took my first public speaking class in college many years ago. It was a last ditch effort because the ethics class I wanted to take was full. I’m so glad I did. As an attention-starved only child, the attention that I got from being “on platform” in front of an audience was addictive to me! I actually ended up majoring in Speech Communications from that very experience.

    While I’m thankful for my formal training, I did have to learn that delivering a speech is NOT the same as facilitating. However, I had to learn this the hard way, when I naturally gravitated to a career in corporate training. The training courses that I delivered early in my career seemed more like a courtroom briefing than a true learning event.

    Things changed when I received (and incorporated) some great advice from a mentor. My mentor knew that I liked to entertain (throwing dinner parties, informal get-togethers, etc.) She recommended that I treat my training courses the same way.

    Much of what you mentioned in your post from arriving early, to making the event about them (“your guests” as my mentor put it), to rolling with the punches when things don’t always go as planned is some of the very BEST advice I’ve gotten in my professional career.

    Thanks for sharing, Michelle. I know your advice will prove to be helpful to someone!

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks for the great comment, Jeff…you and I are definitely kindred spirits in the learning realm!

      I couldn’t agree more; I treat my workshops and classes like a dinner party or similar event! I welcome my workshop “guests” to the room as I would welcome dinner guests in my home!

      Have a great week!

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