Right, any questions?

Stephen Hale
Lots of people in a crowd

I was on a video call with 341 people the other day. The presentation bit of it was fine, but the Q&A that followed didn’t meet many user needs.

The facilitators did their best, but I don’t think they’d put the same thought into how the Q&A might work, as they had into their presentation.

With hindsight, they might have invited fewer people. Or they might have asked people to submit text questions, with an extra facilitator tasked with curating and putting the questions on behalf of the 341. Or they might have just ditched the Q&A bit.

As it was, when they’d finished presenting they effectively said “Right, any questions?” and hoped to be able to muddle through. 

It was an extreme version of a fairly common experience. I bet we’ve all been on video calls over the last year with too many people, with people talking over one another, or people feeling unable to contribute at all. 

Facilitating useful conversations amongst groups of people is hard. It’s hard to do in person, and it’s hard to do over a video call. 

It’s hard to structure and steer the conversation in a useful direction. And it’s hard to make sure that all participants are able to fully take part. It takes a lot of planning, skill and experience to do it well. 

I facilitated a workshop recently with 12 participants. It was a few more than I expected to be there, and way too many to allow enough air time for everyone in the natural ebb and flow of a conversation. 

I switched to extreme structure – effectively taking a register, inviting each participant in turn to provide a response to each workshop theme.

It’s a version of a technique for chairing highly structured meetings that I think I first observed when working at the Foreign Office years ago. 

It puts people on the spot. But it means that everyone gets an equal opportunity to participate, which for this particular workshop was very important. 

And after we’d been down the register the first time, it provided a repeated rhythm that the participants could anticipate. They knew that their next chance to speak was never far away.

It worked (I think). But this kind of highly structured format wouldn’t work for all conversations. 

And it certainly wouldn’t have worked for that call between 341 people. To be honest, inviting questions from 341 people on a Teams call might be an impossible task, even for the most skilled facilitator.

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