Saturday, April 27, 2013

Presidents and Protocol: Facilitating Processes with High Level Participants

First of all, I wouldn't dare give any tips about what exactly to do when you have Presidents, Vice Presidents, members of a Royal Family etc. involved in your event. In my experience, every country has its own preferred protocol, and you can be sure that these high-level people also have a team around them who can help you understand and follow it. Normally if you send an invitation that is accepted by one of these people, the response will come from their office and potentially with these protocol instructions - if not immediately, then ask, you will absolutely need it in designing your sessions with them!

I did however want to make some observations about what kinds of things might be involved in working with protocol for these high-level speakers (as often they are coming in and out of plenaries to address your group.)

I recently worked on a large event on hunger, nutrition and climate justice which brought together 350 high level policy makers and decision makers with  farmers and herders and fisherfolk (mostly from southern countries) to connect the policy landscape with the actual landscape. As work in the policy arena storms ahead on the post-2015 Development Framework and the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), the event aimed to help those involved at the intergovernmental level base their work on a better understanding of the rights and realities of the lives of the people most affected.

It was an exciting event and because it had lots of buzz, those high-level invitations were answered positively, and the event was hosted by the country's President, and attended by a past President, the Deputy Prime Minister, another country's Former Vice President, and many Ministers from all over the World, heads of various UN Agencies, etc.  So there was a lot of work to make sure that all the the right protocol was followed and also built into the design of the event.

Here are some of the things that I noticed that we needed to include in our preparations:

  • Get Their Full Titles - There will be an official way to introduce and call upon these highest-level participants. You will need to get the official title for their first introduction (and it might be very long and include His or Her Excellency or the entire official name of their country that you rarely hear spoken). However, after the initial introduction, often they can be called a shortened form of that. There will also be personal preferences, so even if official protocol says one thing for the shortened form, check with one of the office members to see what the person likes to be called. Some high-level people are more informal than others and like to go from the very long title to something much simpler after that (I noticed this especially with some of the younger European Royal Family members in other events, but it was also the case in this event.) Again, their teams will tell you that. And finally, even if they wish to be called something more informal, anything written into an agenda or on the screen needs to remain their full official title.
  • Ask About Seating Arrangements and Accompanying Individuals- There will be a sequence to seating that is usually determined by the hierarchy of people on the stage, so again you can ask about that. There might be some change, as we had, because it can be the case that your session is long and one of the high-level participants needs to leave early for another meeting that outranks this one, so make sure you know what is happening for each of them on either side of their speech. We also noticed that some of the highest level decision-makers will need to have other people with them, even on stage. It could be a spouse and/or a uniformed person who ostensibly carries documentation, etc. We had both of these, so the chair set up on stage needed to reflect this. Seating for some people who wish to stay for more of the session needed reserved front row seats by the door with signs labelled with the person's name and again, we needed to know this in advance and get those signs on very early before any very keen participants arrived.
  • Fix Timing to the Minute- When it comes to having in the highest level of speakers in a country, at least in this case and in others I have encountered, the timing of the sessions needs to be done down to the minute and needs to stay on that time. Often the person(s) are in a holding room prior to their stage intervention (unless they are in the front row), and it can be the case that the protocol determines that they cannot wait at the door while the previous speaker stops (at all or for more than a few seconds). So you will need, as we had, a signal system between the MC and a team member in the front row and another at the door, and the person who is walking the high-level person down from the holding room. All this needs to be set up in advance (the signal - we used a discreet thumbs up.) Cell phones with the person in the holding room and at the door were also helpful and for over 10 minutes before the highest level speakers came on, we were texting to try to determine how we were doing on time, where the person was, etc.  In the end, it worked smoothly, the doors opened, he came on stage and started his speech.
  • Don't Expect Interaction On Stage - For the highest level speakers, interaction will be contained (for the most part) with the MC or other speakers on stage. This can take some time in an agenda that is minute-by-minute, as often when they come on stage, they will stop and shake hands with everyone else already onstage before taking the podium. This was the case for the highest level in-office speakers, but for other speakers who were past high-level office holders, there was also unfacilitated and informal interaction during our event. One former Vice President stayed afterwards and spoke to participants and had many photos taken, another past President attended the whole event and was totally engaged in discussions and shared meals and stories with participants. At one event some years ago, which featured a speech by a high level member of a Royal Family, she kindly wanted to meet our 100+ participants afterwards and we needed to set up the greeting area in a particular way (with small tables for waiting by country), with guidelines that we all followed on what to do for greeting, and instructions on how that part of the visit would flow. We practiced with all 100 people in advance, with a very good humoured member of her office, which was actually quite fun. (One additional element of this ceremonial visit was finding a place for a helicopter to land at our venue.)

It is always exciting for participants to have the opportunity to be addressed by very high-level participants, and as noted above, this will always come with some how to instructions by their helpful offices. These inputs can be ceremonial and also contribute some additional gravitas to an event, they can help bring attention to your event from the Press and others, they can underline its importance and help connect what you are doing with what is going on at that level of decisionmaking. And an added bonus might be a warm handshake and a thank you from someone you have only seen in the news, as I received at this last conference, which is always nice to receive.

(For more information on the conference see: The Dublin Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tips for New Facilitators: What If No One Answers My Question?

Q: What if no one answers my question? 

You're facilitating a group discussion, you throw out a zippy stimulating question and expectantly wait for an answer - but there's no reply, nothing, only an awkward waning silence and no one making eye contact with you. One facilitator I heard recently who was confronted with this, paused and said, "I hear tumbleweed..."

What do you do?
a) Say, "OK, never mind" and go on:
b) Start to babble incessantly to fill the void:
c) Pick on people by name to answer;
d) Wait.

Well, of course, any of the above (except perhaps "b") can be appropriate in some context. If it's not the right time for a question and there's no energy for it (like when you are 30 minutes late for lunch) then "a" works, and you can come back to your question after lunch. If you know the group and they are familiar with each other (whether they work together or have been together a few days) then answer "c" might work. In many situations answer "d" could work - a nice big pause and perhaps a rephrasing of your question.

But for new facilitators this on-the-spot decision making among these options can be terrifying.

I just had a young facilitator about to run a session earnestly ask me this question, and here was my advice (note that all of these things you can do in the design and preparation stage BEFORE you ask the question):

  1. Design away from it: Don't ask that question for a plenary response in the first place. Instead ask the question and ask people to discuss it at their tables or in a pair/trio first and then ask the pairs or table for their answer. It is easier to answer on behalf of others - it takes the risk out of it. Also, with the buzz in the room first, people get used to their own voices in the room instead of yours and re-appropriate the workshop space for themselves.
  2. Build in a moment to think: Tell people in advance that you will give them a minute to think first, and then will ask for a few responses. This helps people who are thinkers or "processors" in the room to refine their ideas and not shoot from the hip (which they feel comfortable doing). It might also get you more thoughtful and better quality responses.
  3. Recruit allies: Tell a few people in advance about your question and ask them if they can answer if there is total silence in the room. Have them hold back for a moment to see if anyone answers and then give them a meaningful look if not.
  4. Write it down: Put the question up on the screen or flip chart - sometimes people don't answer because they didn't quite catch the question,  its too complex or long to remember, or they were sneezing (or heaven forbid checking their email) when you asked it. 
  5. Quality check it: Make sure it is a great question BEFORE you ask it. Test it with someone else - is it clear? Easy to answer? Appropriate? The right question at the right time? 
Also, the better your question is, the more useful it might be to use some of the above options, as big pauses particularly occur when your question is one of those great, positively disruptive questions that might challenge the group's current paradigm and really provide food for thought. So be prepared  If you can do some of these things, you are much less likely to hear that tumbleweed after asking your question. 

Preaching to the Choir - Learning for Environmentalists

I work with many environment and development groups working together in meeting/conference settings which often match content experts as speakers for audiences of members from their own community (e.g. sustainability experts talking to other sustainability practitioners). Depending on the level of intervention, this reflection often gets labelled as "preaching to the choir".  I'm sure this is a familiar occurrence.  I just heard  an interesting quote about this phenomenon:

"I'm preaching to the choir, which is challenging, because they are busy singing and can't hear you."

This quote made me smile and I found it particularly thought provoking because we might think that our "choir" (sustainability colleagues) doesn't listen because they already know the content, but perhaps they are not listening because they are mega-multi-tasking trying to get the message out themselves (if you see how many people are on their email etc. during these events, it must be that :-)