Useful Conference Tips

conference MC Facilitation tool

Could This Be The Best Facilitation Tool Ever?

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I’ve been facilitating for over 20 years now and am always on the lookout for effective facilitation tools. So when I came upon this I got excited. The story goes that at Virgin’s head office, in their boardroom, is an empty chair. The chair represents the customer, so whenever Sir Richard and his executives get together, symbolically the customer is right there with them. This way they are reminded to see things from the customer’s point of view and not just their own.

Powerful Stuff. And one of the best facilitation tools ever.

Facilitation needs a third person perspective

Often when we’re drawing ideas from others and trying to find creative solutions we get caught up in our own point of view and fail to see things from the point of view of others. As a result we limit our thinking and may even fail to see opportunities outside of our own vision. A third person view of the world can very often make all the difference and so it’s important to see things from someone else’s perspective. To come up with quality business solutions it’s vital to see things in different ways. 

And this is exactly what the empty chair does.

I often use this as a device when facilitating business sessions and also when coaching executives. It is also a brilliant device I often use when facilitating conference sessions. By placing an empty chair at every table and as delegates work through various tasks and problems. They are constantly reminded to consider the customer’s voice, needs, and point of view. As a result, they arrived with solutions that are not from their own point of view but from the point of view of the customer. 

A Facilitation tool to see things through other people point of view.

The empty chair can be used to represent other people as well, such as your stakeholders if they’re opinions and influence are important. Or perhaps the chair could represent a mentor or role model who can symbolically advise you and prompt you to see things differently. 

So why not place an empty chair in your office, boardroom, or creative space? Let it be a reminder to get out of your own head and into the head of someone else and see things from their point of view.

It’s a fantastic facilitation tool to use.

Other related articles to help you get the most from your meeting or events include ‘How to get the most from your conference mc or facilitator’ and ‘4 ways to create delegate engagement at your next meeting or event’.

5 ways to destroy your meeting or business event.

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Like me, you may spend an enormous part of your life in meetings and business events. Whether they are conferences, internal WIPs (work in progress), or boardroom sessions.

I have literally spent my life in conferences and meetings, it’s what I do, and face-to-face meetings and events are very hard to replace. But they can also be non-efficient and costly when done wrong. Fortunately, they are certain pitfalls which can easily be overcome.

So here’s a simple checklist of things to avoid because we if eliminate the bad what we are left with is the good.

Too many things.

Like a good movie where there is a very clear plot with a very clear problem for the hero to solve, a meeting (whether a one on one, business event or a conference of 4000) needs to have a clear objective. Not many, just one. Again, like a movie, once there are too many story-lines it gets hard to follow, and sure there may be subplots involved but they support the main story.

Meetings are no different. As soon as you try cover too many objectives and solve too many problems your participants will become unclear as to why they are there, and what you want them to achieve and worse still, they will then start to dis-engage.

You need to have a clear meeting objective. 
Here’s a simple rule. One meeting, one objective.

Buy-in instead of ownership at your business event.

One of the biggest challenges with a meeting is getting people engaged and staying engaged. Part of the reason that fails is because meeting holders go for buy-in and not ownership. The difference is that you can thrust buy-in onto someone. For example, stating that ‘if you’re not there you are sacked’ will get people buying in to going but it won’t get them engaged. Ownership however is when you find a way for them to want to be involved and to take ownership of the objective and outcomes.

So get them involved early, communicate well, ask for their input and listen.

Squirrel Chasing at meetings

Remember the movie ‘Up’ where the dogs have voice translators on their collars so they can talk to you. However every so often they get distracted and yell out ‘Squirrel!’. When people in meetings get sidetracked and chase squirrels nothing will get resolved. Maybe if you are having a ‘Think Tank’ or ‘Ideation Session’ then squirrel chasing can be advantageous BUT only if it’s directed and structured properly.

The antidotes for squirrel chasing are having a clear objective (one, not many), and designing the right structure and agenda.

Not having a good facilitator

There is an art to facilitating, and yes I am bias. A good facilitator talks less and listens more. They pick up on trends and the flow of conversations, they find open doors of conversation to go through and explore, they ask provocative questions and are prepared to take a hit for the team. And most importantly they are unbiased.

I believe every meeting needs a good, or professional facilitator because they ensure everything that occurs serves the objective and the purpose of the meeting or business event itself.


Some meetings and events end up as dictatorships where the chair or the holder of the meeting doesn’t just drive it, they won’t let anyone else in the car. Yes meetings need to have someone take the lead, to direct things but that is very different from being bombastic, failing to listen to participants and not being open to ideas.

A great meeting or event is where communication doesn’t flow one way but is multi-directional.

Also check out How to get the most out of your conference facilitator or MC

4 ways to create delegate engagement using downtime at your next meeting or event.

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I don’t know about you but it seems to me that too often there simply isn’t time to think or ponder, or have those all-important candid conversations about things.

As human beings we need time and space to digest ideas and mull over discussions and simply let things sink in. It’s the downtime that allows us to effectively learn and more importantly process information.

Think about your own experiences and you’ll find it’s often during this free time that the best ideas present themselves or the penny drops about a topic or conversation we’ve just been part of.

So why is it then that in the world of meetings and events too often we are presented with agendas that are crammed so full that no one has time to breathe let alone think?

To effectively get people to engage with the content, take on board what is being discussed and more importantly act on it, downtime is paramount.

When designing a conference program or a meeting schedule we need to consider the downtime and free space as being just as important as the busy bits. If not more so. Especially when it comes to engaging your conference audience.

So here are four ways to design effective downtime.

Make sure you have time buffers between sessions.

Having a presentation finish at 10.30am and the next starting at 10.31am is ludicrous, (and yes it does happen). Not only do sessions run over but you need time for the audience to digest what has just been said, perhaps chat about it for a bit and then reset for what is coming next. Have at least 5 minutes between sessions

Allocate participation time

Just before everyone heads out to a break have a good portion of time for your facilitator or MC to get people revisiting the sessions they have just experienced. Get them to talk about what one thing really stood out for them or how they can apply the information to their own workplace.

Design time for serendipity

Let’s face it, some of the best moments, ideas and opportunities happen when you least expect them. It’s during those candid conversations that ideas are triggered, new relationships are built and clarity strikes. You can’t force serendipity but you can help it along by providing the right stimulus and the right environment. Which also means you need to allow plenty of free time for it to occur.

Delete and Space.

Finally and most importantly, look over your program and make sure there is at least 5-10 minutes of free time for every hour. Cut down the length of sessions if you have to. Be brave and delete 15 minutes either end of the day and then space the remaining sessions out. Your delegates will love you for it because they’ll have enough time to engage and connect with your content, your message and find ways to act on it.

A related article is ‘5 ways to destroy your meeting or event’ and ‘Could this be the best facilitation tool ever‘.


Find out how Nigel can help facilitate or MC  your next conference or event. 

Conference Facilitator and Conference MC

How to get the most from your conference facilitator and MC.

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I was recently driving with my son through Sydney when the car in front of us switched lanes without any warning right in front of another vehicle. Behind was another car who then needed to slap on their brakes to give everyone room. I calmly explained to my son ‘that’s why you need the 3 second rule’. You know, the one that says no matter the speed you’re doing make sure there is always a 3seconds between you and the car in front. Sadly there are a few drivers out there who don’t know about the 3 second rule. (Good thing I’m perfect!)

If we have buffer zones when driving then why don’t we have buffer zones in event run sheets? To get the most from your conference facilitator or MC you need to ensure there is enough room – timewise.

So often in event programs there is no room for error when it comes to time, if one keynote speaker goes overtime, or your delegates are late from a break, it creates a cascading effect catch-up and havoc. It throws the next few speakers out, shortens Q&A, annoys your sponsors when you cut 10 minutes from lunch and they have less selling time, and your conference facilitator becomes a glorified timekeeper. So I’m jumping on my soapbox and making a plea! Please add, at least, a 5-minute buffer between presentations. ‘Hang on Nige’ I hear you say, ‘if I have 8 speakers during the day that’s 40 minutes of downtime!’ Yes, that’s right, although I’d say it is 40 minutes of productive time. And there are three very good reasons for that.

Here are three reasons why your conference facilitator will love you:

You’ll get the most out of your conference facilitator.

You’re paying good money for your conference facilitator (at least I hope you are) so you want to give them the time needed to edify your speakers, create links, add relevant anecdotes, energise people, and get participants thinking and talking about what they just heard. A good facilitator is a theme weaver, and it’s their job to support and enhance your program, and they can only do that if you give them enough time to do so, otherwise you’ve paid someone who only has time to thank the previous speaker and introduce the next one.

You’ll get the most out of your keynote speakers.

No matter how well you plan someone is going to go over time and the last thing you want is other speakers stressing out. Many internal speakers are thrown (and sadly many professional ones too) if you ask them to trim their time. I’ve coached loads of executive presenters over the years and the one thing I wish I didn’t have to teach them is how to build their presentations so they can cut 5 or 10 minutes off if they need to, without affecting their message or delivery.

Your delegates will learn more, retain and apply more.

Building buffers also helps your conference participants get more from the sessions. Humans need time to digest things, especially when it’s new. Having buffers gives them that chance because it allows them to think about and talk about key points and how to apply them. And it allows them to empty their brains and reset for the next presentation. Neuro-science tells us that the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking part of your brain) drains itself of energy fast and needs to recharge every 20 -30 minutes. (This is one of the reasons for the trend of shorter presentations – but that’s another topic)

It takes the stress out of things for everyone.

I know I said three but this one kind of sums it all up. Nothing more to be said really.

Just as keeping 3-seconds distance between you and the car in front might seem excessive, having a 5-minute buffer between speakers may seem unnecessary, but it will make sure you arrive safely at your conference destination. It will also make sure your participants get the most from the journey and that you get the most from your conference facilitator,
your speakers, and your sponsors.

By the way, this article first appeared in micenet magazine in December 2017. Nigel Collin was the author.
Also read ‘
4 ways to create delegate engagement using downtime at your next meeting or event and 5 ways to destroy your meeting or business event.

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