As presenters look to make their workshops more interactive and involve participants in more discussions and activities, they are going to be drawing more on facilitation beliefs, skills, and techniques. In teaching presentation design and delivery to a variety of subject matter experts, one thing stands out for me: many take a very linear approach to their talks: A leads to B followed by C and don’t even thinking of skipping D before moving on to E. So what’s the problem? You identify your outcomes, select the appropriate content, and then outline your talk in the most logical order. Then off you go, right?
Think of your talk as a road trip. If you have only one route to get to your planned destination, what will you do when caught in a massive traffic backup or when you encounter an unexpected detour? What about the need for rest stops at times other than your planned breaks? Or how would you respond to seeing a billboard for an interesting site, one requiring a detour from your path?
A presentation’s road trip with participants often doesn’t unfold as planned either. They know more (or less) than anticipated. They want to ask questions at a time we weren’t planning on taking them. They show up in numbers greater (or fewer) than envisioned. If you’ve only prepared for one path to get you from A to Z, it’s going to be a very long ride through the alphabet.
Just as a facilitator reads the group she is working with and adjusts the questions she poses to move them forward, so must presenters prepare more for real-time adjustments. A quarterback who sees the defense line up in an unexpected formation might call an audible to adjust the play originally called. So should speakers prepare to adjust their outline, format, and flow based on what the participants reveal to them as a session unfolds.
But wait, shouldn’t speakers just go in and deliver their talk as planned and let people take it as presented? In some settings or roles this may be the best options. But in general, we must bridge our content with what participants want and need. If we only have one planned way to do so, we are unlikely to be successful. The key is to over-prepare, but under-present, introducing chunks of content as necessary and letting the conversation of each one expand as participants engage with it.
For every content segment in a workshop I present, pre-plan multiple formats for how it could be delivered and then select one as your initial choice. But let's say the group's energy lags during your session and your next planned teaching technique is low-energy and more reflective. Call an audible and switch to a more engaging teaching technique, one of the options you considered during your preparations. Or if the group really got into an earlier segment and you now have less time available than you anticipated, tweak the format for the next segment to cover the same content in less time without it feeling rushed.
Build slide decks that include additional content you can turn to if the participants' needs or knowledge levels differ from what you expected. If you've planned for an intermediate to advanced audience, and those that show up possess more basic or intermediate knowledge, you're going to need to approach your content differently. Having those extra slides allows you to do so seamlessly.
Plan to manage the clock so to allow for interesting detours from the planned path that support the stated outcomes for the workshop and match participants' interests and energy. Doing all this requires having content knowledge that is deep in your muscle memory: you can call on it reflexively. This allows your real-time attention to focus not on your notes, but on the participants' needs and interests.
So do outline your workshop and chart a preferred path, but also maximize the pre-planned options you can select from to appropriately deviate from it. Participants will appreciate your flexibility in addressing their needs, and you’ll bend almost effortlessly because of your extra work upfront.
Remember, you're there to facilitate their learning, not your planned presentation.