The Instant Facilitator

Apart from school debating and one lecture presentation, nothing prepared me for my debut as an instant facilitator.

I was an attendee for a computer user conference at the World Congress Centre Melbourne at Crowne Plaza. As part of the Queensland branch of the group, I had been asked to introduce each speaker and then ask for questions once they had finished. This was easy. Usually there were no questions and I wrapped it up quickly. Or with too many questions, I left everyone to continue the conversation out the door after the presentation finished.

Which meant I was completely unprepared for the last session of the conference.

Participants in plenary sessionFifteen minutes beforehand, I was taken aside and asked to lead. I almost went into apocalyptic shock. This was a plenary session. Me in the middle, five geek gurus on my left and several hundred system managers, developers, engineers and sales people in front of me. I was outgunned and more than a little overwhelmed.

And my preparation didn’t help either. I quickly scanned the names of the experts. I saw that one of them had worked on an previous incarnation of the currently popular operating system. That old clunker had a command called show stardate. I thought I could use that as my icebreaker.

I turned around and the fifteen minutes have disappeared in seconds. I walked to the podium. I waited for the geek gurus to sit. Then I wait for the audience to file in.  I made sure to keep my hands behind the podium. If exposed they would be glistening from sweat.

I introduced myself. Then the experts. I make my joke about the show star date command. And I die. I received a dirty look for my troubles.
Andrew Whalan FacilitatingI had no choice. I had to go on. Then it didn’t matter. I opened up the session for questions. And then I stepped into a different space and time. I’m suddenly aware of who was asking questions and what they really meant. Every so often, I would take a question and then ask for more information. Or paraphrase the question back to them for clarity. Both I found helped the experts with their answers.  I’m not sure but I may have asked questions of them myself : I now know I tend to do that if no one else is asking.
It worked brilliantly. I was relaxed. I even apologised to the man at the back dressed in black sitting in front of a dark wall who I couldn’t see too well.
It went so easily. Except I’d never facilitated before and had only spoken in public on one other occasion. So what happened?

Does The Pen Hear More than the Keyboard?

“I probably won’t be using that.”
It wasn’t a derisory or demeaning disclaimer. Just a calm statement: this is not for me.
I never was much of  a software salesman anyway. I had livened up a not-so-interesting training session by describing an upcoming software feature. It may or may not be in the next future possible major release! Geekspeak for I don’t know what the developers are doing).
Simply stated, instead of scanning in notes, they could be typed through an electronic form.
As my trainee wasn’t rude or abrupt, I nodded in agreement, at first. Only later did I realise how much of what she said really applied to me.
The conversation continued as she expanded upon her point. Besides the training session had ended and time was not of the essence.
She said that people say more when you take handwritten notes. She restated her point as people say less when you type notes on a computer.

Blue Pen on Paper

Blue Pen on Paper

 Instantly I thought of my last doctor’s appointment. As soon as he finished talking to me, he swivelled in his chair, he began  typing. Automatically  I stopped talking. I waited until  he had entered his notes and printed the prescription. I only realised later that had I anything important to say, it would have been lost. Admittedly, medical personnel don’t have as much time as me.
But it was exactly as my trainee was saying to me. But it went deeper than that. It applied to me more than I knew.
As a desktop support operative, people used to make fun of what I carried around with me. It was rather ancient and certainly non-technical.  People thought that it was funny that I carried around a pen and two (paper) notebooks. One was a diary and the other was a scratchpad. So many people remembered that when I left, I received an electronic diary as a farewell present. Sharp Electronic Organiser-open
But those two notebooks had a strange effect on myself and my workmates. Firstly, it was quite odd how well I remembered what I didn’t write down. For as I recalled my notes, other details would be revealed.  And secondly, in the presence of a (real) notebook, my workmates would reveal more detail about their problems than if I turned up empty handed. Often I found I solved more than one problem at once. Thirdly,  I also was able to record my successes and failures. Which was useful for future reference and self-defence.
And this conversation, threw light on my weaknesses and strengths as a technical writer and trainer. Upon reflection, I found I recalled more from handwritten notes than typed ones. And certainly more from handwritten lecture notes too. And again,in the presence of the pen and notepad, subject matter experts revealed more detail than when the keyboard was listening. Which meant that I found out what people needed to know not what was nice to know. In other words, by picking up a pen and paper, I (unknowingly) did my job better.
And now as a writer (there I’ve said it now : there’s no turning back), I find the pen and paper are often better tools for me to express myself and record than a keyboard. I handwrite first and then type into the computer.  Although that doesn’t work for everyone, just me.
Besides, that was the role of my trainee : to find out as much as possible about people’s problems before making her diagnosis.

Where Is My Laptop?

 

I got the phone call about five minutes before the meeting was due to start. Someone important needed a laptop set up for a presentation.  Knowing the type of laptop and the meeting room setup, I knew it would be easy, just plug the laptop in and the screen would show itself in seconds.

I knew the important personage’s department had two spare laptops. I also knew the right person to speak to. I also knew this person would be in the meeting in five minutes also.

I raced down the fire escape and barged through the double doors. I just got the administrative manager as he was leaving for the meeting.

“So and so needs a laptop for the meeting.”

Where is my laptop?

Where is my laptop?

“Both have been booked out. So and so couldn’t organize a shipwreck.”

My thought was the Cunard line couldn’t either with the Titanic ( It wasn’t Cunard, it was the White Star Line). I kept my silence for a change and thought furiously. Who else did I know has a spare laptop?

Plan B? One of the other departments had account managers. They occasionally went out and visited clients and left their laptops behind. So I took it upon myself to liberate one of their laptops. I informed his colleagues as to the reason why.

Once I had the laptop, I had to set it up. This particular laptop had to be setup slightly differently : a process that would take time. I raced into the meeting room and connected the laptop. As I entered everyone looked up.  All the staff for the meeting were there. But not the manager. He had disappeared. And I needed him to login and make sure things work. I logged in. And it worked for me.

My next mission was to find him. I checked all the offices on that floor. I went back upstairs and checked. I finally returned downstairs and told his staff. He still had not reappeared. So I left it and went back to the conflicting priorities that had beset me beforehand. I thought all was well. It wasn’t as I was to find out.

A few days later, I was greeted by an external consultant. After I asked her how she was, she told me truthfully. Then she asked me to extract some files from a media device. As I did she told me her story.  I was extracting the presentation the important personage was supposed to have given several days ago. Obviously, he failed to do so.

I wonder what he said about me when he couldn’t do the presentation…

I always thought that it’s not what you know, but who you know. In this case, that almost worked for me. But this time it was when you found out.

Now as a trainer, I always set up as early as possible. This is why.

 

 

 

Bunnies in a Basket : Facilitation Before Persuasion

Keeping Bunnies in a Basket by Annabel Crabb is still one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. And today things became more complicated with Glenn Lazarus resigning from the Palmer United Party.

Funnily enough, despite being political, I didn’t immediately think of politics. No, selfishly, I thought of myself.

You see, managing stakeholders is a required superpower for anyone who is a trainer, technical writer, instructional designer, change manager, community engagement manager, social media manager, and a myriad of other occupations including politics.

For me, stakeholders appear in three flavours. They are either subject matter experts, authorised approvers or both.

Subject matter experts usually are excellent to work with once they see how their contribution is relevant.

If they are an authorised approver, then even better.

It’s the latter category, when the authorised approvers are removed from the content, that the situation becomes much as Annabel Crabb has described.

Then it becomes complicated. It’s like sending one document to twelve people at once and then attempting to incorporate their changes at once (that didn’t work out very well). Or having document approval withheld until a process change was carried out (that didn’t work out well either). It’s then that the soft skills of stakeholder management of facilitation, consultation and collaboration and making people’s contribution relevant especially come to the fore. The harder skills of persuasion and escalation may also be required but only as a last resort.

While there’s no guarantee of success using these soft skills, they do go a long way to solving the bunnies in a basket problem. Certainly there is less guarantee of success using the harder skills.  Even in politics, minister. Even in politics.

 

 

 

What a Training Evaluation Should Be

A friend asked me to put together an evaluation of a course. Here’s what I should have done:

Trainer Evaluation Form

Please rate your trainer’s performance using the following criteria.

Tone of Voice Soft Droning Really Really Enthusiastic
Sense of Humour Droll Funny Hilarious Good ROFL
Movement Stand Sit Walk Pace March
Body Language None

Tai Chi

Evangelistic
Dress Sense BackPacker Smart Casual Evening Suit
Eye Contact None Back Ceiling Furtive Staring
Trainee Interaction None One Trainee Only Anyone Single?
Favourite Expression

There’s always one!