Facilitating Connection – Episode 10

In this episode, Beth chats with Jan Keck, an experience designer, facilitator, and trainer whose mission is to help people feel less alone. Jan shares with us some of the ways he intentionally helps people create deeper human connection through facilitation.

Beth and Jan also explore:

  • Considering people’s senses and feelings when designing experiences
  • Increasing participants’ comfort levels – and therefore engagement – over time
  • The necessity of bringing more play into facilitations
  • Fostering connection with and between very large groups

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Podcast cover art by Emily Johnston of Artio Design Co.
Podcast production services by Mary Chan of Organized Sound Productions

Show Transcript

[Upbeat music playing]

[Show intro]
Beth
Welcome, to Facilitating on Purpose, where we explore ideas together about designing and facilitating learning. Join me to get inspired on your journey to becoming and being a great facilitator wherever you work. I’m your host, Beth Cougler Blom.

[Episode intro]
Beth
Hello, thank you so much for being here. Today’s episode is all about how we can foster and facilitate connection with and between our participants. My guest today is Jan Keck. Jan is an experience designer, a trainer, a facilitator, he’s a Dad, and a lot of his work has to do with helping people create engaging, inclusive and connecting experiences online. In this conversation, Jan shares with us how we can design an experience that helps people increase their engagement with the group over time. We talk about how we want people to feel when they come into our learning experiences, and also about how things like space really affect the conversation in the room as well. I think we can probably all agree that we need more meaningful human connection in our lives, and we certainly need them in our learning experiences! Do you agree? If you do, I think you really are going to enjoy what Jan has to share with us. Enjoy the show.

Beth
Jan, it’s so great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast. Nice to have you here.

Jan
Yeah, I wish I could be there physically. But we’ve been getting used to just connecting on Zoom. So I’ll take that because we are now really far apart.

Beth
We really are. And you were in Canada, now you’re in Germany. I have this hope and desire that someday I’ll be able to do a worldwide tour and visit all the facilitators that we’ve met around the world, particularly during the pandemic. It’s been pretty exciting that way. Have you felt the same? That your world maybe opened up in terms of connecting with other facilitators worldwide in the last few years?

Jan
Definitely. Because I think what I realized very quickly at the beginning of the pandemic, when I decided to move online, a lot of other people did. And suddenly, if you were doing something really cool in your personal space, like in your local city, you had to put it on the internet. And suddenly, people from whole other places, different continents, could find out about it. So I did connect with a lot of people because suddenly they all popped up with these really cool events and workshops and meetings.

Beth
I felt the same. And I was just talking with someone who I’m going to have on the podcast in the future the other day from the UK. And she said, you know, we would have never had this a bunch of years ago, that we feel like we’re in the same room together. And, you know, we’re connecting, and it’s a beautiful thing. You know, I’m really appreciating that about technology bringing us together.

Jan
Yes, for sure.

Beth
Now, if we think about connection. I mean, I know that’s the topic, that when I look at your website and the things that you’re doing, that was the thing that came out loud and clear for me. That you are very interested in deepening connection with people. What is it about bringing people together and helping people connect in meaningful ways that gives you the juice? Why is that meaningful for you?

Jan
I think it’s because I realized at different points in my life that I was really craving that personal, like, human connection. And I think like many people, or at least I assume that a lot of people, especially the ones who are listening to this podcast, have been to a networking event where you go with the goal of connecting with people. And when I moved from Germany to Canada in my early 20s, I did not know anyone, so I had to rebuild my whole social network. And I attended different events like every other day, for like weeks, months, I don’t know, maybe even years. And I would go to all of these networking events looking to meet people. But what I ended up walking away with was just a stack of business cards of people who I didn’t remember, and no real idea of what I should do with that. So it took me, I think it was about eight years of like building a social circle, but not realizing that everybody was still staying very much on the surface level.

The definition of a close friend, to me, is someone that I could, like, knock on their door in the middle of the night with a bottle of wine and say, “Hey, something happened, we need to chat, need to talk,” and they just invite me in and they help me solve whatever challenge I’m facing. And I realized I didn’t have that many people around, until this moment at the end of a weekend retreat, where I now say I made 30 new friends in 48 hours. They took a group of us outside of the city. There was no cell phone reception, so I turned off my phone. We did all of these self-growth exercise activities and we created a plan for the year. It was happening in January, so we made like a plan for the rest of the year. We climbed this structure in like the freezing cold with ice and snow around, and it was really uncomfortable. And we shared all of these vulnerable stories. And at the end on that last day, I now say I had this almost like spiritual experience where I could see people’s energy vibrating out of their bodies. Like, everybody was just so happy. We just did this beautiful closing ceremony. In my mind, it looked like the Carebears, the ones that shoot rainbows out of their bellies. Like, that energy was bouncing around the room. And I was like, wow, what is this and why haven’t I felt this great before? And for the few days after, it was like I was literally floating. It felt like I was floating down the street. When I was walking, I was not walking, I was floating.

And everybody that I talked to was like, “Oh my God, what’s going on, Jan? What did you do? What changed?” And to me, that moment, like that experience, made me realize that I haven’t had a lot of spaces or people around me where I could really be myself and still feel like I belong. Yeah, that was kind of the initial spark where I’m like, okay, I need to re-engineer what happened that weekend. I need to recreate experiences like this. I need to really share this with more people so more people can have that feeling of belonging in their lives.

Beth
What did they do differently that people hadn’t done before to bring you in to that and others?

Jan
I attended this weekend retreat thinking first that we’re going to work on our business goals. So I went with my business partner at that time for a different business, and we didn’t know anybody else. But from the arrival, like, I now know it and if people are into facilitation, you might have heard the term ‘unofficial start activity’ before. Like, we arrived, they gave us a nametag, and we could colour it in. And I was colouring my nametag while sitting next to other people, we started chatting, getting to know each other. We put stickers on our nametag, like, we just bedazzled our nametags that we kept for the whole weekend. And starting there they very slowly eased us into this whole experience. And of course, if you’re working on like personal growth, that requires you to share some vulnerable stories and like even share goals, which can be really vulnerable with a stranger. So there were lots of deep sharing happening. And then, because we did like the high ropes structure climbing thing outside in the cold, we also physically were very uncomfortable and we had to support each other. Like, your team had to hold the rope so you don’t fall down. Like, we’re literally learning how to support each other in that situation, being uncomfortable. I think all of these things, combined with the fact that we all came together because we shared similar values, was kind of the magical recipe.

Beth
When you think about vulnerability now, I mean, you said it, you know, it can be physically uncomfortable, the other ropes activity that you were doing. But what about the conversations with the strangers? I mean, there was vulnerability there. And what do you do about that with your own groups? How do you make it comfortable for people to be vulnerable? Because there’s sort of a good vulnerable and then there’s a really bad vulnerable? I think, isn’t there? [laughs]

Jan
I don’t know. Tell me a bit more about what you mean by the “bad vulnerable”.

Beth
I think maybe just really scary, you know, that we could maybe ask people to do too much too fast in terms of connecting with each other. Is there a continuum there? That’s kind of what I’m thinking about. How do you ease people into being vulnerable so that they can connect?

Jan
Yes, it’s definitely a process. It’s a journey. It’s not something that you can ask someone to do right at the beginning. I usually like to talk about the kind of ‘campfire formula’, a story that I tell often. Like, if anybody who’s listening ever has started a fire, you can probably imagine, even if you didn’t, if I hold a big log up to my tiny little lighter, it will not catch fire, nothing will happen. I have to first burn my paper and my little sticks and my tinder and put some kindling, like all of these terms of basically going from smaller sticks to larger sticks. And at the end, I can put my big log on the fire. To me that big log is the vulnerable conversation, maybe the activity or exercise that we ask our participants to do that is outside of their comfort zone. If we don’t take those smaller steps to get there, if we go too fast, then they might not be ready for it. I see this happen especially…Like, doing virtual facilitation, if you send participants to a breakout room, for example, in the beginning, but they weren’t expecting that it’s a breakout room and they didn’t have their camera on yet, you might see them just drop off the call because they’re like, “Oh, that was too fast, too quickly. I was not ready to be on camera, or share something or unmute.” So even with virtual experiences, I now approach everything from that lens of “How can we build this campfire slowly and steadily?” so, by the end, we can do the important thing.

Beth
I love a good metaphor. I mean, and you have a campfire burning behind you as I look at you and your Zoom window. And so, is this a reminder to yourself and others about this concept? You talk about it a lot, do you?

Jan
I do talk about it a lot, yes. I do host events where I bring like…by the way, this is not a real fire, it’s an LED light bulb, so nobody get worried about the fire alarm going off…but I did build them because I love to host events and workshops around a real fire if I can. But I created a bunch of LED fires that I also can take with me, and that I can put up indoors and in boardrooms. I just had it in a boardroom at a hotel in Switzerland over the weekend.

Beth
And I saw the recent event that you did in that other hotel because I asked you about it on social media because it was such a great venue. Which makes me think to ask you, if we think about creating experiences for people where they can connect, does the venue matter? You know, the place that you’re in, in Switzerland, the place where I saw you facilitating, and the other interesting-looking hotel. What does space have to do with connection?

Jan
I think it matters a lot. Unfortunately, we can’t always control it. At least we can shift it a little bit. I used to host a series of events in Toronto to just help people who don’t know anyone in the city, who are maybe new to the city or just moved there, and make their first connections. Ideally, turn them into friends by the end of an experience or set them up to become friends afterwards. When I picked the venues, it was more of a vibe that I was looking for than something specific. Like, to me personally, it had to feel homey and warm and welcoming. And there were a few places in the city that I would say had that just by default. Like, you would walk in, like one was a meditation studio, and they did have a fake fireplace and like, I’m gonna bring my LED campfire anyway, but this is already setting the right mood, the colours, the kind of light music in the background, but also the smell. Like, I did not notice this until I actually worked in that space, that the smell has a lot of influence also on how people feel. So they always had incense burning. I ended up getting a campfire-scented candle at one point to really get into that, like, campfire feeling when I have participants sitting around it. But yes, like lighting, all of it kind of plays a bit of a role to increase whatever is happening in the room. Like, I don’t think it’s a make-or-break. You can have a great connection in a grey boardroom with concrete walls. But it might be easier if it is a space where people feel more comfortable.

Beth
Absolutely. And you know, it sounds like you’re pulling together these items that you’re bringing into the space. I mean, you might be dealt the hand of whatever room you’ve been given, but you’re trying to make a change with the things that you’re bringing in. Is your facilitator’s toolkit absolutely huge? [laughs] Like, do you bring luggage upon luggage with you?

Jan
I’ve only done a few in-person things again now after COVID. So I’ve slowly rebuilt it. Also, I’ve moved, so I didn’t bring a lot of the things. Like, the campfire doesn’t fit in a suitcase. But the rest, I would say most of it would fit into a backpack and a carry-on suitcase. The workshop I did in Switzerland was in this beautiful hotel that kind of looks like a castle. But the boardroom that they booked was literally a boardroom with a big table in the middle and chairs around it. And I went the day before to visit it in person and I tried to figure out, can we move this table? Because I really didn’t like the idea of the table being in between people. Like, if there’s an obstacle in between two people, therefore their connection is going to be a little bit harder. If I could’ve taken the table out I would have, and I couldn’t, so I did bring my campfire and put that in the middle. I just tried to change a little bit of the dynamic. So we actually walked around in the space a lot. We kind of circled the table several times and in all kinds of directions, just to make the most of the space. But it was not my ideal environment.

Beth
I talked to a facilitator when I interviewed folks for my book, and one of them said that she brought tools into a session once and she dismantled that big board table that we’ve all seen. And she took it all apart and basically got it out of there. And then she put it back together and the client never knew. And I just thought that was sort of wonderfully subversive [laughs], you know, like, you’re going to come in and say, well, this doesn’t work, so I’m going to literally dismantle it. And then, okay, I guess I’ll put it back together for you folks to use it after I leave. But I thought that was great.

Jan
Yeah, I did not have the courage this weekend.

Beth
Maybe in the future we can try that. Add a literal toolbox to your kit. [laughs and pauses] I have your connection cards that you created. And I have not also had a chance to use them because I think I bought them maybe during the pandemic or just before and haven’t had a chance to use them with any groups because I too have been doing all sorts of stuff virtually. And it’s just sort of slow to come back in person. But I wondered if you’d be game for me asking you one of the cards to see what you have to say because I think these are a great resource for people. Would you be up for me picking a card from your own deck to ask you?

Jan
Sure. And I’ll also say this. Even if I do have an answer that I’ve given before, I give this challenge to myself. There’s 48 cards and I’ve probably answered every question several times. But I always try to find a new angle, a new story to share. So I keep it interesting for myself. And I haven’t used the cards in a while. So yeah, I’m totally up for it.

Beth
Okay, so maybe I’ll try to surprise you. But you can pick the category. So you have three categories – brave, vulnerable, and curious – in your deck. Which category would you like me to pick the card from?

Jan
Actually, I’ll quickly explain the categories because we just talked about the campfire.

Beth
Okay, yeah.

Jan
The categories are kind of the same system to help people kind of ease in. We start with the ‘curious’ questions, then when we’ve done a round of those, we go to the ‘brave’, and then you get to the ‘vulnerable’ ones at the end. Because if you start with those, it’s not going to work as well. You’re not going to feel as connected to people. You’re not ready because you haven’t built that trust yet. Therefore, I will start with ‘curious’.

Beth
Okay, that sounds great. Now, this isn’t a random pick, I must admit. I did pull this intentionally for you. Here it is. “If you had to give a talk about something you’re not known for, what would it be about?”

Jan
That’s a tough question because I love to talk about all kinds of things already. I don’t know how much I’m not known for loving to go camping and canoeing. Also something that I really miss since moving from Canada to Germany. I need to probably go to Scandinavia somewhere to get that again. But I think I would love to talk about how to prepare for an adventure going outdoors, and kind of what things you should bring, and how to pack them so you can transport them. Maybe what are some little tricks you can do to use one item for several things? Something like that.

Beth
I think there’s metaphors in there, too. I mean, you’re talking about preparing for an adventure. You know, this is about camping, but I think you do the same thing when you’re facilitating. And, you know, on your website, you have various interesting words about how you describe what you do, and one of them was ‘experience designer’, which I just love. Can you say more about how you prepare to design and facilitate these kinds of connective experiences that we’ve been talking about?

Jan
Yeah, when I found the term ‘experience designer’, I know that half of the people who use it probably are like ‘user experience designers’. Like, not something that I would call myself because I haven’t studied that topic. But just the idea of, I’m not designing a meeting, I’m designing an experience. Like, it’s so much more to me than just people coming together. Or even, like, I do love the word ‘gathering’, but even ‘experience’, like, it seems to me that there’s a lot more senses involved in that, and much more intention. When we think about designing something, it’s like designing it before it actually happened. One of the first things that I do before I design an experience is actually write down, “Okay, what is my intention for this? How do I want participants to feel at the end of this experience? What type of messages do I want them to share in the chat on Zoom or, like, on the feedback form?” And that’s kind of the end that I start with, and then kind of work backwards from there. That’s one of my first steps.

Beth
Asking yourself the question, “How do I want people to feel?” I think a lot of people don’t ask themselves that question. And maybe if they did, that would change a lot of people’s meetings. I mean, I’m kind of sad to hear that a lot of people are still having terrible meetings. Online, I should say. Maybe in person too. But, you know, the pandemic hit two and a half years ago. By the time this is going to air, it’s going to have been longer, maybe almost three years. And why are people still having bad meetings? Are they not asking themselves those kinds of questions? Like, if we just said, “How do we want people to feel in this experience?”, would it change meetings for organizations, for people?

Jan
I think it would because how do people feel most of the time when they’re in a meeting? Like, that was a waste of time. I didn’t need to be here.

Beth
Drained. I never want to do that again, kind of thing.

Jan
Yeah. So if we can design it in a way so people feel more energized at the end of it, I mean, that would change a lot.

Beth
So are there things that you absolutely make sure to do? You’ve talked about building people’s trust over time so that they can open up and kind of go deeper as the session goes on. What else is coming up for you as you’re designing that you really want to intentionally do?

Jan
Two things kind of spring to my mind right now. One of them is still related to the “How do I prepare for a session?” There’s one other question that I ask myself, especially when I work with organizations or groups of people that I don’t know at all, like complete strangers to me. And over the weekend, in Switzerland, I worked with a group that has been meeting bi-weekly for six years. So a group that knows each other really well. I was the only stranger, the only outsider. They’re also from a different country. We did not have anything in common when we showed up. And I actually started by writing down, “What are the thoughts, the kind of misconceptions, they might have about me or work that we’re going to be doing when I walk inside the room?” Like, what do I think will be their first impression? Kind of the negative part of it. Like, the people who sit there with their crossed arms in the first row and go, like, “Who are you? And why should I listen to you? I don’t want to be here.” Those types of things. Like, “I could be in the spa in the hotel and whirlpool. Why do I have to come to this session?” Or even like the words, “Why do I have to come to the session?” Like, sometimes people are not even there because they want to but because their boss sent them there. I like to think of all of those things. And then, within the first 5 to 10 minutes, I’m going to verbalize all of those thoughts for people. So it already drops a little bit of that, “Oh, he actually knows what I’m feeling or what I’m thinking.” And I usually do it in a little bit of a fun way to also help me. Like, as much as it helps the participants, I guess, get to know me a little bit and build more trust. Like, he understands where I’m coming from and that maybe I don’t want to be here. Like, the big elephant in the room might be that everybody was sent there and if I just do my session not acknowledging it, then they might not ever open up to receive anything from the session.

Beth
I love that. It’s a great way to start. It gets ahead of all those things that they’re saying. It puts them in the middle of the room, as you’re saying. That you can just get it out on the table and say, here’s something I’ve noticed, or, you know, from previous experience, or you might be thinking this or, yeah, I think we’ve all seen that person. And you know, when we heard your voice change, because you literally sat back and crossed your arms. We’ve seen that person in the room, wherever they’re sitting, right, usually at the back. [laughs] In my experience, you know, they’re sort of “voluntold” to be there. So, when you acknowledge those feelings or those thoughts that they’re having, what does that change for people as they move forward in your session?

Jan
Exactly what you just said. They move forward. They start leaning in a little bit more. They’re just a little bit more open to take something away. Saying things like, “You might have heard this all before. My intention for this session is for you to just learn one new thing. So if by the end, you heard me talk a lot, but nothing resonated than that one thing, then it will be a success for you.” So they actually start looking for that one thing. And it’s not a bad thing that they have heard everything else before. Like whatever the context is, if you can make them lean in and start to open up.

And then the next thing I would do is I would ask some simple questions. I would ask for micro-engagements. This is something that I’ve learned from working with people on Zoom and virtually. I would ask people, “Hey, if you can hear me, wave in the camera or give me a thumbs up.” Or, “Does this make sense? Type ‘yes’ in the chat. Raise your hand, if you’ve been in that situation before.” Like, all of these little asks for people to just do a simple action will increase the engagement every single time. So I try to build those in. And when I facilitate, every couple of minutes, and I’ve now been also doing that in person, and I actually ask people to give me a thumbs up or give me a head nod if this resonates. Like, once they’re open, asking them again, just something really small. Like, everybody can give a thumbs up or do like a head nod. I’m not asking you to share or participate. We’re going to go slowly. Like, again for me, it’s always like the campfire metaphor front and centre. Small steps. We’re going to increase it a little bit over time. And by the end, we can have something really beautiful happen.

Beth
I think it’s a concept that a lot of people, or everybody, can take and start to integrate right away, can’t they? Because micro-engagements, you know, even if you’ve had a session that you’ve been teaching, and I kind of use that word intentionally here, you know, maybe very unidirectional presentation kind of stuff. And a Q&A at the end is kind of always the pattern I see. [Laughs] But if they were able to just start with some micro-engagements in changing the way they go from, you know, talking at people, to talking with people, to have people talking with each other. It’s a good way to start, isn’t it, for someone that’s learning how to do this, how to design more experiences like you’re talking about. Where do you take them to towards the end? I mean, you know, and the things I would do, particularly, you know, in person, but online, too, they’d be spending more time in breakout rooms basically talking without me than they would with me. And I love that. Kind of boring online for me, right, as I sit there and kind of wait. But I watch their work, you know, in collaborative spaces or whatever. But what does it look like for you, when you’re taking people towards the end of the experiences? What does their work look like near the end of a session?

Jan
I think it really depends on what the purpose is and the goal of the session. As right now, I do kind of two slightly different types of main experiences. One is training facilitators and how to create, like, the engagement and the connections online. Like, I’m teaching content in a more experiential way sometimes, and we do different activities and we debrief a lot. I think there, I’m trying to get to the end of the session as more on reflecting, “Okay, what are the things that we’ve learned from it?”

The other type of session I do is more the helping team members connect deeply. And that’s where we actually get into some more vulnerable sharing. Similar to kind of the vulnerable question of the cards, I would have them share something maybe anonymously that they’ve never shared with anyone in their team or in their group before. And then do a debrief on that. And that usually is very eye-opening. Even for the group that has been meeting for six years, they’ve realized they have not really gotten to know each other until that point.

Beth
That’s really exciting. And it also makes me think that this kind of stuff, you know, it still can be scary for people because they haven’t seen it. And I’m thinking back to a comment that I got after a virtual workshop I facilitated, I think it was just a couple of hours. Again, I teach people how to, you know, have virtual activities and facilitate them online, and so on. And someone said, “You know, this is all very well and good [kind of paraphrasing], but this would never work in my environment.” And I had a sadness, you know. [Laughs] Like, you see these comments sometimes after the fact. You go, clearly, I didn’t do my job enough, right, about helping people see that, you know, yes, certain things you’re not going to repeat in every environment and they may not work, but to be able to not, I don’t know, see the potential within engagement. You know it felt like the person really was, you know, putting up that metaphorical arm crossing and going, “No, we’re not going to do this.” This would never work in the, and I’m gonna say it, corporate world is kind of where you get it from, right? How can we help people take more risks? And do you know what I mean? I’m not very eloquent right now. But can we help people, you know, open themselves up to this kind of experience more?

Jan
Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I think I actually had that conversation with a group yesterday where they were talking about, like, I love using play. And I love getting people outside of their comfort zone. But again, I can’t do that right at the beginning with some groups. And especially if you work, let’s say, with C suite executives that all show up in their suits and, like, business attire. Like, are you going to make them jump around like frogs?

I have this thing that I’m going to show you now, which is a little kind of cloth pencil case that I call a ‘cellphone sleeping bag’. Sometimes I also use padded envelopes. But that’s how I usually open some of my sessions, where I have them on the table with a bunch of colourful pens or stickers, and I have people at least write their name. Like, that’s how I phrased it, like, “Just write your name. And if you have extra time, you’re welcome to draw something to make it look pretty, or just give it some personality.” Just the way I introduce this activity, they have a choice of what they do. Like, they can say, “Okay, I’m not here to have fun. I’m here to get things done. I’m just going to write my name. I’m going to be quick. And that’s it.” And then other people are like, “Oh, my God, this is amazing. I love doing this.” And they get really creative. And sometimes, they see each other and they kind of adjust. And like, there’s some extra time, “Okay, let me add something else to it.” But they have the choice of how deep they want to go.

And I think that’s a concept that is really important when working with adults is we can’t force them to do anything. Like, I think that’s just a fact for almost any human. Even kids, you can’t really force them to do anything. My son is now four and I realize this all the time when I tell him to, I don’t know, get dressed, we’re late, we have to do it really quickly. He’s like, not interested. But if we make it a game, we’re going to fly to the kindergarten and we need to pack all the suitcases to get into the plane, let’s do it in like 30 seconds, and I start counting down, then we’ll do it. So this is using play. Or, I will tell him, okay, which shoe do you want to put on first, the left one or the right one? I’m not giving him a choice of, like, do we put on shoes or not, I’m giving him a choice where he feels like he’s in control, but both of the outcomes are in the interest.

So those are, I guess, two concepts that I like to apply with that. And I think there needs to be more play and more courageous facilitators bringing play and things like that into the boardrooms.

Beth
I agree. And I was just talking with a friend of mine who is very adept at theatre-based techniques and, you know, is skilled in that area and wanting to do more of that with groups. And I say, yes! You know, how can we all do more of this, to stretch ourselves in good ways so that amazing things will come of it. I love that with both the, you know, the shoes with your son and the the cell phone sleeping bag with the CEO is that you talked about the element of choice. You know, like they are going to put the cell phone in the sleeping bag. It is going to go away because that probably helps us, you know, connect more easily with each other. But then you’ve given them choice within how they’re going to do that. And if they don’t want to draw the whole bag and, you know, bedazzle it, as you said, and they’re still going to do the thing. But you’ve given them that comfort level within, and maybe they kind of decorate it throughout the day or whatever they’re going to do, and they come along for the ride. That’s nice.

Jan
Yeah.

Beth
Can we talk about large conferences for a little bit? Because this is one of the things that I see being slow to change. I mean, it’s great to have a group and, you know, I like to get a small group together in virtual spaces too, you know, and try to not work with hundreds of people is sort of where I tend to do my work, right? Give me a class of 25 or less and I’m happy. But because I see with conferences, people are less willing to change. They don’t really apply the same concepts when they’re working with large groups. So what have you found works with the clients that you’ve had and you’re helping them with these large groups? How can we have connection when there’s hundreds of people in the room, either in person or online?

Jan
I think it comes down to, again, designing an experience where people will be… [pauses]. I’m now thinking in, like, the meaning of the word ‘facilitate’. Like, make it easier for them to connect with each other and have conversations that are not just small talk. Like, there’s so many different points that you can do something, starting from the nametags. Like, each nametag could have a question on it, that either people choose a question or they write an answer. So there’s something else visible. Like, I call them ‘visual conversation starters’. As you’re walking through the conference, that makes it easier to start a conversation with someone that you don’t know.

That’s like one thing, but what always my favourite is, I designed a session called Find Your Wings Squad that I love to host at a conference called the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon. Unfortunately, they had their last year this year, but it’s been going on for 10 years. I’ve attended five times. Every time I run this workshop, on the very first day, in the morning, kind of before the official program even starts, and I just do different playful activities to get people…like, I actually have them add stickers to their name badge, as the first thing. Because again, something else visual, because I asked them to choose a sticker that resonates with them. And I bought all of these like Dollar Store kits and teacher stickers, different animals and characters. And I take them through this experience where they hopefully meet some people, talk about something meaningful, create a connection, and then they will become their wing squad. So even though that workshop, I think I’ve had at the most, maybe 50 or 60 people, like the whole conference is like 1000 people. So like, I couldn’t do it with 1000. But that group, they will know each other, so when they attend the next event, the next session, they already know one or the other person. They can be each other’s wing squad, wing person, to introduce each other to the next one. So those are two ideas. I don’t know if that’s the right direction you were thinking of. But yeah, I love talking about, like, how to facilitate connections.

Beth
Again, it’s that intentionality that you’re bringing to the design of the experience. I mean, you and the organizers of that conference decided that that should be on the first day, you know. The first thing or one of the first things, and so it sets the tone, doesn’t it, for at least that group that you were able to work with. I wonder, you should do a study sometime on what happened with the other people that weren’t in your session. You know, what did the conference look like for them? But that intentionality to the start is really important. How do we begin?

Jan
Yeah, I think that the start is probably the most important thing. Like, if we don’t get that right, then people might click away on Zoom, or they might not actually want to be there and maybe not come back.

Beth
Yeah, you’re right. The other story you told about, you know, the elephant in the room, basically, is what you didn’t get. So if we don’t do anything else, we really have to bring intention to the start of our learning experience or a meeting that we’re facilitating, don’t we?

Jan
Mm-hmm

Beth
I feel like I need to bring us to a close because, you know, these podcast episodes will just be two hours if, you know, because I’m so excited about talking about these concepts. But if I can close with one question. It is related to the podcast name. Jan, what does it mean to you to facilitate on purpose?

Jan
I think I’m not going to create something completely new because I feel like what I’ve been talking about, setting an intention before you even start designing anything and focusing on, like, how do you want people to feel. And maybe what action do you want them to take afterwards. Once you figure that out, all of the other elements will kind of fall into place. We talked about Priya Parker’s work. I feel like she’s a big proponent of the idea of starting with the purpose. Once you figure that out, like I said, it will answer all your questions of, like, where should you meet, how long should the meeting be, who should be there. Yeah, that will make any meeting, any experience, much better.

Beth
I like it because you bookended it for us. If we think intentionally about the start, and we also think intentionally about the end, and how we want people to feel when they walk away, and what actions are they going to take, then somehow the middle sort of figures itself out. I guess, with our good work too, right, on the design side. But it’s a great place to start, those bookending kind of thoughts, as we design. Thank you for that.

Jan
Yeah.

Beth
Thank you so much for being with me. It’s been wonderful to learn from you. And you definitely are someone I’m going to continue to watch and engage with because I do see you as this leader in helping people create experiences. You are doing the work that you’re helping people to do, and you’re a great resource for us worldwide, Jan. So thanks again for chatting with me today.

Jan
Thank you. I really appreciate you saying that.

[Upbeat music playing]

[Episode outro]
Beth
Oh, Jan gave us so many good ideas, didn’t he? I really like how he talked about micro engagements to help us increase participants’ interaction and engagement over time. I mean there these little tiny things that we can do very intentionally to help people feel more comfortable to be able to connect and work with each other. So that was just one of the things that stood out for me in our conversation. What stood out for you? I really encourage you after you listen to these podcast episodes to turn to some sort of learning journal that you have, or another place where you write things down. Go write down one or two or three of the things that Jan suggested and try them with your next group. I really hope that you will begin to see the difference in the connection between the group when you do so.

In the next episode I talk a little bit about how we can take “dry” content and make it interesting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with people or I’ve been sitting in somebody else’s room where I’m a participant and they’re facilitating us through something when they’ve apologized for how awful and how dry and how boring the content is. And I can’t help but think and to suggest to people that it’s not content that’s dry, it’s the way we approach the content as designers of learning. So come along with me for the ride in the next episode of how we can think about our “dry” content in another way, and make engaging, interactive experiences for learners. Is content itself really dry? I don’t think so! We’ll see you then.

[Show outro]
Beth
Thank you for listening to Facilitating on Purpose. If you were inspired by something in this episode, please share it with a friend or a colleague to help them expand their facilitation practice too. To find the show notes, give me feedback, or submit ideas for future episodes visit facilitatingonpurpose.com. Special thanks to Mary Chan at Organized Sound Productions for producing this episode. Happy facilitating!

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