Helping Speakers Move From Dispensers Of Information To Facilitators Of Learning

Musings of a dark overlord: Leveraging 21st-century education with open source

The greatest sign of success for a speaker is not a full room and positive smile-sheet summaries that only indicate attendees can successfully sit through long lectures.

The greatest sign of success for a speaker is to be able to say, “The audience is now working on the content as if I did not exist!” (Paraphrase, Maria Montessori).

Too many professional and industry speakers judge their success based on whether the client and the audience walked away with temporary cotton-candy feel good moments. The smile sheet evaluation does not demonstrate value, prove that the audience made attitude, behavior or skill changes, demonstrate attendee productivity increases, reveal long term transformation or engender competitive growth.

Time To Change

It is time for conference organizers to move away from the traditional, lecture-centered model for education. It is not a simple task to make this change.

It requires that speakers learn new skills and spend more time planning each session. It requires educating conference stakeholders on the why and how of the change. It requires locating resources to share with staff, speakers and volunteer committees so they can investigate more about the change. It requires new forms of assessment and evaluation. It requires a plan.

Yet the change results in the audience actually learning. The change results in changes in the biology of the brain of those that attend these sessions.

This change moves speakers from tellers of information to facilitators of learning.

What Is A Facilitator?

The word facilitator is used a lot in business. It means a variety of things depending upon the context.

For conference education sessions, a facilitator is one who provides an environment of attendee engagement that results in their learning. The facilitator provides resources such as questions, research, problems, content and case studies that attendees use. Here are seven guidelines to help speakers transition to facilitators of learning.

Facilitators of learning still provide some content to an audience, usually through short lectures. However, much of their planning time is dedicated to learning design: designing active learning experiences and activities such as individual reflection, peer to peer sharing and small group discussions. Adequate time is also spent developing contemplative and challenging questions that require attendees to reflect, think, consider and process information with higher order thinking skills and critical thought.

Five major questions facilitators ask when planning an education session:

  • What will my attendees do during the education session?
  • How will I ensure that they are doing the work of learning in thinking, reflection and connecting?
  • How much session time do I need to devote to a short lecture to provide content and context that guides the audience’s engagement and exercises?
  • How will I assess that my attendees understand the topic enough to apply it?
  • How, when and how much feedback should I provide to my attendees?

Ultimately conference facilitators are to support attendees in doing their best thinking and practice. During education sessions, facilitators encourage full participation, promote mutual understanding and cultivate shared responsibility of learning and problem solving.

What is the biggest barrier for presenters when moving from dispensers of information to facilitators of learning? What are some steps conference organizers need to make when changing from a traditional lecture model to presenters as facilitators of learning?

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  1. William says:

    Hi Jeff, great article. I would like go through in the sticky topic of paying for speakers. I think if we get round to paying for content we are in a much stronger position to demand goo content. It’s hard to demand quality when we are perceived to be asking a favour!

    As to tips my best advice would be to assume your speaker is an ass (mixing up an old common phrase ; ) Assume all but the most clearly learning focused speaker needs your guidance. Preach to them that they have to listen to your guidance because you know your audiences expectations. This puts the organiser on a sound footing. Start by taking this high ground and it is much easier to bring the reluctant (more work for me????) speaker along with you.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I agree that we need to assume that all speakers need our guidance. Most are experts in their field, not experts in presentations.

      Having hired more than 375 professional speakers a year and secured 1,700 free industry speakers a year for seven years, I do not think we should be held hostage to poor free industry speakers. If they are not good speakers, free or professional, we should never secure them. I think we should hold all speakers accountable and when they don’t deliver, they don’t get invited back to speak. Often industry free speakers have an entitlement syndrome that they deserve to speak. Wrong, the conference is for paying registrants, not speakers.

      That being said, I do believe in having a budget to pay for speakers. However,it gets very tricky when an industry volunteer speaker crosses that line to a paid speaker. They often won’t go back. So I believe in a mix of some paid and some free.

  2. Scott says:


    Sorry to introduce a bit of a tangental comment. I am a teacher. I follow your blog because often what you say about speakers and content is just as relevant to those of us in the classroom. Best practice in teaching is best practice, be it in a classroom of sophomore English students or a Fortune 500 sales force. Thanks for lending some credibility from the “outside” to what many of us are trying to affect in our schools.

  3. […] The traditional conference lecture model does not result in learning. Here are some tips to transition expert speakers to facilitators of learning.  […]

  4. What’s the difference between a speaker and a facilitator? The speaker is the sage on the stage while the facilitator is the guide on the side. And, the marketplace puts more value (ergo money) with the sage vs the guide.

    So why would a speaker/expert want to move from a high value proposition to a perceived lower value? Why would they want to learn new skills sets (just because you are a good speaker does NOT mean that you can be a good facilitator!)? Until the meetings industry understands the importance of facilitated learning, they will not pay (at all or as much) for professional facilitation.

  5. […] and interactive media can go a long way toward that, but so can choosing the right kind of speaker. Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting has some suggestions for helping speakers move from “dispensers of information to facilitators of […]

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