In your leadership journey, you will increasingly find yourself at the front of the room. You’ll be standing there with the goal of influencing anywhere from five to 5,000 people in a particular course of action, sharing corporate policy decisions, facilitating a learning experience, discussing business challenges, developing and integrating business plans, and more. You’ll be faced with managing external compliance goals, internal policy decisions, varying leadership opinions, and diverging employee preferences. Your desire generally will be to broaden the perspective of the audience, and gain consensus around a set of values, strategies, and actions.
Walking into the room solely focused on your agenda is a recipe for disaster. You must anticipate every aspect of the topic, environment, and attendees to properly prepare for and address your subject matter. Your approach may be interactive and participatory, or more formal and direct. But building a relationship with your audience is always critical for success. As a leader, part of your growth is understanding how to facilitate others’ learning experiences, to accomplish organizational objectives. In the process, it’s important to be open to continuous learning from those around you.
So here are 7 key strategies to consider as you leverage your leadership!
- Plan the environment – This seems basic, but it’s often taken for granted. Think about what you want to accomplish and ensure the environment is designed to support that. For instance, if you want the group to envision the future, don’t hold the meeting in an interior room with no windows. Instead find a space with an expansive view. One of my most inspiring settings for such a meeting was in a 26th floor conference room with floor to ceiling glass on a clear day. Similarly, if you want participants to interact with and learn from one another, arrange the seating in small groups, rather than rows of chairs facing the front. If you want to inspire creative thinking, ensure a stimulating and colorful environment.
- Build rapport with the participants – Begin your interactions with attendees when they enter the room, not when the meeting begins. If you haven’t had a chance to meet them yet, this is a great time to connect with them and find areas of common interests. If you already know them, this is the time to reinforce those relationships. Throughout the meeting, interject comments linking you to the participants and acknowledging their interests and concerns. This reinforces connections and underscores your support of them. If your discussion requires convincing participants of a specific plan of action, spend time before the meeting talking individually with the “influencers” to listen to their concerns, and ensure that they understand the issue. Know every position on the topic before the meeting so that you can appropriately address each one.
- Choose your battles – Invariably, if your topic is controversial, you’re going to prepare for a spirited discussion. Begin with the points that most participants can agree on to build momentum, before moving to the more provocative areas. If you know the group wants to be critical and change your outcome, include an unimportant issue where you’re willing to acquiesce. In some situations, rather than propose a specific course of action, lead the group to recognize a general need, then they may ask you to take an action that you already know is important. And stay in tune with the mood of the room, so that you’ll know when to press forward on an issue, or when to pause, and come back to it later.
- Deflect an argument – With a provocative topic someone will invariably ask a challenging question. To avoid a heated debate in the room, try responding with a clarifying question like “Help me understand why that’s important to you,” or “Help me understand what you mean by that.” You may find that you have greater areas of agreement than you thought. Follow up on points of contention after the meeting. And focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.
- Learn to dance – Good dancers know how to fluidly respond to whatever type of music is playing. Similarly, develop your ability to respond in the moment to whatever is happening. This means you’ll have in-depth knowledge of your subject matter and will focus on the body language and comments from those in the room. If you see that your participants are not responding to the presentation as planned, shift your style, your examples, your visuals, and your learning approach to meet their needs. After all, it’s about them, not you.
- Be authentic and genuine – We’ve all had moments when we watched a skilled facilitator or presenter with awe, wishing we could deliver in a similar fashion. But the best we can do is to find our own genuine superpower and be the best version of ourselves. Our body language will telegraph if we’re nervous, so it’s important to be comfortable with the message we’re communicating. Acknowledge difficult points where necessary, and be as transparent as possible. Leaders who stand before a group of employees to deliver an unpopular message must display empathy and sincerity, to imply such a message as positive value to employees will quickly erode their trust and respect.
- Re-engage your audience – Sometimes, as meetings flow, the facilitator recognizes that a portion of the group has become distracted or disengaged. Recognize this quickly and pull people back into the discussion by telling a relevant and great story to make a point. You can also change the pace and pitch of your speaking to create a shift in the room, and draw others out of a momentary lull. Call out the name of one or two people to involve them in the discussion, or find a way to make people move (drop something on the floor!). Finally, you might mention the person’s behavior. “Jane, you appear concerned, do you have a particular question?”
Remember, as you’re building your facilitating skills, don’t run from being uncomfortable. Like muscle building, growth occurs in these awkward spaces, and you learn to bring others along with you in the learning process.