Video and transcript from Mohamed Ali’s talk at Austin’s 3rd Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

Recently, we hosted our annual facilitator summit alongside our sponsor MURAL, but this time, it was virtual. Instead of gathering in Austin’s Capital Factory, 172 eager learners, expert facilitators, and meeting practitioners gathered online for a 3-day interactive workshop. Our mission each year at Control the Room is to share a global perspective of facilitators from different methodologies, backgrounds, races, genders, sexual orientations, cultures, and ages. We gather to network, learn from one another, and build our facilitation toolkits. 

This year’s summit theme was CONNECTION. Human connection is an integral component of the work we do as facilitators.

When we connect things become possible. When we are disconnected there is dysfunction. When ideas connect they become solutions. When movements connect they become revolutions. 

Control the Room is a safe space to build and celebrate a community of practice for facilitators, which is paramount to learn, grow, and advance as practitioners and engaging in a dialogue that advances the practice of facilitation. We must learn the tools and modalities needed to foster connection and be successful facilitators in the new virtual landscape. 

“We must establish a personal connection with each other. Connection before content. Without relatedness, no work can occur.” —Peter Block

This year’s summit consisted of 18 expert facilitator guest speakers who presented lightning talks and in-depth workshops, where they shared their methods and activities for effective virtual facilitation. 

One of those speakers was Mohamed Ali.

Mohamed Ali, Service Designer and Facilitator at Independant, discussed how self-interest can create engagement and participation for your audience. Mohamed taught workshop attendees how to prepare an audience for a workshop, long before they show up. The questions attendees answered together were, “how might we effectively onboard participants without overwhelming them with the exercises and time needed to conduct the workshop? How might a beginners’ mindset assist an audience to contribute what they really wish to?” 

“Self-interest for an audience is beneficial; engage your audience as much as possible.” 

Watch Mohamed Ali’s talk “You’re That Audience” :

Read the Transcript

Mohamed Ali:

Thank you, Douglas. It’s wonderful to be here, and thank you to the Voltage Control team for making this feel a little homie. Pun intended.

So the concept here, the principle that I want to share, initially, is we really should pre-connect. I’m Hammad Ali, and this is a story about incidental digital facilitators.

What makes an incidental facilitator? If you’re the type of person who seeks to create harmony, build bridges, and make sure everyone is happy, you might be an incidental facilitator. If you’re frequently hosting clarifying conversations or dealing with and trying to resolve conflict, it’s either your calling or your craft. Recently, a lot more people have been thrown into the deep end of digital facilitation with mixed results.

Over the past five years, I’ve been deliberately working towards building a remote friendly career, specifically in something called service design. I’ve had the chance to build and lead workshops across time zones which allowed me to exercise my digital facilitation muscle. And like you, I’ve noticed the challenges people have with the increasingly digital components of their workshops. Do you remember when using Slido and polling apps was a fun, engaging distraction, and now we’re in an environment where it’s necessary to juggle having different types of hosts for a dominantly digital workshop.

What gives me hope is that the pain shared by facilitators and participants continues to be independent of location, digital or physical. Do any of these sound familiar when you’re the audience, and feel free to snap your fingers as I [inaudible 00:02:08] them out. A sense that you’re wasting each other’s time, a nagging feeling of having different expectations, zero impact or no takeaways, and the free food no longer obliging you to review the workshop positively.

Let me take you through a story of what this might look like using a story arc. So it’ll be in three acts, and our protagonist is Abdullah. In the first act, Abdullah is the resident fixer and incidental facilitator in the company. He’s told no one is traveling and to re-think how to put together the company town hall that was being planned months in advance. He’d been tapped to facilitate things before and is told that it now needs to be a digital extravaganza. He talks to the heads of departments, and they make it clear this needs to be special.

The process and responsibilities for delivering the event is opaque. And Abdullah starts hearing about promises made of bells and whistles and fancy set ups. “It’ll be like you’re there,” but no one knows what the outcome is, including Abdullah.

In the second act, the day of the event arrives. There are mercifully minimal amounts of technical glitches. There’s music, icebreakers, monologues by someone important, but for all intents and purposes, it seems successful so far. However, questions by attendees are being ignored. And as people get more frustrated, we arrive at the climax. Abdullah notices people turn off videos during breakout rooms and then sees them just exit in the second round of breakout rooms. It’s the dreaded death by breakout room. That is where we are now. So what do you think happens next?

In the third act, Abdullah goes into damage control. He’s blamed, loses his job, becomes poor, eventually dies.

So what happened? Where was the gap? There’s definitely a gap between the intention, facilitate the event digitally, and the outcome, people feeling unheard and leaving. I think core and central to that is understanding that one of our roles as a facilitator is not to deliver a workshop, but to identify and close a gap that exists by listening.

So how can Abdullah aim to listen better by pre-connecting, the principle I shared earlier. Well, he could have interviewed the audience with the intention of building a stakeholder map to plot and understand the organizational challenges. He could use this map to continue connecting with other attendees to build on what he learns in these interviews. And through these conversations or surveys, you could use surveys as well, he could build a shared space that contains synthesized insights. This would have allowed Abdullah to better understand and notice similarities between the intended audience, their story arcs, and maybe could have figured out a way to help the participants feel both seen and heard.

His story is connected to another principle, the need to create space for everyone to be seen and heard. You’ve heard me say that more than once now. So I believe that no matter how many Zoom calls we have, we won’t be able to have everyone feel heard. Instead, I opt for what I like to call a slow-burn workshop. So here’s a scenario to clarify what I’m sharing.

A nonprofit leadership organization wants to form a board to offer ongoing direction, programming, and assistance to board members, but they don’t want to do it in the old world command and control model. The people participating in this initiative have all been a part of this organization at various times over the last five years. They really love it. They understand that they’re building something new, that it’s untested, and it’s on a voluntary basis. They can’t show up to every call. They all have work and life obligations. But they’re really invested in this goal and would like to keep things moving asynchronously or not necessarily being there at the same time. They’ve tried Google Docs with meeting minutes, recording past video calls, but there was no way to pick up where they left off.

Through our interviews with them, we were exposed to beautiful… sorry, metaphors such as it feels like there are invisible rocks in our path, so how might we see these invisible rocks together? An insight that arose from the conversation was that it’s not a bunch of workshops. It’s a journey. So we re-oriented and approached it as an invitation for people to go on a journey. They shared their StrengthsFinder profile which gives people a way to describe what they naturally do best and what they might need help with. And this is important because these people are working across industries, and we needed a shared language.

Another thing we did was we had people complete forms that had them reflect on their intentions. What was in it for them? What were their goals? Why did they need this to succeed? We asked them to share images that represented them, the things that they care about, their aspirations, and the answer prompts about themselves, similar to a user manual, about their quirks and how they prefer to relate to others.

This was all capped by an invitation to opt into connecting with others on a one-to-one get to know you call. And now, every time there’s a call, it’s not the same faces, but they all share in the progress because it’s all tracked in one location. And so this is an example of the location.

In the second scenario, it’s a consultancy with corporate problem-solving offerings. It’s building a cohort=based learning program to support internal Mavericks or entrepreneurs. One of their challenges was how to get people hooked in and caring for not only the content, but for the people who they’ll be meeting. The content offering is strong in its own right. The power of learning with and from people facing similar challenges is what makes a long-term difference in how people learn and apply their learning.

Three days prior to the event, we created and shared a one minute video clip inviting people to respond to prompts via Voice Note for two reasons. But first, I’m going to share the prompts. The prompts we sent went like this:

How will they prepare their environment for the upcoming event? And we asked them to also reiterate, what is it that made them curious to attend and to share what it is they wish to resolve by attending this space.

So the responses we got were powerful, and the reason being is that the Voice Notes work because it’s not as anxiety-inducing as a video recording. The prompt work because we could meet them where they are. And what this allows us to do is get a sense for who is showing up way in advance. And if we’re able to sensitize people to this approach as being a part of the process, then what we’re getting is a lot of information on what seems to be top of mind for them. Are their challenges pervasive? Are they just the flavor of the month? And you can do two things with this information. I mean, a lot, but I’ll focus on two things.

You can remove identifying information, synthesize the themes on a whiteboard, and give people access to it well in advance. Or, if you have a strong sense for the people, from the responses and from their voices, you can invite them into a group like a Signal or a WhatsApp group and encourage them to share the responses to their prompts with others.

In preparation for this talk, I tried to do this using a Google Form. If you’re coming to the workshop, please complete the form. And the theme that kept arising was connection or feeling connected. It’s something we constantly seek. And what you do by pre-connecting is you create the conditions for people to feel that they’re being seen and heard, for them to feel that they’re connected. And I think that’s what listening is all about when it’s done well.

Thank you.