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Max St John

How to facilitate 900 people

Two weeks ago I hosted a conference in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, for around 900 of some of the world’s smartest young leaders and I wanted to share what inspired me and ways to deal with these kind of numbers as a facilitator.

It was AIESEC‘s annual Youth to Business conference, part of their annual International Congress, where the global youth leadership organisation was focusing on the change agent role that the high potential young people can play in their cities, countries and the business world.

The gathering was the largest in the organisation’s history, on its 65th anniversary, and the largest international youth leadership summit to take place in Egypt, all at a historic and difficult time for the country.

I felt massively grateful to be asked to host an event like this, and particularly in Egypt at this time.

My brief was to introduce the day and make the links between speakers, workshops and why we were all there, and finally to open and hold the space for participants: to create the energy and conditions where they could discover what was meaningful to them.

I opened the day by talking about what I saw as the potential challenges and opportunities for their generation – through the lenses of technological innovation, changing education paradigms and 21st Century leadership.

You can find the slides here, and a video of my opening talk here.

Later on in the day, having introduced the speakers and workshops from corporate partners, I was asked to facilitate two hours of workshops with around 800 people.

The largest group I’d worked with in the past was 200, so this felt like a big challenge. The brief was to help participants walk away with some tangible actions, and for them to leave feeling energised and inspired (I always ask my clients what they want in terms of outputs – the hard, tangible take-aways – and outcomes – the softer stuff).

When designing the session, I knew that as the only facilitator with a group this large, it was fairly obvious that they would need to organise themselves as much as possible.

Having heard a lot of information from speakers, and from corporate partners, the organisers and I wanted them to share their own ideas with each other, debating, cross-pollinating and building on what had inspired them. However, we also felt it was deeply important that they walked away with something clear and compelling that they would act on.

So, I split the time into two sections:

Group discussions

Using a simple version of Open Space, I posed the question: “What is our role as a generation in creating the change that world needs right now?”

Starting from a huge circle, I explained Open Space principles and the process, and within 10 seconds of posing this question, the first person was up to the centre, proposing their topic to the crowd. Within another 10 seconds, there was a queue of people waiting for the microphone!

There’s always a moment in Open Space where you’re waiting to see whether you got the calling question right – where your ability to let go and trust in the process is really tested – and it was a huge relief and exciting to see the group swarming around it.

The topics posed ranged from how to create more happiness at work right through to “How do we understand what’s happening in Egypt, and what is our role in stopping the conflict, now?” This question was the most lively and moving that I sat in on.

We came back to the circle and asked each person who had proposed a topic to share the most important point from the discussion – getting people to be brief on something they are passionate about is tough.

Personal reflection

Back in the circle, I talked about the value of personal reflection and finding connection and meaning – I then posed a question for each individual to explore on their own: “What is your next best step in creating the change that the world needs?”

We gave the group half an hour to find some space, alone, to think about what had inspired them most to take action in their own lives, and asked them to contribute it physically to a huge papered over wall in the conference hall, and also encouraged them to share it via Twitter and the discussion forums.

Hundreds of people took it in turns to write up their action, and together they created a huge representation of their inspiration and passion for personal change.

What I learned

Just a few things that I wrote down reflecting on the event and feedback I’d had that evening:

  • the more people you have, the more time they need to organise themselves – build in plenty of it
  • get the question right and trust in the process – everything else will be OK.
  • believe in yourself and your intent, and everyone else will too
  • just be yourself, let your real passion and inspiration be what people see and feel
  • the group is there because they want to learn and connect – they’re already invested in your success
  • do enough preparation to feel like you and the organising team know what’s happening when, then just relax and let go
  • open the space, create the framework, pose the question then get out of the way!

In the week running up to the event, I was fairly nervous, but thanks to wise words from good friends Mary Alice Arthur, Phil Clothier, Will McInnes and Tom Nixon (and awesome help from the rest of the NM and Wired Sussex team), when it came to the day, although there were one or two blips (forgetting a speaker’s name was a highlight!), I felt relaxed and the participants left feeling inspired and motivated.


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  1. Traci Fenton

    Way to go Max! It sounds epic and you were a hit! :)

    Posted 8th September 2013 at 7:24 pm | Permalink
  2. Fantastic job Max! So glad you were able to be there!

    Posted 8th September 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink
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