Article: How to facilitate a public meeting

Public meetings tend to happen because something’s gone wrong. They can be volatile and difficult to get right, as people want to know what’s happening and emotions can run high.

As the facilitator, your role is to stay neutral – don’t attempt to answer any questions yourself, or take on any role other than gathering and recording questions, handing them to the most suitable speaker, and keeping order. You’ll have enough to do with all that without trying to deal with questions, too.

Have someone else take the minutes – you can’t do both, and minutes matter.

They’ll want to know who you are and what right you have to be up there, so introduce yourself first, with your name and relevant background, and how you are connected to the issue. Keep it short and simple. You may not feel confident but they need to feel confident in you, so address any issues you have with your nerves, voice and body language before the event as these first few moments will set the scene. You want to come across as credible, and your personal intro should answer questions about you, not raise them.

Next, bring in the other panellists or speakers and ask them to do the same, briefly introducing themselves, their backgrounds and roles.

Set out the aim and rules of the meeting; why everyone is there. Again, keep it short and clear.

Explain how long the room is booked for – the set end time. This will help concentrate everyone’s minds.

Explain the questions policy:

– Everyone may be in the mood for a free for all, but this has its disadvantages as it can descend into chaos and feel threatening for those being questioned.

– You may like to have each speaker with questions after each one, but this can mean overrunning and later speakers don’t get much time.

– It can be more useful to ask for all questions at the beginning, and record them on a flip chart, without attempting to answer at this stage. Ask the audience to indicate with hands up that they wish to speak one at a time, with no shouting down, interrupting or side conversations – this may feel very schooly but it will help keep control, help you to hear what is being said, and reduce stress. Remind that if they hear their question asked, to put their hand down. No repetition. It can be helpful to have someone else pick the hands and ensure that all parts of the room get fair coverage and that no one person is heard more than others.

Don’t attempt to answer any questions yourself – it’s not your role.

Don’t hand the questions over until this stage is finished. This will also give the speakers time to think.

There are only three reasons why people ask questions: they want more information, they want to support you or they want to challenge you. Be aware that some questions are not questions; they’re statements, venting or attempts to hijack the proceedings. Remind that this meeting is about answering questions and there may be time for statements later. If there is no time for statements, invite them to Tweet or post comments on your Facebook Page.

When all questions have been asked and written on the flipchart, you may find there are too many questions for the time you have. Take a democratic vote on what will be answered there and then.

You may find questions cluster in subjects. Hand each question or cluster to the relevant speaker to handle. When they have finished, check the audience is satisfied the question has been answered. Note supplementary questions for the end if there is time – you want to cover as much ground as possible first, before drilling down into detail.

Undertake to research and find out answers to questions that could not be answered there and then, and ensure these action points are allocated and minuted.

They’ll remember the first and last few moments of the event best, and that includes the impression you made. So at the end, remind everyone of the aim of the meeting and if appropriate, summarise what’s happened. Thank everyone for attending and contributing and let them know contact details and where they can find any further information.

Tell them you’ll take the flipchart with all the questions away after the event, and summarise them with written answers from the minutes [and later research] on the website and social media as soon as possible.

Remember that as the facilitator your role is to remain neutral, keep order and not answer any questions. If feelings are running high, this will help you stay calm, confident and slightly apart from the emotional issues, leave them with a good impression of you and the meeting, which will in turn have a strong effect on the image of the organisation.