Setting out your stall – introducing the day's agenda

I spoke to, Richard, my co-facilitator of the recent Reclaim the Fields UK gathering today to debrief the experience. Amongst other things we discussed introducing the day’s agenda to the group. He asked for feedback, feeling it was something he didn’t usually do well. I don’t think he has much to worry about, but it was an interesting conversation about an aspect of a day’s facilitation that’s easy to overlook – the “agenda-check” that makes up part of the introduction to so many meetings.

This agenda for this meeting, like many I facilitate, wasn’t circulated in advance. It wasn’t clear who would be coming, so sending the agenda round just wasn’t practical. Even had it been, we still would have gone over it on the day. I like to see every agenda as a proposal, and indeed have written ‘proposed agenda’ at the top of the flipchart for as long as I can remember. So checking in with the group about the agenda is an established part of the routine, and I always ask “How does that sound? Does that work for you? Anything we need to change for today to be useful for you?” or some similar question.

The big problem is, that from a brief description of the day how likely is it that a group is in an informed position to know whether the proposed agenda will deliver on their expectations? Of course you can check back in at regular intervals. Of course if you’re doing your job well you’re always discerning the sense of the group and make changes accordingly.

But is that few minutes spent going over the agenda really about content anyway? Clearly, sometimes there’s a need to reassure anxious individuals and groups that specific discussions will happen and will be given the time they need. But it strikes me that much of the purpose of the agenda check is about setting the tone and building a strong working relationship. Even when we’ve co-designed the agenda with the group, it’s rarely with all of them, and for most this moment is their first sizeable glimpse of both you and the agenda. The details of content don’t matter, and often don’t sink in anyway. What the group take away is a sense of the dynamism (or lack of it) of the day – how interactive, how playful, how reflective, how full-on the day will be. They also get a sense of us as facilitators. How animated and energetic are we when we introduce the agenda, how quickly do we speak, how much eye contact do we make…… In many ways the agenda-check is a facilitator-check.

We’re setting out our stall. But like any stall, whether we browse or buy is not just about the wares the stallholder has on display, it’s about their presence. Too much, too little, too soon, too late and the customer may never even approach, or be scared off.