Tips for Discussion Forums
Leading a discussion sounds easy but it can be a tough job. Much like a DJ in a disco, you, as facilitator, must “get the party started” and keep the dancers on the floor. You also have to keep pandemonium tamped down. Fun!!
Here are some tips to help you get things going and keep the ideas flowing.
Format is important.
As you think about your topic, think too about how best that topic should be approached. Is your topic one that lends itself to “free-for-all” discussion? Does your topic have several facets that could be discussed separately? It’s good to consider just how you will present the issues and how best they can be dealt with. If you’ve never done this before, you may need a little help so here is a description of two popular formats. Feel free to improvise if these ideas don’t seem to fit your topic.
Free-for-All Discussion – kind of like fishing
In a free-for-all, the facilitator throws out a question about the topic and waits for a participant to bite. If no one bites, the facilitator must try a new question. If someone does bite, the facilitator must make sure the dialog takes hold of the group. Once the dialog is going well, the facilitator can sit back and enjoy.
This format works well with “hot” topics when you can be fairly sure that most of the participants will have an opinion and will be more than happy to express them. The facilitator is responsible for having a good list of questions from which to draw and must be willing to wade in to direct traffic, change topics, or to ask further questions to keep the discussion moving.
Tables set in a rectangle work well for this format since it allows everyone to see everyone else.
Round Table/Table Talks – the musical chairs of discussion forums
Round Table/Table Talks are great if a topic has several facets to cover. Separate tables devoted to individual facets are set up and participants choose a table to start with. Once all are seated, the discussion begins at each table for a set amount of time. At the end of the time period, a whistle/bell/buzzer sounds and everyone rotates to the next table. Discussion begins anew and the pattern continues until all topics are visited.
This format requires a facilitator for each table. The facilitators should have pertinent questions at hand to get the discussion going and need to be able to keep things moving quickly as time will run out and participants will move on.
Your Job as Facilitator
Being the facilitator isn’t just about making arrangements – it’s more about making the discussion work. Here’s a list of things the facilitator must have or be able and/or willing to do (in no particular order…).
- Welcome everyone and make brief introductory remarks.
- Have a long list of potential questions to ask when the discussion lags.
- Make sure all participants sign in and provide their contact info (email is fine).
- Be willing to politely interrupt someone if things are going on and on and on…
- Listen to what’s being said. Use participants’ comments as a springboard to keep things moving.
- Don’t be afraid to completely change the direction of things.
- Provide a handout that outlines a few points for discussion.
- Make sure you have an evaluation form to hand out.
- Recruit helper/co-facilitator/friend to be a shill. VERY IMPORTANT!
- Avoid the use of technology. This is about talking.
- Stop everything before time runs out and effusively thank everyone for coming.
- Hand out your evaluation forms.
- Provide your contact information (and contact information of any co-facilitators).
- Enjoy yourself. Discussion forums are fun!!