Managing Large Group Discussions

by Jennifer Miller on August 26, 2010

in Learning, Training Delivery


Ever go to a conference break out session and experience 90 minutes of lecture, paired with the never-ending Power Point slide deck?  It’s not a very engaging experience, is it?  Now, imagine attending a four-hour conference break out session, with 70 other people in the room with you. This was my situation recently as I facilitated a communications break out session at a client’s internal leadership conference. Knowing that conference attendees want to be engaged in their learning, I decided to get creative with the management of the session’s discussions. Here’s what I did and it worked beautifully.  If you are ever in a situation that requires you to work with a large audience, give this “Sector Director” format a try.

Prior to the Session

Divide the room into “sectors”. For example, in my session, the hotel meeting room had nine round tables in it. So I created three “sectors” with 3 tables each: Red, Green Yellow. On each table, I placed a piece of colored card stock (red, green or yellow) in a place card holder on the middle of each table.

I then selected three chairs (one within each of the sectors) and taped an envelope to the underside of it.  Inside the envelope was a note that said, “Congratulations! You’ve been promoted to Sector Director. Please come to the front of the room for additional instructions.”

At the Session’s Start

Towards the start of the session, explain that you want to ensure that all participants have a chance to have their voices heard. In order to do that, you as the facilitator are going to seek assistance. Tell the group to reach under their chairs. Bring the three people who find the envelopes up to the front of the room. Introduce them and say, I’ve promoted (names) to Sector Director.  They will help me manage group discussions.  Brief the Sector Director on their duties. To keep the remainder of the group occupied during this 3-5 minute briefing, give them a question or issue to discuss that’s related to your presentation topic.

Here are the tasks that Sector Directors can help you with: 

  • Distribute hand outs. 
  • Lead discussions within their sectors.
  • Facilitate debriefing of other activities. For example, one activity had my participants pairing up with two or three other people throughout the room to gather data. Then, I sent them back to their sectors to report their findings.
  • Helping round up people and get them back from breaks.
  • Ensuring that table groups selected a spokesperson for large-group report outs.

Encourage the Sector Directors to delegate if needed. For example, if the Director doesn’t care to write on large flip chart paper, she can ask someone from her Sector to take over that role.

Does It Work?

I facilitated the communications session three times over a two-day period, which presented me with nine Sector Directors. I gave all nine of them the chance to opt out, but none did.  Eight of the nine did a fantastic job and the ninth one needed just a bit of prompting to stay on task. In my opinion, the extra 10 minutes of session time needed to set up this format was time well-invested. The smaller sector groups were able to have more focused conversations, with people feeling more like they could contribute. Additionally, I had an extra three pairs of hands to help me get the 70 participants re-focused after the Sector Discussions.

Next time you’re asked to facilitate a large discussion—in either a learning or meeting context, consider delegating to your audience.  You’ll find that indeed, “a few extra hands” do make the work of managing discussions a bit lighter.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Joan Curtis August 26, 2010 at 9:17 am

Hi Jennifer,
What a great post! I welcome suggestions to engage your audience. One of the biggest issues we facilitators face is how to engage large audiences. Your idea about Sector Directors is wonderful. I’ve used similar techniques but none as “organized” as yours with colors and random group leaders. I will definitely try it the next time I face a large group. I will also share this with my clients who lead large sessions.

Many thanks! Now, if only everyone would read this so we can totally eliminate boring lectures with PowerPoint and no participation!

BTW, I wrote a paper for Training + Development (ASTD magazine) called, Engage Me, Please! So, you see, your style is right up my alley.

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