Many years ago I attended some excellent training in facilitation skills. Perhaps the most important thing I learned from this training was the importance of the first five minutes in a training session. If you want to create an inclusive and open learning environment, it is crucial to get the participants talking within the first five minutes. This may be as simple as a quick group introduction around the room or involve a more interactive icebreaker. It establishes the type of behaviour you would like in the session, immediately breaks down any barriers and gets people exercising their vocal chords. They become active, not passive, participants. Now every time I prepare and deliver training I make a mental note to check that my participants have the opportunity to speak within the first five minutes.
One of the most influential features of a presentation or a training session is the way the seating is arranged in the room…yet it’s remarkable how many people leave the issue of seating arrangements to chance. A well-arranged room creates the foundation for training and can remove distractions and powerfully influence the effectiveness of the training.
I’m a little pedantic about preparing a room in advance. I like my participants to feel a sense of anticipation when they enter the room and it also helps me to feel calm and prepared. I usually use one of three seating options: Café Style, U-Shape or Lecture.
1) Café Style Seating
A café style seating arrangement is where participants are seated around small tables with the trainer located at the front of the room. It’s great for small group work that requires a lot of interaction and discussion.
In a nutshell
- A café style seating arrangement is more informal and generates discussion.
- Participants can work in small groups and then return to the whole group.
- The trainer moves between groups during lectures and activities.
- The trainer can circulate easily and focus on smaller groups as well as the group as a whole.
- There may be visibility issues for some people in the room.
- This style of seating can encourage side conversations and perhaps lack of attention.
2) U-shape Seating
As the name suggest, the U-shape seating arrangement features a number or rectangular tables set up in the shape of a ‘U’ with participants seated around the outside. This set up is ideal for small to medium groups and puts the trainer at the front of the room (in the middle of the U) or at one end of the U.
In a nutshell
- The U-shape seating arrangement encourages whole group participation.
- It is good seating for trainer/participant contact.
- There is good visibility for participants, although participants may feel a little exposed.
- Seating can take up quite a bit of space for the number of people involved.
3) Lecture Style Seating
The lecture style seating arrangement is best used for formal presentations to larger groups when you want to maximise the space in a room. Chairs are placed in rows and face the front. There are no tables.
In a nutshell
- Great set up for lectures that are being presented to large groups.
- Good for audio-visual displays.
- Reduces interaction as communication is mostly one way.
- The trainer may have difficulty viewing the participants in the back rows.
- There might be visibility / sound issues in the back rows.
- Note-taking can be difficult for participants.
- People in the back rows will be less likely to participate than those in the front.
So how do you select a suitable seating arrangement?
Consider the following factors:
- The size of the group and the size of the room.
- The type of content ie does it involve group work or audience participation?
- Are there participants with special needs (mobility, seeing, hearing)?
- The furniture that is available to you.
- Any audio-visual requirements and other teaching aids such as posters, flipcharts etc.
But above all, the most important factor is not to leave seating to chance!
Ice breakers are an essential tool in any trainer’s toolkit. They’re short, structured activities that are used to ‘break the ice’ in meetings or facilitation groups. Well-designed ice breakers are great for:
• Reducing tension
• Energising and motivating a group
• Helping people become more engaged in the proceedings
• Getting to know the other participants
• Creating a relaxed learning environment
• Generating conversations
• Creating a climate of participation
By the same token a badly designed ice breaker can go down like a lead balloon.
So what makes an ice breaker work? The activity must be thoughtfully selected, appropriate for the group, tailored to the audience and the duration of the ice breaker should be proportionate to the length of the session.
Over the coming weeks, I will be featuring some unique ice breakers that have worked well for me in different settings. Do you have any tried and tested ice breakers to share? If so, I’d love to hear from you.