In some countries, educators, guides and creatives are back to teaching and facilitating discussions about art and objects in-person, whilst others are looking to return shortly. In many institutions and organisations (e.g. museums and heritage centres), this will only be possible behind a mask. So, how can you facilitate effectively with a face mask on? How can you still communicate clearly and create an atmosphere where everyone is happy to contribute? And what extra strategies can you employ to ensure engagement and interaction? 
This post was inspired by a creative brainstorming session in my membership group The VT Membership. We used Milanote to brainstorm collaboratively over Zoom how we could still effectively facilitate engaging discussions whilst using a face mask. 

Overcompensate

As masks hide our facial expressions and non-verbal clues, it is important to overcompensate when facilitating a discussion wearing a mask. Interestingly, research suggests that adults get most non-verbal clues from the speaker’s eyes, whilst children pay most attention to the mouth. So, it is even more important to exaggerate your verbal/non-verbal expressions with children. Use animated facial and body movements – as an actor would – to communicate clearly with your group. Raise those eyebrows, nod your head, use thumbs-up and other verbal and non-verbal expressions to ensure understanding.

Simplify communication

Masks make it harder to hear – they stifle sound and make it more difficult to work out any differences in pitch, tone and enunciation. Concerns have been raised about loss of understanding for those who use lip-reading as a way of aiding understanding – e.g for participants with hearing loss and language learners. So, simplifying the way you communicate. Speak in shorter sentences. Ask simple questions, one at a time. Slow down the pace of your speech. Allow thinking time between questions. And don’t forget to breathe.

Use a microphone

If you’re doing a lot of facilitating, use a wireless microphone to avoid voice strain and effortlessly boosts the volume of your voice. Note of caution: Think conversation rather than a presentation. Do not be tempted to start ‘telling’ rather than ‘asking’, just because you are wearing a microphone – it is there as an aid to help you create discussions with your group rather than a tool that allows you to lecture.

Talk less

Echoing the sentiment above, consider talking less when wearing a face mask. Get your group talking & asking more instead. You are there to facilitate discussion, activate curiosity and to answer your audience’s spoken (and unspoken) questions. To draw people in, ask simply-phrased open-ended questions that encourage participants to seek out their own answers— these are questions that cannot be answered with a yes or a no or a simple shrug of the shoulders. Ask people what they are wondering about, what they would like to find out more about or what questions they still have. 

Give your group independence

Encourage your group to work individually and/or in socially-distanced pairs at a safe distance answering questions, having debates and carrying out activities. Instead of using handouts, carry a large portable whiteboard and write any instructions on it, so that participants understand the task at hand. Invite participants to make their hands into a viewfinder shape, so that they can focus individually on part of an image or object (rather than you describing it). Hold up question or emotion cards to stimulate discussion. Ask participants to go and find connections with other artworks in the same gallery and then report back to you. Encourage a spirit of independence.

Use supplementary materials 

The use of visual aids can aid understanding and help you to communicate your ideas more clearly with less reliance on verbal explanations. They can also support and enrich your sessions and start talking points. They are particularly useful when wearing a face mask. Anything that can reduce the amount of time you spend explaining or telling would be useful here – e.g timelines, archival material, related images, multi-sensory objects that evoke the senses. (NB: Materials should not be passed around from participant to participant). Invite your participants to share what they notice about the supplementary materials you are using.

Make it personal

It may sound a bit strange, but consider showing or wearing a photograph of yourself without a mask so that participants can get an impression of what you look like without it. This allows you to create more personal connections with your group. 

Use different types of masks

A surgical mask is a lot less friendly than a brightly coloured, themed or amusing cloth mask. Similarly some people recommend the use of masks with a transparent window which would allow for lip-reading to take place (although it is important to ensure that your choice of transparent mask complies with medical guidelines). Similarly, visors are not recommended for use as they do not fully protect your nose and mouth, despite making communication easier. For the best protection, face shields or visors should always be used in addition to a face mask not as a substitute for them.

Ask for feedback regularly

Check-in with your group regularly throughout the session. Pause at several moments to ask whether participants can hear you correctly and if they have understood. Ask also if you participants would like you to repeat something.

Finally…reflect and assess

Assess what worked well and what you could work on for next time at the end of each session. Be flexible enough to rejig your methods after a few sessions if some things are not working. And be kind to yourself – adapting to new ways of working takes time and patience.
Remember that rules and regulations may be different in your particular region or organisation. Give these strategies a go the next time you’re facilitating with a mask and let me know how you get on. Interested in learning more about how to facilitate all kinds of engaging discussions with art, artefacts and ideas? Then join my global learning community of educators, guides and creatives – The Visible Thinking Membership
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