COMMON FEARS AROUND LEADING DISCUSSION-BASED PROGRAMMES (AND HOW TO DEAL WITH THEM)

INTRODUCTION 

Leading tours and educational programmes that are based on discussion, inquiry and interaction can be a scary business. Both for you and for your participants.
And if you’re about to take your first steps, it might seem really daunting. However, do remember that any concerns you have are perfectly normal and you’re not alone (we’ve all been there and had to start somewhere). Take it one step at a time and with time, practice and guidance, it will get easier (I promise!).
In this post, I’m going to summarise the most common fears and concerns about leading discussion-based programmes that I’ve heard over the last 20 years, along with suggestions for ways to overcome them.

THERE’S NO SCRIPT TO FALL BACK ON

So, the first fear when leading discussion-based programmes is that there is no script to fall back on.
A script can take many forms – sometimes a script is provided by an organisation to help their educators and guides lead informative sessions. It can also be an ‘unofficial’ script – just your detailed notes for what you want to say about each artwork or object.
BUT. And this may be difficult to hear right now BUT….
It’s time to ditch the script.
People want to be able to participate, connect and converse with you and the artwork or object you are discussing. Lectures and traditional-style walk-and-talk programmes are outdated.⁠ And no-one can concentrate for more than a few minutes when someone is ‘transmitting’ information at them, no matter how good the delivery is.
Maybe you’re worried that your mind will go blank or you won’t know what to say. You’re used to having that ‘security blanket’ of a script to fall back on when you are on tour or leading educational programmes in museums and heritage sites.
BUT if you memorise what you want to say or repeat words from a script, all this does is make your delivery sound impersonal (and in some cases, robotic). And, as I’ve said before, there is also nothing worse than being in the same spot, saying the same thing at the same time.
So, it’s time to rethink your role. It’s time to change the dynamic and put the focus of your session on your participants, rather than on you as the expert or ‘sage-on-the-stage. Think of yourself as the facilitator for the session, helping the group to discover things for themselves.
It’s time to base your programme on questions and listening rather than just you talking. And this will take work. It’s an entirely different way of working. But stick with it because the rewards are plentiful – you will get much more enjoyment out of every session you lead because you will never have two sessions that are the same.
The golden rule with any discussion-based programme is practice, practice, practice. Start slowly and perhaps prepare just one object or artwork or ‘stop’ on your tour that is based on questions and discussion. Set yourself a time limit of 5 to 10 minutes and see how it feels. Prepare some questions or use a thinking routine. Think about the types of questions your group might ask. Put yourself in the shoes of the one person in your group who always tries to ask challenging questions and think about some possible responses. Reflect after every time you try this out – what worked? What can you work for next time? What felt comfortable? Which parts were more tricky?
Familiarity brings confidence and practice will help you to deliver the session in a natural and flexible way.
Yes, you will feel naked without your script the first time you lead a session that is more discussion-based than walk-and-talk, but with practice it will get easier and it will be more rewarding.

WHEN DO I SHARE MY KNOWLEDGE?

There is a common misconception that leading dialogue-based or inquiry-led sessions about art and artefacts prevents you from sharing your knowledge.
That your group will somehow miss out from receiving the information you can provide for them.
This is simply not true.
You can create meaningful discussion-based programmes with and without information. If your programme is one where participants expect you to share appropriate knowledge, think about how and when you share it. Any information should be shared in small amounts throughout the discussion.
When you are about to start sharing something, consider the following questions:
Does this piece of knowledge guarantee a memorable or rewarding experience for your visitors or could it actually be detracting from their own personal insights?
Does your information provide a jumping-off point for group dialogue or actually shut down new insights from the participants?
Any information you share should be there to further the discussion. Learn how to use the knowledge you have as a tool to create curiosity and engagement.
Another way of thinking about it, is to imagine yourself as the orchestrator or facilitator of the discussion. You are helping participants to discover information for themselves.
This is not about providing content and facts. Don’t forget that you are the ‘facilitator’ rather than the ‘sage-on-the-stage’. For more information on how to share your knowledge strategically and productively, see episode 12 of this podcast ‘Best Practices for Sharing Information’ for a deep dive on how, when and if you should share your knowledge.

LOSING CONTROL 

Maybe one of the biggest fears about leading this type of programme is that once you hand over the reins to the participants, you will no longer be able to control the outcome of the session.
It’s true, you can’t predict everything during a discussion-based session, but you can make a plan so that you have an idea of where it might go.
A structure is always important because you want the discussion to be a rounded whole rather than a loose muddle of open-ended questions.
So, plan your programme to have an introduction, main body and a conclusion. If you are working in-person and visiting several artworks or objects, have a plan for each stop.
Make sure that your discussion starts with observation, moves on to some form of interpretation and then has a satisfying conclusion. You can use thinking routines to help .
Thinking routines provide a loose, flexible structure and serve as the backbone to help you know what to expect. No need for constant decision-making about what’s coming next or what you should do – you plan what you’re going to do in advance, select the thinking routines and follow the steps.
Having a thinking routine ‘internalised’ frees up time and headspace to be more creative and confident with your groups and gives you more mental energy to really focus on what the participants are saying. Thinking routines are wonderful structures that help you to feel more confident leading discussions with your groups.

WHAT IF THE DISCUSSION GOES OFF TRACK?

This will happen from time to time, but don’t worry. It’s part of your job as a facilitator to manage the discussion. Don’t be afraid to interject and re-focus the conversation where necessary. While some participants may offer just a few words in response to your questions, others might go on for ten minutes every time you ask an open question.
A good facilitator can steer the conversation back on course by politely interjecting with questions at appropriate moments ‘If I may stop you for a moment….” Most people are rarely upset by an interjection that will let them continue talking. Asking additional questions will make your participants feel understood and valued. Using additional questions to keep the discussion on course, will help you to maintain the control and flow of the discussion.
Some facilitators keep discussions on track by summarising the discussion so far (for example, ‘this is what we’ve discussed so far…’ or by sharing that we have a variety of ideas and opinions and then list them out) or you could also list the main talking points on a (portable) whiteboard.

WHAT IS NO-ONE SAYS ANYTHING?

This is such a common fear. It’s that moment when you ask a question and nothing happens. There is a painful silence that seems to go on forever (even though it’s only a few seconds) and yes, it’s happened to us all.
However, there are several things you can do to avoid that tumbleweed moment.
First of all, you want to create an atmosphere that encourages participation. As you would do in-person, you want to make sure that all participants feel happy to contribute.
Find out some general information from your participants and let them know what to expect for the session (stating that participation and a variety of interpretations and ideas are welcome will help to set the tone).
Then ensure that your questions are open-ended to encourage discussion. As all long-time listeners to this podcast will know, Open-ended questions promote longer answers that originate from knowledge, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
They don’t put people on the spot, instead they allow participants to reveal more or less about themselves, depending on how comfortable they are feeling. They have no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or predictable answers and they encourage people to respond. (To remind yourself about how you can perfect your questioning techniques, see the 5 Golden Rules for Asking Questions)
Then, make sure you get comfortable with the silence after you ask a question. Think of it as ‘thinking time’. Do not go in with a nervous follow-up question straight away, allow your group time to think through possible answers and theories.
Allow time for the group to think and look. I so often hear the guide or educator go in with a follow-up question, before the group have even had a chance to properly look at the object or begin to think about an answer. Give everyone the chance to respond to your question. If necessary, count to 5 in your head before even thinking about saying anything.
If you still don’t get any responses after you’ve given enough waiting time, then it might be time to rephrase your question. Make sure it’s clear what you’re asking.

WHAT IF SOMEONE ASKS A QUESTION YOU DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER TO?  

There will be times when your participants ask you questions that you simply don’t know the answer to. But instead of freezing, relax. It’s OK. It’s impossible to prepare for every possible question in a discussion-based programme
If you don’t know, you don’t know and it’s important to be authentic with your audience.
However, there are some techniques you can employ, when you get a question you don’t know the answer to immediately.
First of all, you can repeat or paraphrase the question to ensure you have understood it (and to give you more time before you need to answer). Saying it out loud may also give you inspiration for an answer.
You can also ask clarifying questions to understand the intention better – the more you understand, the better you may be able to understand it.
Finally, you can admit you don’t know the full answer (we are all human here) and share what you do know at this moment in time. You can also ask the group what they think too.

AND FINALLY…

I hope that has been helpful in trying to allay some of the most common fears about leading discussion-based programmes with art and artefacts. Don’t forget, take one step at a time and imagine each step as a learning opportunity. Make practise a habit. ⁠Set aside time regularly for what you want to improve and practise, practise, practise.⁠ It should become part of your routine.⁠
⁠As part of my Visible Thinking in the Museum Online (VTMO) course, participants practice new thinking routines in our regular practice & coaching sessions in the Visible Thinking Membership. ⁠
These sessions are an integral and unique part of the membership and offer members the EXPERIENCE they need to grow in CONFIDENCE.⁠
These practice and coaching sessions are so important because in order to really embed a new way of working you need to make sure you practice consistently too.⁠
So, don’t forget, take it one step at a time when you start working in a more discussion-based way. And get that practise in! Before long, you will be wondering what on earth you were worried about in the first place!

VISIBLE THINKING IN THE MUSEUM ONLINE (VTMO)

If you would like to be taken step-by-step through the process of learning about how to lead engaging discussions about art and artefacts in a supportive learning community, then do join my Visible Thinking Membership and take my Visible Thinking in the Museum Online (VTMO) Course starting on September 20th
VTMO is an 8 module online course with a combination of self-directed study and live tutorials spread over 10 weeks to fit around your schedule.
⁠Join me to learn how to master the art of facilitating engaging discussions about art and objects.
You’ll learn how to give your discussions a flexible structure and substance, how to deploy basic and advanced facilitation skills, how to formulate brilliant questions that get results; develop a practise habit to embed your new skills quickly and be part of a global community – connect, learn and support each other and collaborate.⁠
Don’t forget we start on September 20th and you can find out more via the button below!
VISIBLE THINKING IN THE MUSEUM ONLINE (VTMO)