On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

How do expert facilitators "magically" end meetings on time?

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

Facilitation MagicHave you noticed that the best facilitators always seem to complete their sessions right on time? They don't have a crystal ball that enables them to foresee exactly how long each step will take. Instead, they use a few facilitator tricks to manage the timing and pace of their sessions.

When preparing for a meeting, working session, or interactive workshop, I try to estimate the "right" amount of time to allocate for various discussion points or exercises. But as any experienced facilitator knows, "stuff happens" and I often find that the session progresses faster or slower than anticipated.

When that happens I need to intelligently extend or shrink any remaining exercises, discussions, or action planning elements. I think about this like an accordion, where I have to "squeeze" or "expand" the remaining parts of the agenda while remaining "on key."

As my career progressed, I've become better at managing the pace and timing of my sessions. Recently, I reflected on what I was doing and then compared notes with other experienced facilitators at gOE. We assembled a set of 15 techniques for managing timing and flow, including tips for preparing for a session, introducing it, adjusting on-the-fly, and avoiding timing pitfalls. Below are four sample tips, followed by a link to download the full set of tips.

Sample Tips

Tip #3: When you design an exercise that contains a set of questions or tasks, identify in advance which ones could be skipped. Then, if you need to save time, ask participants to just focus on certain questions or specific rows in a worksheet.

  • An alternative that can also work is to allow them to pick and focus on 3 questions or rows.

Tip #7: There are often a few alternative ways to conduct an exercise or lead a discussion, with different time commitments. You can give people time individually to work on the task, you can have them work on it in pairs or small groups, and/or you can have them discuss it as a large group.

  • Fastest – Go directly to a large group discussion or ask them to reflect individually and hand in their notes (the individual solution is only worthwhile if the group doesn't need to hear what others are thinking about the topic during the session).
  • Most in depth (i.e., most time consuming) – First give them time to reflect individually, then time to discuss in pairs or small groups, then finally solicit their thoughts and ideas and engage in a full group discussion. If you have additional time, you can have each pair or smaller group report back with 1-2 highlights prior to engaging in a full group discussion.
  • In between – Allow a little time for quick reflection or quick discussion in pairs, followed by a full group discussion.

Tip #10: If you are typically empathetic, you may find yourself watching a group as they work on an exercise, and get uncomfortable when the fastest person (or pair) finishes quickly and looks bored or the slowest person (or pair) doesn't have time to complete an exercise. However, be careful not to manage a session based on the fastest or slowest participants or the rest of the group will suffer.

  • Read the room, and in most cases, the best target is somewhere in between the fastest and slowest participants.

Tip #14: When we feel we are ahead or behind it is easy to subconsciously accelerate or decelerate the pace with which we talk. Be careful about simply talking faster or slower. By way of analogy, if you are accustomed to talking at 30 mph and you try talking at 50 mph, you will forget things and your audience is unlikely to understand you.

  • It is typically better to make smart decisions about the agenda and how much time you allocate to remaining sections than to "pick up or slow down" your cadence.

Full Set of Tips

You can find the full set of tips in the downloadable document: Facilitation Tips for Managing the Pace of Any Session. And of course, I'd be interested in hearing what other tips and tricks you use to manage the pace of your sessions!


  This set of facilitation tips and hundreds of other tools and resources are included in gOEbase, our toolkit for internal consultants. gOEbase is a comprehensive toolkit for HR, OD, and L&D professionals that can be used to address a wide range of organizational needs.

Visit www.gOEbase.com