Great Conference Sessions, the SRCCON Way

How to facilitate an engaging, purposeful conference session, at SRCCON or anywhere

Filling up a SRCCON 2018 session. (Photo: Erik Westra)

At other conferences I’ve been to, sessions typically involve a slide deck, a 3-person panel talking in turns, and, at the end, 10 or 15 minutes for questions. SRCCON says it’s different, and is it ever. The experience was unlike any conference I’d been to before, and the variety of participation styles kept me engaged throughout the conference without the usual midday lull. (Let’s be honest, the snacks and drinks certainly helped). Talking with other participants during the sessions helped break the ice for conversations between sessions and at mealtimes, too. With more than 50 sessions, facilitators led participants through individual exercises, group exercises, discussions, interviews, and the creation of a random forest machine learning algorithm.

How can session facilitators make the most of their time with participants, and help everyone get the most out of the conference? I talked with several people who have facilitated sessions about what went well, what surprised them, and what helped people get most engaged.

Team Up

First things first: find a good co-pilot.

“It’s a learning process for the facilitators too,” said Soo Oh, who co-facilitated the “Reimagining News Nerd Career Paths” session with Martin Stabe. “The journey goes both ways. We have to take the journey first before leading people on it.”

The session had participants split into groups of four, then interview each member of the group, one by one, about their current skills and skills they’d like to develop. Then each group created a totally new role at a hypothetical organization, described the role, and devised a small-scale experiment that could prove the role’s usefulness at a real-world organization.

Oh said developing the session with Stabe “mirrors the journey that we ended up taking the session attendees on.” While the content might seem pie-in-the-sky—developing an ideal role at a hypothetical organization, or what Oh summed up as “fanfiction for journalism”—Stabe helped ground the session by tasking groups with proving their role’s worth. Oh said: “Martin brought this element of reality to it that made it more possible … Come up with one way you can convince your bosses to let this happen.”

Alexandra Kanik co-facilitated “The Newsroom Collaborative Manifesto” with Natasha Khan. Kanik also touted the importance of a co-facilitator. “It was so helpful to have somebody else there,” Kanik said.

This session had participants brainstorm different elements of a potential data project collaboration between newsrooms, then vote on which of those elements to discuss further. Participants then chose topics, forming small groups to discuss that topic further.

Kanik and Khan had collaborated before, and Kanik said it was important to work with someone you can trust, who can say, “That’s interesting, but what if we did it this way?”

Use What You Know

You don’t need to develop something entirely new to get people involved. Several of the facilitators I talked to used exercises or techniques they’d previously learned to help engage the participants.

For example, in the “Reimagining News Nerd Career Paths" session, the format came from some OpenNews workshops that Oh helped facilitate over the summer. Marie Connelly and Eileen Webb’s session “Building Resilience: Moving Beyond a Fear-Based Model of Change” used dyads, a conversational exercise.

“I did not invent it, I was taught it,” Webb said.

The participants, in groups of two, talked and listened to their partners for four uninterrupted minutes. For the one not doing the talking, “it’s purely just about listening to them,” Webb said. “The person speaking gets to construct the experience for themselves about what it’s like to be listened to.”

Audrey Carlsen facilitated the session "I’m a stranger here myself: Building a newsroom roadmap for young journalists of color and their allies,” which opened with an activity called the “Culture Toss”.

In the activity, participants take a sheet of paper with boxes, and in each box write a piece of information about themselves: Their full name, race and/or ethnicity, religion or spirituality, language(s), an important possession, and an important life value. Then they systematically decide which is least important, and cross items out. Finally, they hand the paper to someone else, who makes the final choice of which piece of identity to eliminate.

Carlsen was first introduced to the exercise by Teresa Scribner, a former colleague at the Seattle Times. Carlsen had also previously led other groups through the exercise, including SRCCON:WORK participants in 2017, during a session that she co-facilitated with Helga Salinas.

There’s a reason some exercises and activities come back again and again. “I have gotten nothing but good feedback from anyone who’s done it,” Carlsen said. At SRCCON:WORK, Salinas said participants’ engagement with the exercise demonstrated a willingness to share their experiences. “They shared them with confidence,” Salinas said. And more than that, participants were enthusiastic about extending the experience beyond just that session, according to Salinas: “Afterwards, people wanted the worksheet. They kept the worksheet.”

One thing to consider when bringing outside exercises into a session is whether and how you might modify them, and how to address that in the session. Carlsen noted the Culture Toss exercise doesn’t acknowledge gender identity and sexual orientation, for example, and could be updated to include those. Carlsen and Salinas chose to use the materials as written, but acknowledged the context of the materials in the sessions they facilitated. Carlsen said it was a good idea to have a disclaimer and explain to participants “there’s a reason we’re choosing to keep that the way it is.”

Reach Out Beforehand

Facilitators had some other tips for preparation too. Talking to other people with experience was a common, key strategy.

“We also reached out to a couple people who had tackled topics like this before,” Kanik said. One tip she and Khan got from other facilitators was to not make assumptions about participants’ knowledge coming in to the session, for instance by using jargon and not defining it. “It’s easy to make people feel like they don’t belong there,” Kanik said.

Oh also said having a network of support was helpful in preparing the session, particularly having previously facilitated sessions with incoming OpenNews director Erika Owens. “She brings a level of care into things, and I was able to bring that forward,” Oh said.

Khan also found the pre-conference session that SRCCON organized for facilitators helpful. Session leaders got together the night before SRCCON to share outlines and facilitation tips. Kanik said they incorporated some elements from that workshop into their session, like asking questions of attendees at the beginning of the session to get people involved early.

Structure for Engagement

Of course, the structure of the session itself is important for getting people engaged.

Carlsen and Salinas’ session began with the Culture Toss. Starting with the exercise “made it easier for the rest of the session…to hear and understand in different ways,“ Salinas said.

Carlsen said it helped get everyone on the same page, thinking “this is something that applies to all of us.”

Rachel Shorey co-facilitated "Lights, Camera, Algorithms: Acting out (and then discussing) Machine Learning” with Jeremy B. F. Merrill. In the session, participants took on the roles of fruits and vegetables, and they acted out various machine learning algorithms by physically moving around the space.

In this case, the structure of the session virtually assured engagement. “It was impossible to sit in the back of the room,” Shorey said. And while, sure, it would’ve been possible for participants to just go through the motions, Shorey said they were enthusiastic and gave it their all. “People were willing to play the game.” (See Shorey’s full instructions for running this session.)

Webb said the dyad exercise was meant to reflect some of the qualities that SRCCON already emphasizes: the communication among participants, conversations at lunch or between sessions and time for uninterrupted conversation “where it was ok to talk about themselves and what was going on with them.”

Kanik and Khan’s session was scheduled in the first block of the conference, and opened with a short exercise—physically, that is. Facilitators asked a series of questions and had participants sit or stand, according to their answers. “Movement was a good thing, especially early in the morning,” Kanik said.

Know Your Purpose

Having a clear and precise idea of the goal of the session was helpful to a number of the facilitators in planning and directing their sessions.

In Shorey’s machine learning session, the goal was not to teach participants how to program a machine learning algorithm, or really even to understand the intricacies of how one works, but to prepare the participants for encountering machine learning in a pitch or from a source. “We want you to be able to ask a better question or have a better understanding,” Shorey said.

Webb said the session about resilience with the dyad exercise met the facilitators’ goals: In addition to getting participants talking about resilience and change, “as a bonus, maybe they will also have some beautiful insights around communication,” Webb said.

Salinas had previously run a session for journalists of color at another conference, and while thankful to have the space to acknowledge that, said there wasn’t a tool to help move forward afterward. The Culture Toss exercise in the sessions Salinas and Carlsen co-facilitated was meant to be a frame for people to share their experiences confidently. “The point of the session was to empower, make people like us not feel so alone or exhausted,” Salinas said.

More Tips

A few other tips from facilitators:

  • Play to the room. The physical space can affect how the session goes. Shorey’s machine learning session required lots of space for participants to move around and act out the algorithms, and so it was held in the largest space available. Carlsen said that when co-facilitating with Salinas at SRCCON:WORK, the roadmap for journalists of color and their allies session was in a smaller, more intimate space, and that helped with getting everyone engaged. At SRCCON this year, “having it in a larger space did dampen that a little bit,” Carlsen said. “It took a little bit more work on my part.”
  • Set some ground rules. Webb said that before the dyad exercise, the facilitators made sure to set expectations, saying it was okay to use the four minutes however you wanted. “This can get really deep and scary, and it’s okay if you want to go there, it’s okay if you want to stay away from that,” Webb said. Kanik said in another session the facilitator had used some ground rules to help make sure everyone was involved, asking participants to be aware of how much they were speaking.
  • Give people some freedom. If it’s appropriate to your session, consider trying to let participants take it where they want to go. In the news nerd career paths session, the facilitators left it up to participants how many new roles they wanted to brainstorm, but most groups seemed to settle on one. And in both that session and the resilience session with the dyad exercise, participants had a lot of time to talk. Oh said it’s harder to filter yourself when you’re talking for five minutes, in contrast to the 30-to–45 second soundbites many people are used to speaking in. More time allows for “open spaces for exploration, where the rambling is,” Oh said. About the dyad exercise, Webb said the participant whose turn it was to speak could even choose to not say anything: “Part of the deal is that you don’t have to be talking in order to be deserving of attention…It’s as much about what you say as what you start to feel and the insights you have.”


  • Brent Jones

    Brent Jones is St. Louis Public Radio’s data visual specialist. He does data analysis and visualization as well as produces digital special projects and newsroom tools. He’s also the newsroom’s drone pilot. Formerly, Brent worked at the St. Louis Beacon nonprofit news site from its inception in 2008 until it merged with the radio station in 2013.


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