In the context of a meeting, the content experts are those who have knowledge and experience related to issues under discussion. They can be members of the group or invited guests. In either case their principal role is to share information and express their points of view.
While content experts can make valuable contributions to the group’s discussion or decision-making process, they present a special challenge for the group facilitator. Without meaning to cause harm, content experts can destroy a carefully prepared agenda by ignoring time limits set for their interventions.
Here are some steps that the facilitator can take to make content experts feel welcome and prevent them from usurping the meeting.
Before the meeting
- Call or write the speakers to remind them of the date, time and location of the event and confirm their attendance.
- Send a copy of the agenda, highlighting the time allotted for their presentation.
- Ask if they plan to present any slides and/or distribute written materials.
- In the case of written materials, find out if they will bring the copies or if the meeting organizer is to provide them. In the latter case, explain where to send the documents and the date by when they must be received.
- If you do not already have it, request a brief (one paragraph) biography from each speaker.
- Clarify with the meeting convener/host who will introduce the speakers. (Hint: recommend that it be the person who invited them and, presumably, knows them best.)
- Decide with the meeting convener/host where the speakers will sit when they are not giving their presentations.
- Plan a participatory process to engage the other members of the group in a discussion of the ideas presented.
On the day of the meeting
- Personally greet the speakers, introducing yourself as the meeting facilitator.
- Briefly review the room set up and schedule, answering any logistical questions.
THIS NEXT STEP IS CRUCIAL!
- Ask how much warning they would like before their allotted speaking time is up.
- Indicate where the timekeeper will be positioned and the cards to be used to indicate the remaining time.
Usually these precautions are sufficient to prevent content experts from exceeding their speaking time. If, however, they ignore all the warning signals and continue to talk, simply rise and move close to them. Your silent presence will remind them of their previous agreements with you and they will bring their remarks to a close.
Politely but firmly enforcing the time limits with the first speaker sends a clear message to any subsequent speakers that you are serious about keeping the agenda on track.
Finally, make sure that the meeting convener/host understands and agrees to the time limits and the strategies you will employ to get the content experts to comply with them.
In the end, effective “time management” in meetings is based on clear expectations, equitable enforcement of previous agreements and establishing trust with the convener and all participants, including the content experts.