Similar but not identical

At first glance, the roles of speaker, trainer and facilitator look very similar.

  • All involve standing in front of a group and talking.
  • All require excellent communication skills.
  • All call for self-confidence without arrogance, combined with respect for those we serve.
  • All need to stay centered when faced with challenges.
  • All do best when their professional skills are matched by human warmth and a sense of humor.

Given the similarities of these competencies, it is easy to see why many professionals (myself included) offer all three of these services – and sometimes struggle to keep them separate.

Becoming crystal clear about the difference between the roles of speaker, trainer and facilitator is important if you:

  • Contract these services – so you know what skills and deliverables to ask for.
  • Provide these services – so you can help your prospective clients determine what they need (even when they mix up the terms).
  • Consume these services as a member of a group – so you can anticipate what the trainer/speaker/facilitator will ask of you.

Let´s start by looking at this (very simplified) chart.

Even at a quick glance, it is obvious that some of the categories overlap. For example, speakers are often on the agenda in a meeting. Good trainers share the speaker´s desire to inform and inspire as they develop their students’ capacities. Similarly, the best trainers use facilitation techniques to encourage participation in class and support the learning process.

Who talks the most?

Perhaps the characteristic that marks the principal difference between the speaker, trainer and facilitator is the amount of time each one spends talking while doing their job. That speakers mostly talk comes as no surprise; after all, that is what they are invited to do. Their listening is mostly confined to question and answer sessions – assuming they do not run out of time and skip that part of the program.

Trainers need to talk to transmit concepts and skills, but they also need to listen to discover what, if anything, those in the class are learning. Their talk-to-listen ratio, therefore, is close to 50:50.

Facilitators, however, speak very little during a meeting. Their primary interventions occur at specific moments:

  • At the beginning, to present the purpose, agenda, ground rules and expected results of the session.
  • To explain how a certain part of the meeting will be conducted (in plenary, small groups, brainstorm, open discussion, etc.).
  • To summarize the key points mentioned by the group members.
  • To conduct the decision-making process.
  • To signal where the group is in the meeting process and what comes next. (“After the break, we will address [topic X]”).

The meeting participants do most of the talking. And because many of them are poor listeners, habitually “tuning out” certain colleagues or being distracted by their cell phones, the facilitator must listen for everyone.

Meeting facilitators must not, however, take sides in the discussion or express their own opinion about the issues under discussion – much less start teaching or giving a speech.

As professionals, we need to be clear which role we are assuming, make sure our clients and audience/students/group members understand what the role entails, and then once we are in front of the group, resist the temptation to slide into another role.

As the psychologist, Daniel Goldstein, said about this kind of self-discipline, “It’s like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.” So let´s practice staying in one of these roles at a time.