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How to manage engagement in large groups

The work Denise is currently involved with in New Zealand is centred on small group based extension. Small groups are those around the 10 to 20 people mark. Definitely no more, because then it is not a small group and people have the chance to hide and not engage! But what do you do, if your enabling change activities typically involve large groups? That’s more like 100 people, plus or minus! In today’s post we are going to explore how to be effective when facilitating large groups.

The tricky thing is that it’s hard to get engagement in large groups! We are sure you have all been there. You are sitting at the back of a marquee at a field day, or you are sitting at a round table at a conference with 100s of people, and you find your mind wandering, you start thinking about lunch and what might be on the menu, you start composing an email that you need to send… or is that just us? 

We think the trick is to work through how to make a large group into small groups for the sections of the time you have with them. Because it’s in small groups that you can get engagement. This could be as simple as asking people to turn to the person next to them and talk about the topic at hand. Or discuss a simple question. 

The ultimate is being able to break a large group into groups of 8 to 10 with a facilitator nominated for each. Then you can really get things humming! Now if this sounds like the most impossible task – that’s fair enough! How on earth do you get enough people who have the right skills to be able to split a large group into 10 (or more) smaller groups? Well it is possible, but there’s a bit of planning involved.

Denise recalls she and a colleague were asked to speak at a large farmers conference a few years ago. Even better, it was the last slot of the day! The only thing standing between a large group of farmers who had just had a full-day conference and the bar – was the session we had been asked to do! We were really concerned that it was easy to disengage in a large group and we felt that we needed to split it up and get them talking amongst themselves! So we planned! 

Denise says they worked with the team organising the conference and got them to identify some farmers and rural professionals that would be at the conference who would be good as small group facilitators. All they needed to do was to be able to follow our directions from the front and ensure that everyone in their small group had a chance to contribute during the discussion. And guess what? It worked! It wasn’t perfect – the noise of 10 small groups scattered around a room talking meant that some people who were hard of hearing would’ve had difficulty engaging. Some groups went off on some tangents. Some groups didn’t write anything down. But the buzz of conversation more than made up for these things because it was the sound of engagement!

And we think some groups going off on their own tangent isn’t actually a bad thing. Maybe that’s just what the group needed to talk through at the time? But noise of conversation is one indication of engagement and connection!

Some other ways of breaking up large groups are to:

  • Split up a large group into smaller groups and send them to different locations where people are talking about particular pre-set topics. They get a certain amount of time to be there, and then they are moved onto the next stand or topic. That’s sometimes called the bus stop technique. 
  • It’s easy to do on a farm tour when people need to jump into vehicles – this means they have to be split into small groups to fit into the vehicles! Just remember to give them a question to discuss while they’re driving between sites. While they might still end up talking about the rugby, at least you’ve given them something to start with!
  • And don’t forget to allow the small groups to share their ideas with the larger group. You never know what gems are going to come out.


So you’ve read our thoughts on managing a large group. Now we’d like to hear yours! We do not want this just to be a one-way conversation, so join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us. Add a comment below and share your experiences with us.

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change post. Remember to tell your friends if you’ve liked what you heard, so we can get more people into the conversation about enabling change.

All the best until we meet again!

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Sarah Thompson
Sarah Thompson
3 years ago

I was at last year’s APEN conference where you and a few others managed to get a very large conference group to do a 100+ people bus stop style activity. We all spoke at our tables, wrote down our ideas and then certain people on the table moved to the next table. I wonder – is it easier, or more challenging facilitating activities with extension/facilitation professionals?!

David Jago
3 years ago

Excellent stuff, folks! A few extra thoughts: Often you will need a couple of small group ‘breakouts’. It really pays to figure out the rhythm and flow of these. By rhythm I mean the pattern of small and whole group work. Generally you’d start and finish with the whole group. You may need to reconvene the whole group in between to keep everyone on the same page. By flow I mean how ideas and information are processed from whole group to small group to whole group… How does this contribute to the overall outcome/s? I like the ‘bus stop’ idea.… Read more »

Laure Triste
Laure Triste
3 years ago
Reply to  John James

I also believe that sharing back with the whole group is important, but I often experience it as too lengthy, because people tend to repeat the whole discussion they had in their group. It ends up with nobody paying proper attention, and becoming nervous to go to the bar or leave the meeting. To avoid this, we often provide a template with 2 or 3 short questions that should be prepared in the break out rooms for a smooth sharing back process in the plenary session. We also give them a limited time span to feed back from their session:… Read more »

Debbie Twiss
Debbie Twiss
3 years ago

One technique I experienced was where the facilitator was perched on the top of ladder in centre of large conference room with loud speaker. They could see all groups interacting and direct questions at groups as they tried to complete a task. The groups had been decided off the back of a questionnaire -sorting according to leadership style. The task was to create structure that would prevent egg from breaking when dropped from height (yep by facilitator off ladder). The exercise was to feel the impact of imbalance in your leadership style. About 60 people took part in exercise. Groups… Read more »

Debbie Twiss
Debbie Twiss
3 years ago

It can be useful online to give quick practice with breakout rooms, with fun get to know you Q at start of zoom meeting if you intend to use rooms later for more serious conversation. It gets the surprise sensation comments out the way so time not taken up when you want focused conversation later in virtual workshop. Introduction/play with tools early helps maintain flow and keeps things to time later in program

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