Faciliplay: Play as an Online Facilitation Technique

Note: Faciliplay: Play as an Online Facilitation Technique was a post I wrote way back in the early life of this blog, before I moved to WordPress. A lot of those posts feel lost, so I’m picking a few and reposting them. Some, like this one on play, need updating or at least contextualizing. This was written in the day when online interaction was centered on discussion forums, so the advice is framed in that context. It is almost quaint.  Today we can imagine and improvise a much broader repertoire of faciliplay. If you have any great examples, please add them in the comments.

Faciliplay: Play as an Online Facilitation Technique (in discussion forums)

by choconancy

First of all, the members of the Fall 1999 Knowledge Ecology University (now defunct) Online Facilitation Course inspired me write this. Their wonderful expressions in “Just Three Words” confirmed what I’ve felt for a while that play can be a liberating, powerful tool for groups and individuals.

The online manifestations for play are varied. Like offline humor, we need to take care that our choices respect or bridge personal and cultural differences. Segmentation of “playful” spaces and activities help maintain topical and project work in the “serious” spaces. The terms “playful” and “serious” don’t need to be so separate, so inviolate. They can be merged with some attention to group dynamics. But that’s for another time.

What I’d like to share here are some resources on incorporating play into your facilitation repertoire for online conference/discussion spaces; a “bag of toys,” if you will, which you can spread out on the “virtual table.” These are primarily for use in asynchronous bulletin boards or discussion forums but if you use your imagination, I bet you can find many other ways to use them.

As background on the use of play in facilitation, you may wish to check out Bernie DeKoven’s “Deep Fun” site at http://www.deepfun.com. Bernie is the author of The Well-Played Game. Bernie has created a playground to share ideas on play for facilitators, therapists and healers.  Check it out. Add your ideas. Let’s play!

Playful Topics

There is a rich tradition in online play topics from social communities across the net. Many of them became “institutions” at such places as the http://www.well.com,  and other communities. Here are some examples:

  • Just One Word/Just Three Words: as the topic explains, each post has a word limitation. This creates a quick interaction opportunity, allows each poster to “riff” of the previous and can spawn some interesting creative runs. Good for freeing up thinking while brainstorming or using other divergent, creative facilitation strategies. Safe place for anyone to post… you don’t have to create a great literary piece to post! If you want to ratchet it up a notch, try approaches like “rhyme two lines:”

It’s better to jump in and try it yourself
Than let a forum linger, closed, on the shelf…

  • The Never-Ending Story/Limericks, and other Continuation Topics: Group creation of a story, poem or limerick draws people back because they want to see how the next person has built on their contribution. This also demonstrates how responding to others and reciprocity can help build the group. Plus, it can be a creative kick in the pants. In watching these topic grow, a facilitator can also get an idea of what type of team player each participant might be. There will be those who will adhere to the story line, and those who always veer. Both are important parts of a group. But it’s nice to know who is who, eh?
  • Community History Topics: Online architect Amy Jo Kim is a strong proponent of a community “backstory” or history. By providing space for the group to record and comment on the history, to actually create it, you can provide ownership and a place to be “seen” by the community through specific additions to the record.
  • Bars/Grills/Coffeeshops: Hanging out, shooting the breeze, playing around with simulacrums of food and drink is very engaging for a portion of your group. These places are safe spots to let us slowly reveal more about ourselves, both in and out of our “task” or “work/business” concepts. They provide some metaphorical “body language.” 
  • What Are You Reading/Eating/Thinking: Easy places to drop information, have fun without a high intellectual or time overhead. And get great tips on new books, movies or chocolate recipies. Good for longer term communities and groups. These topics don’t build the critical mass in shorter, time-delimited settings unless, of course, it is a topic about chocolate (only kidding…) 
  • Confess and Be Absolved: Sometimes you just need to get it off your chest. Master storyteller Paul Beleserene of Vancouver BC started this topic in the old Electric Minds. It was a people magnet. It could be funny, poignant, it could be a safe way to apologize to a fellow community member. And Paul, as host, absolved every single person and sent him or her on their way feeling just a little bit better about themselves. I confess I still love this topic.

Playful Applications of Interaction Spaces

  • Bulletin Boards/Forums/Discussions: Consider creating a segment of your online space for play to ensure it doesn’t jeopardize your “serious” topics. Not everyone likes to goof around. Make sure your names reflect the purpose of those spaces.
  • Chat: Provide open chat room areas for people to spontaneously chat and get to know, talk about non-project issues or just goof around. Schedule chat times for the group as a coffee klatch or cocktail party as a “get to know” function.
  • Instant Messengers: Quick compliments, silly one liners or a quick emoticon wink can create deeper context for your more serious, recorded activities in a conference. Find a place to share IM contacts.

Playful Communications Tools

  • Emoticons: There are tons of emoticons that serve as text “body language.” Some disdain them, but it is helpful to include a little 😉 if you are using irony or sarcasm in the space where tone and facial expression are absent. Here are a few along with some acronyms commonly used online:

🙂 or 🙂 are smiley faces composed of a colon and a right parenthesis mark

😉 or 😉 or or ;-> is a more tongue in cheek smile, wink, employing a semi-colon
:O = surprised face (and there are hundreds of variations)

<g> = grin

D or 😀 = big grin

:/ or :-/ = chagrin, disappointment, etc.

🙁 or 🙁 = frown

btw = by the way

imo = in my opinion (or imho = in my humble opinion)

rotfl = rolling on the floor laughing

lol = laughing out loud

For more emoticons, see Emoticons: Online Body Language

  • Images and Fonts: Sometimes adding a little color or images to a communication can help enhance a message. Here is one of my favorite animated gifs that a member of one of my online communities made in reference to people getting a wee bit too touchy about issues and feeling attacked:

  Image courtesy of Steve Ruano, ©1999 (alas, gif is gone!)

  • Snarfs and Post-a-thons: These are really down-and-dirty techniques that are not for just any online interaction space, but for die-hard online addicts. Most often found in purely social communities, they can inspire quite intense participation and engagement. Now, definitions! A snarf is a post with a particularly toothsome number. Century snarfs (100, 200, 300) are pretty common in big, public communities. Big K’s (1,000’s) are rarer and more prized. Then there are the other odd number combinations which include repeat numbers (555, or the infamous Karen Valentine snarf — 222), numbers with other significance (777, 69) or sometimes people like to snarf numbers that have personal significance like birthdays (51558) or anniversaries. It is totally silly. It can catch like wildfire. It can also destroy the experience for those who do not like snarfing. Consider yourself warned.Post-A-Thons are group efforts to drive up the number of posts in a topic. Again, this is a social community thing. Don’t ask me. I’ve done it. I confess. I really burned out a wrist one weekend trying to get 7,000 posts in one topic as a form of social protest to site management’ capricious decisions at a community that will go unnamed. But you would be amazed how it builds a group over a short period of time. Kind of like a strong, addictive drug. Again, you’ve been warned…. 😉

The best way to understand these playful applications is to visit some online communities and join in. (ALAS, so many of these are gone!) Check out http://www.electricminds.org, (especially the Playground conference),http://www.salon.com (click on Table Talk) or http://www.utne.com . And have fun!

Image of purple lady from Jeffrey Zeldman Presents

From Faster than 20: Civic Engagement Funders Aligning for Impact

I’m running like a maniac today, but this post from Eugene Eric Kim is to spot on to pass by. My highlights are the attention to online meeting design, shared visuals and slowing down to really notice what is going on. I hope that makes you want to click in and read. Image from the blog post by Amy Wu. Click to see the whole thing!

Civic Engagement Funders Aligning for Impact

Civic Engagement Funders Aligning for Impact.

Groups are smarter with women (no duh!)

FinalMeetingImageGender keeps coming up in my work a lot lately, both as a theme for meetings and work, but also in my lived experience. I have a colleague who has taken over one of my clients because we both feel the client will take on the coaching and feedback better from another man than from me. In a conversation about social capital related investments, another colleague says his rule of thumb is to ad 10% to women they are investing in over the equal-on-paper men just because he knows it pays off. Women’s role in agriculture is finally being recognized in the international development world. And in many cases, it is the development of good data to support these hunches that is finally helping us get traction in USING what we know about gender. So this article comes as no surprise. Don’t stop at the first quote… read to the second one!

“If you want to create a team that works intelligently, put more women on it than men. According to studies conducted by , Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence…“More women was correlated with more intelligence,” he says.”

Here are the three factors that emerged from the research:

  • The average social perceptiveness of the group members.
  • The degree to which members participated equally in the discussion.
  • The percentage of women in the group was a predictor of the group’s intelligence.

OK, so now everyone jumps up and down and says, yeah, but this is different online when there is more ease of contribution and no need for eye contact. Yeah. Right.

“Interestingly, the findings hold up in electronic collaboration among a group as well as they do in verbal collaboration. In some tests, the groups came together online and could only communicate by text chat. “It turned out that the average social perceptiveness of group members was equally applied, even when they can’t see each other’s eyes at all,” Malone says. He believes this means that a high score in the ‘reading the mind in the eyes’ test must be correlated with broader range of social skills and social intelligence.”

Online facilitators, TAKE NOTE!
via Groups are smarter with women, MIT research shows | Profit Minded – Yahoo Small Business Advisor.

A Focus on Online Facilitation During International Facilitation Week

peterblockquestionTim Bonneman blogged yesterday about the International Association of Facilitators “International Facilitation Week.” He pondered…

I wonder if anyone is planning any events related specifically to online facilitation.

I started to comment on Tim’s blog, but realized the length of my response suggested I blog here and link back, so here goes…

Hiya Tim,

I think this is an excellent idea and, alas, for me, the timing sucks. I have put a red line on my to do list promising myself not to bite of anything else. (I’m doing an action research project on how to usefully evaluate the socio-technical stuff associated with organizations’ “collaboration platforms!!” And yes, i bit off WAY more than I should have! See this previous post)

But I think your idea is really good and that there is a network of people out there that would benefit from a week of distributed connection, learning and reflection.

Online facilitation practice has  diversified since I jumped in in 1996. Some of those sub areas have matured. For example, the practices around “online community management/facilitation” have had great stewardship by folks such as the Online Community Roundtable (Shout out to Rachel Happe and friends) and others, and there have been really interesting developments in the facilitation of learning online (see Tony Carr’s work and kudos for pulling together some seminal work around facilitation of learning at University of Cape Town in South Africa). There new generation of online community people who are (re)discovering practices us old timers used back in the early online facilitation days, and adapting and expanding them in new ways and for new contexts.

The proliferation of tools, particularly tools that enable connection outside of bounded groups (such as Twitter, Facebook, and previously the emergent networks that were formed BETWEEN blogs and commentors) has led us to an era that is not just about online group facilitation, but online network stimulation and facilitation. June Holley’s work in network weaving (which to me is still a lot about bounded groups but working in unbounded spaces) is an example.

These tools have also greatly expanded the possibilities of dispersed collaboration, but  I have to say, this seems like an area where a few have succeeded (some wildly) and many have been left with grand dreams that turned to empty promises. I think this is because we are talking about facilitating both between people and between organizations and their politics, policies and structures. So we have a blend of facilitation and organizational development, if you will.

So the field is rich for reflection and ripe for dreaming.


Updated Conference Call & Meeting Tips

My last post about this topic was dated 2009. In preparing for a workshop this week, it seemed like a good time to update the resource. have any suggestions or additions? Please share them in the comments.

Flickr Creative Commons photo from Leo Reynolds http://www.flickr.com/photos/lwr/438478596/sizes/s/

Why use a call?

The medium of voice conversations is pretty flexible. Many of us have mastered the one to one call. You can read hundreds of articles about when to use and not to use voice calls, but the bottom line is you can do many many things and many people have few alternatives. The real question is how hard it is to do any particular type of interaction WELL on a call.

Group voices  calls  can be used  in general for:

  • meetings (best with smaller groups unless it is to broadcast information)
  • project management teams
  • learning events
  • guest speaker presentations
  • orientation or closure for online activity/event
  • networking
  • presentations/pitches

Teleconferences support processes of:

  • decision making (convergence) – this can be a challenging process if the decisions are difficult/complex
  • problem solving/conflict resolution – same issue as decision making
  • fun/play
  • relationship building/orientation
  • brainstorming
  • teamwork
  • knowledge sharing
  • information delivery



  • Have an agenda that includes goals, participant expectations and timing if appropriate. (2013 update — I’ve grown to realize that not all meetings need agendas, but they need at least an intention. For complex, emergent issues, an agenda may not serve as well as a really good starting question.)
    • Don’t CRAM the agenda! It takes more time and people have more fragile attention spans.
    • Ask participants to review the agenda prior to the call. (Or the background materials, intentions, etc.!)
  • An hour on a teleconference generally cannot accomplish quite as much as an hour F2F. Plan accordingly. (Update: take this into consideration with the next point! )
  • If you expect active participation from all participants, consider the impact of volume of comments on time available when determining the number of agenda items. On a 10 person call with the expectation that everyone comments on each agenda item, and their comments range from 1-3 minutes, that means you can accommodate 1-2 agenda items in an hour.
  • Decide on roles. The meeting chair does not have to be the same person who is looking after the call facilitation duties. (Update: I have grown very fond of having a shared chat tool for collective note taking and have added a sub section below. I use http://www.meetingwords.com a lot. )
    • Specific roles are more important as the size of the group increases
    • Facilitator or master of ceremonies – support meeting process
    • Having a “greeter” who arrives 5 or more minutes early to welcome people as they arrive on the phone line helps them orient socially
    • Having a “tech person” who can help people (say, by means of a chat room or instant messenger (IM) if they have difficulties)
    • Designated presenters or speakers who are experts in the topic
    • Having a note-taker (say in a chat-room, that also supports the “tech person”)
  • If part of the group is in a F2F with a long (i.e. full day) agenda, consider scheduling shorter phone segments for critical business. It is hard to stay on the phone for a full day! 😉

Technical Set Up

  • Consider if telephone is the best communication tool for your task or purpose. Alternatives include webmeeting tools, or pairing a phone call with another visual tool such as a chat room (Skype, IM, etc) or shared Whiteboard (ie. Vyew)
  • Send all participants the dial in number and pass-codes (if any) needed. 
    • When I send these in advance, I find it useful to resend an hour before the meeting so people don’t have to go digging through old emails. If you use a calendar request, include on the invitation.)
  • Be clear to participants if you are offering a toll free number or if they are responsible for long distance costs. With international groups, make sure your number includes the international country code.
  • Providing a “jumping off” point –where people can look up the details if they’re lost or if the technology fails. (email, URL, etc.)
  • Integrate a phone call with other media and modes of communication (online, face-to-face, presentation media and print resources). E.G. Collect topics from asynchronous discussions (email lists or web boards)
  • Consider using more than one channel. This means audio with a visual. Often this helps focus more attention and understanding. For example, integrate visuals by sending images in advance or using a web meeting tool. Use an online white board to generate shared images and notes during the call.
  • Consider arrangements for hearing impaired participants (TTY, simultaneous transcription in a chat room, etc.).
  • Have a back up plan for potential technology failure.
  • If the call leader controls the start/stop of the call and may have to leave early, have a second person with leader privileges so the call does not get cut off. Be careful of teleconferencing and we bmeeting tools that only allow one person to have the controls. This is risky.
  • Plan to record the call so you can post audio recordings or notes so that they support asynchronous interaction or give people who couldn’t make it to the call a sense of belonging. If you plan to record the call, recording, playback and transcription tools/services include:
    • http://www.audioacrobat.com
    • http://free.conferencecall.com
    • http://www.highspeedconferencing.com
    • http://www.skype.com with external plug ins (tools you have to add in)
    • http://www.learningalliances.net/CoP_Resources/Recording-phone-meetings.htm
  • Cheap and useful telephone services and tools
    • http://www.freeconferencecall.com
    • http://www.highdefconferencing.com/ (combines regular phone calls and Skype calls)
    • http://www.skype.com
    • http://www.gizmoproject.com/
    • http://www.nocostconference.com/
    • http://www.vyew.com/content/ Simple tool to share screens, etc.

Scheduling and Preparation

  • Consider participant availability just as you would for any other meeting.
  • Consider time zones when scheduling. See the WCAG 2.0 Compliant time converter option, thetimenow.com (Edit, 9/21/16 – thetimenow.com has asked us to remove all links so you just see the name, not the link.  NW) or  http://www.timeanddate.com for timezones and http://www.doodle.ch for scheduling tools.)
  • Communicate local time or how to calculate local time when sending meeting announcement.
  • Distribute supporting documents/files well before the call start.
  • Inform participants if they have to have a file or website open on their computer desktop.
  • Have an attendance list with name, email and phone number in case you need to contact an individual before, during or after the call.

Starting the Call

  • The facilitator should log on early and be the first online (5-15 minutes).
  • If you are going to record the  call, put a big post it note in front of you to remember to turn on the recording. Can you tell I’ve forgotten this a few times? I now also ask someone else to remind me.
    • Tell people if you are recording the call and ask for/deal with any objections. Tell WHERE the recording will be available and who will have access.
  • Greet and know who is online (roll call, use “the clock” described below, etc.).
  • If appropriate, ask early arrivals to greet subsequent arrivals as a team-building activity.
  • Establish protocol of announcing name when taking a turn speaking.
  • Review and, if needed, adjust agenda.
  • Find out if there are any individual time constraints (“I have to leave early”) and adjust accordingly. This is particularly important if you need the input or participation of the person leaving early to achieve the goals of the call.

General Call Etiquette

  • Call from a quiet location.
  • Avoid cell phones. If you use a cell phone, put on mute when not talking.
  • Avoid speakerphones or if using speakerphones, use the mute button.
  • Use quality headsets to avoid “tinny” sound.
  • Avoid low quality cordless phones as they sometimes create a buzzing background sound.
  • Don’t use the hold button if your phone system has built in background music or announcements.
  • Avoid paper rustling.
  • Caution with multitasking – some is unavoidable, but remind people about attention and occasionally call on silent folks to keep their attention. Listen for keyboard sounds (those doing email!).
  • Announce if leaving/returning.
  • On long calls, offer bio breaks and “quick stretches” – remember we are more than just ears! Consider kind treatment of bodies!
  • Speak clearly. Slow down if you are a “fast talker.”
  • Be aware of the impact of accents and slow down accordingly.
  • Be enthusiastic and use a tone appropriate to the group. The first impression is important.
  • Vary voice tone – avoid monotone presentation.
  • Articulate body language (“I’m making waving motions with my hands.”)

Attention & Engagement

  • Use guest speakers or multiple speakers to avoid “boredom” with one voice/presenter
  • If appropriate, use games and interactive activities. See “Just Three Words” below.
  • Track who is talking so you can call on those who have not had a chance/chosen to speak up.
  • Use people’s names to get their attention.
  • If the group gets off the agenda, refocus but take note of the side issue for later attention.
  • Break up long stretches of one speaker.
  • When appropriate, go “around to circle” for inclusive participation.
  • Listen for folks who may be more comfortable talking (avoid dominance) or very quiet.
  • Consider “break out sessions” where pairs get off off the main call, call each other, interact and call back on to the phone bridge.
  • For decision-making processes, restate or repeat key issues as they are honed down to a decision point.
  • If your participants can be online at the same time they are on the phone, consider web-based collaboration tools to create shared electronic notes, flip charts, etc. Sometimes allowing “side chats” or “chat breakouts” can increase participant engagement.
  • Generally, the larger the group, the more directive your facilitation needs to be to keep a small number of people from dominating the call.
  • During the call, stop and ask for feedback.
  • If you don’t want to ask each person to respond to a general query (“do you understand the new procedure?”), ask questions such that silence means assent. There is a drawback to this technique in that sometimes silences does not truly mean assent and understanding can be lost.
  • Share leadership duties to help less engaged people become more involved in the call. Ask individuals to “lead” sections of the agenda.
  • Assign people different roles – note taker, timekeeper, “keeper” of unanswered questions, etc.

Interactive Techniques

  • Brainstorming – ask participants to note down others’ contributions to a brainstorm. After the brainstorming period is done, ask people to comment on the words people chose to express their ideas. Help the group look for convergence and divergence around the creative process.
  • Horrors and Exceptional Situations – For skills training. People often are happy to share horror stories around a skill or issue that can help groups discern what NOT to do. But often they miss the examples of what works. Ask groups to break out (see telephone break out tips) and identify 2-3 HORROR and EXCEPTIONAL SUCCESS stories. Reconvene and note the behaviors that lead to both the positive and negative outcomes. Review and debrief at conclusions. Include what was learned in the call notes.
  • Telephone Break Out Techniques – Pair up participants in advance and share a phone list. During the call, assign a pairs task, have the pairs get off the main call and work for 10 minutes and return to the main number at a stated time to report out/debrief the activity.
  • “Just Three Words” – Phone comments can drag on, especially for large groups. This game originated as an online text technique but works well to surface a sense of the group and get fast feedback. The technique is to do a round of comments from everyone on the call with the constraint that they can only use three words in their response. For example, at the end of the call you might say “what three words describe your experience of today’s call?” The notes from these exercises can then be later reviewed and observed for similarities, differences and patterns.
  • The Clock” – “The clock” can be used on conference calls to help people get and keep a sense of place and participation in a disembodied conference call. It can be used with structured online chats as well. Ask every one to draw a circle on a piece of paper and mark the hours like a clock. Then, each person is assigned a spot on the “clock” as they join the group. So the first person is 1 o’clock, the second 2, etc. If there are more than twelve, start adding 1:30, 2:30 etc. Use this initially to create a speaking sequence for intros, and then use it to ensure everyone speaks. Participants can make notations by names and use it as a visual tool to match names/voices/input. If you are doing multiple rounds of “speaking” vary the “starting position” on the clock.
  • Location Maps – For widely distributed groups that meet regularly; create a map with pictures of the participants near their location on the map. Distribute to the group or publish on a web page.
  • “Side” Conversations – If someone wants to comment directly to a previous speaker, they can use that person’s name to focus their attention. “Sarah, I am not sure I agree with that approach….”

Shared Note Taking

As noted above, I’ve grown fond of shared note taking, so I’ve expanded this a bit:

  • Meetingwords.com: Synchronous online  meetings for large groups create a context where it is easy to “tune out” and multitask. My approach to this is to set up a shared note taking site and engage people there to take notes, do “breakout” work from smaller groups and generally offer another modality for engagement and interaction. We used Meetingwords.com and Google docs for this, later sharing cleaned up notes from these tools. I like that Meeting words has the shared note taking (wiki) on the left, and a chat on the right. It is based on Etherpad, which was eventually folded into Google docs. So we were using “cousin” technologies!
  • Skype: If your meeting is relatively small and you are using Skype, take notes right into the chat room.

Telephone Break Out Techniques

  • Pair up participants in advance and share a phone list. During the call, assign a pairs task, have the pairs get off the main call and work for 10 minutes and return to the main number at a stated time to report out/debrief the activity.
  • If using web meeting tools that have breakout rooms, practice with the technology in advance. It can be a bit tricky.


  • Use some form of feedback or evaluation tool to help improve subsequent calls. A simple “after action review” (what did we intend to do, what did we do, what would we do differently) can be done at the conclusion of a call, or could be done with forms or email post-call.
  • “Just Three Words” – ask each person for three words that describe their experience on the call. Just. Three. Words. Seriously.


  • Take minutes and use for follow up. Distribute as soon as possible after the meeting and highlight follow up steps and responsibilities. I like to send the notes out within a half hour.
  • Recap meeting or next steps as appropriate.
  • Offer opportunity for final/closing comments.
  • End the call promptly, particularly with phone bridges with timed access.

More Conference Call Resources:

Thanks for input from Nathaniel Borenstein, John Smith, and Michael Owens.