Tell Them What They Told You – Facilitation Structure Made Easy

Since 348 BC, speakers have benefited from a simple presentation structure given to us by Aristotle:


“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

But what about facilitation? Does that have a structure to it, and what would Aristotle say about that?

I was in a string of back-to-back facilitation training sessions providing strategy and coaching to people in a company that has to facilitate meetings internally, with customers, and with prospects, and the question kept coming up – How should I format a facilitation? What’s the structure of facilitation?

Prior to these sessions, SagePresence had done a course on the process of facilitation, the core of which is a story-structured process of asking questions to uncover and define the problems, solutions, and outcomes of a particular subject with a particular group. What makes it a facilitation and not a presentation is that you’re pulling information and points of view from the audience instead of pushing those things onto them. You’re asking instead of telling.

But in our coaching sessions, people recognized they couldn’t just air-drop into the facilitation, and they couldn’t just abandon it when it seemed to be done. They were having difficulty figuring out what to say to preface a facilitation, and what to say to wrap it up.

In one of my sessions, it hit me that Aristotle did give us the answer for facilitation structure, inside of his famous structure for presentation. I looked to my coachee and said,

Tell them what you’re going to ask them, ask them, and then tell them what they told you.

Let’s break it down, and compare this to presentation.

Presentation Facilitation
Open: The start of your presentation sets the stage for the presentation experience you’re about to take your audience through. It tells them what to expect you to tell them about. Open: The start of your facilitation sets the stage for the interactive experience you’re about to take your audience through. It tells them what to expect you to ask them about.
Main Body: This is your presentation. Here, you step through your content, share your main points, support them in detail, and provide examples. Main Body: This is your facilitation. Here you step through your query, asking all of your key questions to capturing audience content, main points, details, and examples.
Close: This is your review, where you summarize the key points you just presented about in detail, often ending with an audience call to action (which may be followed by Q&A). Close: This is your review, where you summarize the key points you discovered with your audience, often ending with the action items your audience agreed to do (which may be followed by Q&A).


The realization that Aristotle’s format served facilitation brought into focus for me the great similarities between the two activities, divided of course by the “flow of the river” of information. Presentations push information outward from you, the presenter, as you tell. Facilitations pull information inward toward you, the facilitator, as you ask.

The presenter’s visual support medium is the slide show or PowerPoint. The facilitator’s visual support medium is the white board or flip chart.

(Of course there are hybrids. You can certainly have a PowerPoint in a facilitation, to provide content that fuels the discussion. If you use flip charts in your presentation you are testing the fit between your content and the audience and collecting their experiences and issues so you can better connect the dots.)

All in all, the flow of these very different experiences are very similar, except you’re asking not telling.

Try setting up your facilitation with a clearer open by introducing the topic and clarifying the discussion experience you areabout to create. Deliver on your promise by guiding them through a discussion that collects the information at whatever level of detail you need. Finally, review the broad strokes of the facilitation by sharing back the highlights of your learning to show them you’ve accomplished together what you promised. If action items are involved, let that be your call to action before you take any final Q&A.

Tell them what you’re going to ask them. Ask them. Then tell them what they told you.

We want to hear from you what questions this raises for you, and which ones it puts to bed. Let us know how this goes for you as you put it to the test!

Also, let us know how we can help you further. Contact us here to tell us about the conversations you need to facilitate.


  1. Al Hammel on October 13, 2015 at 9:29 am


    Don’t know if you remember but you coached me on how to do this in 2011 for our Ideation product line. I have been practicing what you taught me and it works beautifully!

    • Dean Hyers on October 13, 2015 at 4:23 pm

      Al! That’s a great kind of chime in. I do remember you and I’m really glad the method is working for you years later.

      We’ve been studying and training facilitation more and more and it’s only recently that I spotted this connection between the structural framing of a facilitation experience (distinct from the facilitation method itself) and the Aristotle “tell-’em, tell ’em, tell ’em” method. It really helps me get clear on how to design, introduce, deliver on, and close out on a facilitation.

  2. Corby Harty on October 13, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    I love the power of the question. Having people pull the important, relevant information out of their own mind is fascinating.

    • Dean Hyers on October 13, 2015 at 4:26 pm

      It took me a while to embrace the power of the question, Corby, partially because it is so powerful. It’s a major power-shift from presentation, and I cut my stage teeth on presenting because I had so much control. But now I’ve developed a lot of comfort in the shared-power experience.

      Secondly, I’ve discovered how important facilitation is in Business Development, Sales, Meeting Leadership, and Consensus-Building. So I guess I’ve come around, yeah.

  3. Bob Kaufman on October 13, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    One of the most important things that I have found as a pre-determinant of success is the ability to set a simple structure to a complex activity. Human relationship building is about as complex as it gets and no one does a better job of giving a professional simple effective structures for this than the folks at This new entry on presentation and facilitation is evidence of their superior facility in this area. It is excellent and should help many people – including me. Thanks!

    • Dean Hyers on October 14, 2015 at 7:14 am

      Thank you, Bob! We are honored that you would say that, as we know you have experienced some heavy-hitters in communication and presentation. For us, ‘powerful ideas’ happen when you discover of something simple with legs, a concept that’s easy to digest, use, and remember. I personally had an “aha” experience with this facilitation training idea, so I’m pleased that it resonated.

  4. sam ashkar on October 15, 2015 at 10:13 am

    This is a very good distinction between Presentation and Facilitation. Application is critical for the correct outcome. Thanks for the clarification.

    • Dean Hyers on October 15, 2015 at 11:38 am

      Sure, Sam. My surprise was actually “the similarity.” On my own I’d gotten clearer on how they were different without consciously noticing how they were the same! Glad it was valuable.

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