In our course, The Effective Facilitator, we include Facilitation Principle #4: The Power of The Pen—Use it, don’t abuse it, make it theirs. A key component of the principle is writing the participants’ words, not yours. By using their words, you continually empower the group and build ownership for what is truly their ideas.

We recommend avoiding the temptation of replacing their words with yours because this behavior can indirectly communicate to the participants that their words are inadequate, your words are better than theirs, and you are smarter than they are. This is not your intention of course (at least I hope it is not!), but this subtle message can be communicated when you write your words instead of theirs.

But, if we are insistent that facilitators write the participant’s words, instead of their own, what should facilitators do when a participant gives a 50-word response to a question?  We recommend using the headline technique.  You simply ask the person to “headline” the comment.  For example, you might say, “If the comment you just made were an article in the newspaper, what would the headline on the article be? Would you headline that comment for me?”

Let’s take a look at an example from The Secrets of Facilitation.

Facilitator: OK, are there other steps in the hiring process that we’ve left out?

Sean: Yes. Human resources receives the résumés, and boy do they get a lot of résumés. There was an opening last year where they received over five hundred, just for one position. And they had to go through them one by one. They had people from all over the world wanting that position. I even understand that there were some applicants from Russia and Kuala Lumpur. Human resources had to screen all those résumés to come up with a handful of finalists. What a tough job they had.

Facilitator: Sean, you said a lot there. Can you headline it for me? We are talking about steps in the hiring process. If what you said was an article in the newspaper, what would the headline be?

Sean: I guess it would be “Human resources screens résumés and selects finalists.”

Facilitator: Thanks Sean, I got that. Is that it, or are there other steps?


In our example, the headline technique was quite effective in helping Sean take an eighty-six-word comment and reduce it to seven words.

The headline technique can serve as a fail-safe mechanism for facilitators. When all other techniques fail, you can use it to bail yourself out when you have little idea what to write. Keep in mind, however, that it should be a fail-safe technique, not one you use after every participant’s comment!

To learn more about facilitation skills, consider our course, The Effective Facilitator.  The four-day course provides a structured approach for leading teams and facilitating meetings and covers over 100 techniques for getting amazing results from groups.