Published: March 6, 2017   Updated: March 6, 2017

Dr Suess once said, “It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how.” Too true.
Experienced practitioners can make the design and delivery of activity-based programs look very easy, yet beginners often quickly discover there is more to programming success than just following the instructions. The following tips and strategies have been distilled from the 28+ years of hands-on experience of experiential trainer and author Mark Collard, founder of the world’s largest online database of group games and activities.
Below are Mark’s 8 key elements to creating a successful activity that will help you create remarkably fun programs that make a difference.

1. Frame, Frame, Frame

In other words, prepare, prepare, prepare. Appropriately framing an activity – that is, ‘setting the scene,’ or providing a context in which the activity will take place – is one of the most valuable tools I employ to help groups achieve their goals, i.e., be successful. Otherwise, your group may be emotionally under-prepared for what is about to happen.

People have a natural proclivity to want to know why they are doing what they are doing. Framing goes a long way toward answering these questions, as well as reducing anxiety, providing clarity, and generally coaxing people forward into your program.

Everything you do programmatically provides the context in which the next activity is framed. For example:

  • Your language – it’s not just what you say, but how you say it – check out the next paragraph for a more thorough discussion.
  • Lead-up activities – like building blocks, every activity should aim to complement the next, rather than subvert it. To illustrate, leading into a serious discussion with a very energetic, bounce-off-the-wall type of activity is unlikely to result in a settled, composed or focused group of people.
  • Your general approach to facilitation – if you operate under the premise of Challenge by Choice (a universal philosophy of allowing people to participate at their own comfort level), but your overall demeanor says there is no choice, you are likely to turn people off.

Ask yourself, “Have I done everything to prepare my group – emotionally and physically – for this experience?” “Do they know what they are getting into, and why?”

If not, think about what lead-up activities you could use to prepare the way, or perhaps what introduction / briefing might be necessary to soothe the group into the activity.

2. It’s All In How You Say It

As a participant, which would you prefer to hear?

“….and if you’re too slow, or get the wrong answer, you’re ‘out’ and you have to come into the centre of the circle…..”

Or, “…and if the time expires, or you make a gaffe, you are invited to take your turn in the centre of the circle and have some fun…..”

Perhaps each statement is saying the same thing, but for many people, they will hear a big difference. The first implies that I have no choice (“you have to”), so I might feel under pressure because I don’t want to be ‘slow’ or ‘wrong.’

This may manifest itself as, “I don’t want to make a mistake, so perhaps I won’t play.”

While the second statement is all about options (you may decline the invitation), and fun is introduced as an integral part of the consequence of “going out.”

As program providers, our language is one of our most potent tools. It can work for us or against us, and I don’t just mean the use of ‘politically correct’ terms. Beware that everything you say, from the moment you introduce yourself to the moment that you wave good-bye will fan the flames of invitation and play, or snuff them out.

Ask yourself, “Have I introduced this activity in the most appealing, inclusive, way?” Provide choices to people so that they can find a level of participation that is comfortable for them.

3. Inject Lots Of Humour

This is such a critical element of delivery, and the key to opening up your group. Observe the crazy, menial little things people do, and serve it back to them in a manner that says, “Have you ever noticed this?” Of course, they have, they just don’t want to admit it.

For example, the insistence some people have for tagging one another after the game has stopped, or the understated crawling on knees when a simple pivot in place was called for. Or, at a more serious level, the subtle glance over the shoulder to check that your spotters really are there behind you to catch your fall, even though the command “Ready, fall away!” was given.

What about the way we (notice, I’m using the royal ‘we’ here, so as to not draw attention to myself) avert our eyes and attention away from someone whose name we have once known, but now that they are coming our way, we just cannot seem to remember it? I could go on and on….

Suffice it to say, people love this stuff – it was the essence of the TV show Seinfeld. Our programs are made up of so much normal-ness, perhaps nothing-ness, it can be hilarious to sit back and look at it for what it really is at times.

Of course, how you deliver these moments is key – what could appear to some as a diamond in the rough, may just be a rock to others. Focus your humour so that you encourage your group to laugh with rather than at others.

4. How Not To Pick A Partner

Have you ever noticed how the seemingly innocuous words “Okay, everybody pick a partner…” can strike terror into the hearts of many participants? In my experience, it is one of the most frightening things you can ask a group to do.

Questions such as “Should I pick someone or wait to be picked?”, “What if I pick somebody, and they don’t want to play with me?”, “Does she really want to play with me, or is she just being nice”, or “If I pick him, will he think I’m coming on to him?” will be roused among many others.

Sadly, the instruction to “pick a partner” is too-oft interpreted as “find someone you are attracted to.” This thought is as embarrassing as it is open to the anxiety-laden prospect of people feeling left out. There are just too many other ways to ask people to get into smaller groups, including pairs, to risk these outcomes.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you should never use the words “pick a partner” again. Certainly, as a program develops and your group becomes more comfortable with one another, the panic-inducing reaction to simply “picking a partner” will diminish. But, with most groups, especially if they have just met each other, you are well advised to avoid the typical “pick a partner” suggestion.

5. Always Ask For A Volunteer

There is always, no matter how long you wait, someone willing to step into the ring of fire, and help you do whatever you need. Perhaps you need help to demonstrate the next move, or need someone to break the ice and start the activity, whatever – it never fails, there is always someone willing to step forward.

But why bother, you might ask, when you can often save time and potential embarrassment by doing it yourself, or asking a colleague to step in? The value is hidden in the invitation.

It can be as simple as observing the initial humour of no one stepping forward, or everyone but one poor soul stepping back. However, beyond the humour, there is extraordinary value in using a volunteer from your group. Having one or more of your group step forward says “I am willing to… take a risk, have fun, give it a go, look silly,” etc, etc.

These are huge transformative messages that are broadcast loud and clear – yet subtly – to the rest of the group. It will frequently open up further opportunities for more of this, from more of your group.

Asking for volunteers is part of the fun, it’s suspenseful (“what’s he/she gonna do?”), and it’s a true adventure, especially if you don’t telegraph what they are going to be doing. Besides, I get to be up-front all the time. I want to share the limelight from time to time.

6. Stop An Activity Before It Wanes

Leave them wanting for more. Stopping an activity just as it reaches its peak, and perhaps a tad further will give you many useful programmatic starting points. Moving on at this juncture keeps the energy of the group up, and their spirits high.

It’s easier to slide into the next activity if you have their attention, even if they are complaining that you stopped too soon. Better this than having no complaints because everyone left the scene on account of eventual boredom!

You can always go back to the activity if it really is that good (and it fits your program goals), but it’s often better to move onto something new while you have them in the palm of your hand.

And my advice, if at the end of the day you have waned more often than you waxed, “Get a new job.”

7. Play On

Ever been left out of a group? Ever felt that everyone else was having fun, but you weren’t? You’re not on your own – I’ve been there, and done that, especially when I was younger. So I make it a point not to introduce too many activities that eliminate people, especially early in a program.

Games that eliminate folks can be great fun; I still use many of them today. But when used at the wrong time, or in the initial stages of a group’s development, it risks alienating certain people, not to mention losing a lot of useful energy. Also, it is not unusual to watch the same people get eliminated over and over again. Beware of the message this may send to the group – and the individual – if this does not occur within a safe and supportive atmosphere.

Clearly, the more people you have involved, the more energy and good times you can develop – which is my next point…

8. Keep People Bunched Together

The wall-flower syndrome – you know, those folks who like to stand with their backs to the wall – is a real killer of energy and enthusiasm, especially in the beginning stages of your program (when it seems everyone is reading the same script). Always invite people to come closer to you, get them to bunch up a little.

Circles work fine, but when you don’t need a circle, collapse them in, and invite them to move closer to you. You and they will bristle with energy, which is a wonderful way to kick-off.

My style is very much “Hey, come over here. I’ve got a secret to tell.” People move in. They lean closer. Their attention is piqued. I love that. They are now primed, and ready to rock-n-roll. Yet, at the same time, the group has started to unconsciously break down some barriers, not to mention, trust and share. This is all good.

Try speaking a little softer. That often works a treat. Your group will have to bunch up together simply to hear you. And all those folks who can’t hear you because they are too busy talking, will suddenly gasp when they realize the group has gone quiet! I love the humour of that moment too.

Mark Collard has been an experiential trainer, author, and speaker all over the world (yet, based in Australia) for 28+ years. He is super passionate about helping people and groups transform their experience of recreation, education, and relationships by taking fun more seriously. His motto: a good idea does not care who it belongs to. Read more and get connected to Mark here

Written by FacilitatingXYZ Team

This is the account that the FacilitatingXYZ team uses. FacXYZ is co-facilitated by Meg and Sam, and brings in expertise, knowledge, and lived experience from facilitators far and wide. Read more about us here.

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