“And the winner is…”

Facilitating a prize giving gala ceremony is not my usual line of business and I don’t think I’ll be donning the ball-frock and handing out ugly shiny mini-monuments to stars and starlets of showbiz too much. However, when we’re talking about the Essl Social Prize, the annual prize given by the Essl family (owners and ethical leaders at Austria’s BauMax – the largest DIY corporation), I think it’s a bit different and was more than happy to lend my hand in moderating it. Martin and Gerda Essl, a young couple with their 4 charming kids, started the prize 3 years ago. Each year, a million Euros goes to a social entrepreneur who can use the prize money to really effect change in his or her community. This year, the Essl prize went totally global and honoured Bill Drayton of Ashoka. The Essls don’t just want to chuck a load of cash in someone’s way and walk off, but enter into a collaboration with the prize-winner in order to increase the impact of their donation. In Ashoka’s case, the Essl Foundation have entered into a unique project – Globalizer – which matches 25 of those Ashoka’s Fellows with great global potential with 25 CEOs from around the world. In exchanging experience and expertise and letting Ashoka Fellows – social entrepreneurs working on innovative projects to reduce suffering and increase life’s value for all of society – in on the secrets of business success, the Ashoka Fellows’ innovations have more of a chance to move out of their microcosm and impact on the world.

It’s all inspiring stuff, and when you meet the Ashoka Fellows and hear of what they do and how they do it, you’re humbled and exhilarated and  you want to go out and become one of Ashoka’s so-called “Changemakers”. So anyway, it’s a backdrop more than interesting to be part of. The other backdrop, Vienna’s beautiful and impressive Hofburg is obviously “good enough” (Martin Essl) for an award ceremony of this repute.

Now of course this weekend was a time for people all over the globe – particularly in Europe – to recognise the limitations of globalisation: a volcano exploded and aeroplanes stayed put. No-one moved. Including most of the international guests of the Globalizer. Including Bill Drayton, who was stranded in UK. A last-minute favour by a camera and TV production company in Oxford provided the prize-giving ceremony with a short film in which Bill was able to thank his donors. And there was no further reason for the Award ceremony to be held in English. Luckily I speak German, and luckily too, I was co-facilitating with a charming and thoroughly professional Austrian TV-talkshow host: Barbara Stöckl, who mastered the spontaneous changes of plan and provided clear, sensible advice and directions behind the scenes, whilst I translated the text of the presentation into German!

As this is a blog on facilitation, let me try and leave the content and the global excitement of Ashoka, Essl and their causes. And focus on facilitating a live Award ceremony. It’s late, so I’ll sum up what I think is important:

  1. Make sure your guests feel great. They need to know and feel comfortable in the whole framework of the ceremony – from dress-code and menu to seating plan and orientation.
  2. Make sure you do your PR-homework. It’s not particularly sensible to hold an opulent Award ceremony and not broadcast the images (The Essl Foundation did this very well, by the way).
  3. Create a water-tight choreography that looks easy. Use all the stage. Create a sense of harmony and balance through entrances made simultaneously from both sides of the stage. Create a sense of focus by standing in the middle of stage and stating your main message. And then shutting up for a few seconds.
  4. Enjoy finding out about your talk-guests on stage. Don’t just ask them what you’ve practiced, but use the real situation and key words from the evening’s dialogue to pass the essence of the evening from guest to guest.
  5. Don’t play about with your microphone, tapping it and asking if it’s working. If it doesn’t work, you’ll know soon enough.
  6. Lead guests (literally) around the stage: don’t allow them to just mill around where they want. It’ll be messy and look uncomfortable. Provide tables and other pieces of furniture for stage guests to “hold on to”.
  7. Verbalise what’s going on – even if it’s unplanned and a bit of a mess. Your verbalisation will stop messy stage situations becoming embarrassing and stop everyone frantically looking for a solution. You’re in control and everyone needs to feel they can rely on you.
  8. Try and stimulate as many of the human senses as possible: use a (pompous) jingle to signalise a new chapter in the stage-show or a new entrance to that stage; allow people to eat and drink something during the ceremony…
  9. Change peoples’ perspective: in a large hall with hundreds of people, use the middle and back of the room for some action if possible. This keeps people awake (main reason), is inclusive for people “at the back” and makes people rotate and swivel in their chairs – this will keep them supple and increase the blood supply to their organs (including the brain).
  10. Be formal and natural. Enjoy speaking to the audience, allow them to feel they’re entering into your world, but retain your distance.
  11. Smile a lot and use distinct mimicry and gesticulation. Remember though, it’s sometimes powerful to stand still for a moment and shut up.
  12. Use a multi-tonal voice – particularly if you’re reading something out loud. Pretend you’re reading a story to children who don’t understand all the words and want to evoke particular feelings, such as fear, excitement, happiness or sadness just with the sound of your voice. Try and avoid ascending in tone at the end of your sentences. It can get annoying.
  13. Be suitably dressed: not much is necessary – you’re on stage! No, I don’t mean you have to take your clothes off, but you should try and aim at least at elegance.
  14. Prepare and rehearse with all involved (speakers, co-moderators, technicians, etc.). A professional team of technicians will demand that this happens.
  15. Remember that you are creating images to be cemented in your audience’s minds and also in the newspapers/TV-reports. Don’t let a prize/certificate be presented or handed over without the image being photographed at length. And decide with the photographer beforehand where the photo should be shot.
  16. Allow a lot of time at the end of the conference for lots of people to storm the stage, for hugs and kisses and use the chaos of a full stage to add music and light and end the ceremony on a high.
  17. Remember that each prize has its mother and father and that the ceremony of handing over that prize should be personal and fit in with the prize-givers’ philosophy and style. Talk to the prize-givers and understand their motivation and aims. Respect them and make sure their individual touch is visible.

Here’s a link to the ORF-interview with Martin Essl on the Globalizer project: http://tvthek.orf.at/search?q=Ashoka&x=0&y=0

And here’s the ORF-report on the Award Ceremony: http://tvthek.orf.at/programs/70017-Niederoesterreich-heute/episodes/1355614-Niederoesterreich-heute/1356350-Mod–Essl-Sozialpreis


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