Calling an Audible
Preparing to make real-time workshop facilitation adjustments
Approximate reading time: five minutes; 1156 words.
Creation time? Seven hours and 24 minutes over a four-day period to write, refine, design, and record. Two large Americanos, one flat white, and two Leviathan Bakehouse shortbread cookies consumed.
This essay explores how presenters capable of making real-time adjustments—particularly calling audibles for significant substitutions—can design and facilitate more effective learning experiences and meetings. I briefly highlight when you might call an audible and how to prepare to do so.
I suggest reading this post first. Then download the resource PDF provided below and listen to the audio file above. In the recording, I talk you through the audibles I prepare for a 90-minute facilitation workshop I often present. The PDF contains the workshop outline and audible options, as well as the sample learning worksheets (handouts).
The offensive coordinator calls a play. The quarterback communicates it to those on the field. But as he steps up to take the snap he notices something about the defense’s formation, something that makes him think a different play might be more effective. He calls an audible, a new play. His offensive line adjusts formation for the new play and the ball is snapped.
Adjusting in the moment is not the exclusive domain of sports:
A cook adds some spices after tasting a sauce that seems too bland.
An actor ad-libs when an audience member’s cellphone goes off at a particularly awkward moment.
A jazz singer riffs in response to the tempo and tone of the musicians play.
What makes calling an audible somewhat different is that the adjustment usually involves executing a different play, not just making a small tweak. These plays have been previously designed, learned, and practiced to ensure they can be executed seamlessly when called.
As a workshop presenter or meeting facilitator, you’re essentially the quarterback of the participant experience.
When might you call an audible
Quarterbacks call an audible when they see something in the opposing team that gives them pause about the planned play.
Workshop presenters or meeting facilitators might call an audible when they see something about the participants, group dynamics, or session environment that gives them pause about what comes next on the agenda or outline. In short, they read the room, be it physical or virtual space.
Think of a time when you called a facilitation audible or experienced a facilitator seemingly calling one. What influenced that adjustment?
Likely it was because one of the following factors differed from what was anticipated:
Logistics (room set, AV or other tech, food and beverage, venue, time of day)
Amount of time available (scheduled and the reality)
Overall group energy, comfort with each other, mood
Attendees’ interest in and/or knowledge of the topic
Participants’ need for specificity and detail
Conditions external to the meeting or workshop (what else is happening in/at the organization, conference, industry, or world)
Preparing for real-time adjustments
Stuff is going to happen. Over time, you gain experience anticipating, preparing for, and managing some of the recurring conditions where calling an audible is desirable.
One of the last in-person workshops I led pre-pandemic was supposed to be a two-hour session for an anticipated group size of 150 participants. The general session preceding it ran 15 minutes late. Only 29 (!) people showed up for my session, some straggling in more than 30 minutes after it started. Also, my session occurred in a section of a ballroom with 20 rounds and 15’ ceilings: acceptable for 150+ people, undesirable for my more intimate gathering.
Early in my career, this would have caused me great anxiety and the session quality would have suffered. This time I casually moved a few tables into a more desirable configuration and implemented other content and format adjustments I had pre-planned for unexpected session size or time available.
Those of us who facilitate and speak for a living are expected to prepare for almost anything. That’s not as realistic if you’re leading a meeting or workshop as one of many other job or volunteer responsibilities.
To help focus your potential audibles prep, answer these questions after you’ve done your draft meeting or workshop design:
Which meeting agenda items, workshop content segments, or participation formats are most crucial to achieving the desired outcomes? In other words, what’s most likely to cause things to fall apart if it can’t occur as planned?
Which meeting agenda items, workshop content segments, or participation formats would be most difficult on the fly for you to tweak extensively or call an audible and do a major substitution?
Bonus question: what might send you into a panic if it occurred?
Your responses to these three questions hopefully leave you with a manageable number of possible tweaks or audibles for which you need to prepare. If the list is still long, try prioritizing so you’re not overwhelmed.
Once you finalize your list, (1) create the necessary additional materials (slides, learning worksheets, et al) and (2) do the additional content review and run-through so you feel competent and confident in making any new plays.
*I find calling audibles is much easier if you always have painter’s tape; varied sizes of index cards, Post-its®, and markers; and letter-size printouts of the numbers 1-10 (to post as gathering places for groups).
Finally, prepare to cut yourself some slack. Calling an audible based on what unfolds in the moment is about effectively executing a better alternative than your initial plan, not achieving perfection.
A note of caution
Any meeting or learning experience involves multiple agenda items, content segments, and participation formats. If designed appropriately, these individual elements do not act in isolation. Instead, they are somewhat interdependent and often:
build upon previous elements and/or set up or lay the foundation for ones that follow
shift participant attention and focus in purposeful ways
are varied to maintain participant energy and contributions
adapt to the pace and progress of individuals and the group
Tweaks and audibles both have a ripple effect on everything still to come in a session. Making one major adjustment may require you to consider other necessary real-time shifts in order to guarantee the session’s success. Be sure to think through the potential consequences of any audibles you might call and prepare accordingly.
A meeting agenda or workshop outline is a game plan for intended results. Anticipate and plan for likely tweaks and potential audibles. Then prepare your content, logistics, and support materials like slides and learning worksheets so making real-time adjustments is stress-free for you and seamless for participants.
© Facilitate Better and Jeffrey Cufaude, 2021. All rights reserved.
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