I’d never done it before.

For the last eight years, I’ve been facilitating workshops and seminars for professionals and executives from different industries, but all in the private sector. I knew what to expect, and over time, I became quite comfortable with my interactions with them.

But a few weeks ago, I was challenged. I was invited by the academic director of a double-accredited, globally-ranked business school in Africa to facilitate a public speaking session for senior executives. Only this time, the client was a government-owned organisation in the maritime industry, and the participants were senior executives and supervisors.

After discussing with the academic director and confirming my availability on the designated day, I panicked. I knew the organisation well. And I had never delivered any seminars/training/workshops for public sector clients. I was concerned that my experience dealing with private sector clients might not cut it with government clients.

Now the weeklong programme for the organisation kicked off as planned. But after the first day, the academic director sent all the facilitators a cautionary email alerting us of the attitudes and behaviours of the participants. We were advised to be mindful of the fact that our sessions might not be the ‘conventional’ type, given the public sector participants. We were to keep the participants engaged and less distracted — particularly important for those facilitating sessions after lunch. I immediately confirmed my slot: 11 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. Not bad. But I was still anxious. How could I connect with this tough set of professionals from a sector I had never interacted with?

After some reflection, I realised one critical point:

It didn’t matter whether clients were from the private sector or government organisations. I simply needed to ensure the value I provided addressed their needs and was relevant to their specific operations.

So I asked myself the foundational question to tweak my content. I included an interactive activity and then rehearsed.  When I received the feedback from the client, I was encouraged by the score, an average of 4.7/5. (I exceeded the benchmark set by the globally ranked business school for their custom executive programmes. However, I always challenge myself to top my highest rating ever, a 4.9/5.)

Screenshot I

More importantly, I focused on the comments from the participants. Participants’ feedback shed light on their experience. It’s also instrumental in helping me improve my material and delivery for future sessions. So I braced myself to read the comments. But I was relieved to note that the senior participants found my session valuable.

Screenshot II
Screenshot III

Therefore, if you  need  to  connect  with  a  tough  group  of  senior  professionals  in  a government-owned organisation in any training capacity, below are three useful tips to consider:

1) Be aware of cultural norms

I realised that the participants could be some of the most senior professionals I’ve ever interacted with.

Facilitators generally address the participants by their first names (large name cards on which only the first names are printed are placed in front of each attendee for this purpose). But I needed to consider the cultural norms of the country. To accord the audience the respect they deserved because of their ages (being 50-55), I added ‘Mr’, ‘Madam’, or ‘Sir’ when addressing them by their first names.

For example, I could see participants visibly relax when I respectfully invited comments or made appeals to maintain order:

‘Yes please, Madam, go ahead’.

‘Mr X, what has your experience been?’

‘Sir, please allow Mr Y to finish so we can all learn’.

Addressing senior participants respectfully, as the culture of the land dictates, disarms them and makes them more favourably disposed to you and your content, especially if you’re a much younger, female facilitator. If you’re a foreigner (male or female) facilitating sessions, you must develop some cultural awareness so you don’t offend the audience you need to empower with your insights.

Being respectful notwithstanding, as the facilitator, you need to know when to be assertive (to restore order and keep focused on your message) and when to be collaborative.

There’s a reason my number one rule of effective communication is to know your audience.

So, when dealing with tough, senior executives, learn about the audience beforehand and tweak your communication to appeal to unspoken cultural norms. Ensure you do this right at the beginning to set the tone for the rest of the session.

Don’t put on airs even as the subject matter expert or you’d make attendees combative. Remember, you want to win the audience over with your valuable content and engaging delivery, not hamper key learning points from sticking.

2) Ensure you reiterate the ‘big idea’

As my session progressed, I asked questions and invited participants to share their experiences.

But don’t expect a blanket agreement to your ideas.

One male participant countered a suggestion I made about feedback. He explained that he understood my recommendation and noted it would work well in the private sector. He was convinced, however, that when dealing with government officials, my action plan was just not applicable.

He made a valid point. I was aware of how difficult it was to get approvals and useful feedback in the country due to frustrating red tape in government circles.

So I acknowledged his angle and conceded it was sometimes not possible. However, I challenged him to apply my recommendation in his ‘circle of influence’. He should use it to focus on what he could change and how he could lead his team. I reassured him that even minor tweaks would lead to an improvement in the status quo.

I reiterated the ‘big idea’ of my session: Public speaking skills could be learned and honed to increase influence and get positive business results. Then I complemented the big idea with a call to apply my three rules of effective public speaking.

He slowly nodded. He might not have been entirely convinced. (The academic director of the programme had warned the facilitators that some participants were set in their convictions). But he was open to applying the suggestion I made. And that was good enough.

When dealing with older professionals in the public sector, ensure you echo your ‘big idea’ throughout your session. Then strengthen that point with smaller, actionable tasks.

But remain flexible in your delivery. Be prepared to cut your material to prioritise addressing pressing concerns participants bring up in your session.

Your job, after all, is simple. You must inform, educate and coax the audience to consider new thinking or adopt strategies that will make them more productive/more successful in their endeavours.

Otherwise, what was the point of your workshop, seminar or training programme?

3) Introduce a relevant activity

I usually incorporate a minor activity in my sessions. And if I’m delivering a double session (150 minutes) or longer, I incorporate more activities.

My single session was on public speaking, so it was necessary to see the participants in action.

I set up a relatable scenario:

An error that was made in a department has led to the organisation’s biggest corporate client threatening to withdraw their business. The head of the department was directed to give a short speech to an audience comprising the immediate boss, the organisation’s boss, and a few board members of the client. He/she must make a strong case to persuade the client to continue the business relationship with the organisation.

I then asked the attendees who their biggest client was.

‘Company M’, they chorused.

‘OK’, I began, ‘Imagine the error was made by one of your direct reports. Now Company M’s contingent — a few board members and its CEO turn up at your organisation. Your CEO urgently summons you and gives you a few minutes to persuade Company M not to withdraw their business’.

I paused for dramatic effect and looked around. The participants could imagine how high the stakes were.

I asked for two volunteers. They were to assume the roles of the departmental heads and were required to give three-minute speeches to persuade the client to continue business with their organisation. I told the speakers to remember what was discussed in class and to prioritise the three beacons of effective communication. They were not to use visual aids or notes.

After each speaker, attendees were to first comment on what the speakers did well, and then suggest what could be improved upon.

The activity sparked more conversations in class and led to energizing exchanges, even from those who tended to be quiet earlier in the session.

From experience, I know that getting participants involved in an activity supercharges minds, especially if the scenarios presented are relatable.

Just like iron sharpens iron, participants learn best from the insights of peers when presented with practical activities that reinforce learning points.

No matter how brief your session, incorporate a minor activity. Then use it to reinforce your ‘big idea’, sharpen critical reasoning, and coax participants to commit to some action beyond your class.

Participating in an activity makes key ideas stick in the minds of your audience and enriches their experience.


I always learn something new in each training session/seminar/workshop I create and deliver. So I now look forward to facilitating more sessions for clients in the public sector.

Therefore, if you get the fantastic opportunity to provide any sort of training programme for senior executives in a government-owned organisation, first say ‘Yes’, even if it terrifies you.

Then take a deep breath and use the three tips provided in this article — in addition to preparing thoroughly and remaining flexible in your delivery.

As a result, you’d connect with the audience, thereby paving the way for a more rewarding experience.

And you can be certain you’ll get booked for repeat business.

Do you need help with your communication skills?

I love working with ambitious professionals, executives, entrepreneurs, and business leaders.

You already know my approach, my credibility, and my experience. So kindly get in touch, and let’s explore how my transformational communication coaching and training services will catapult you to success in your career or business.

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N.B: First image and third images are courtesy of Gerd Altmann via Pixabay. Screenshots of seminar feedback are courtesy of Lucille Ossai. Second image is courtesy of Arek Sochaa via Pixabay.

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