Sesame Street & Facilitation

Elmo's Song at

What can we learn about facilitation from Sesame Street?

Sesame Street is more than 40 years old.  It was established by a small group of people after a dinner party at which they were bemoaning the parlous state of children's television.  The host of the dinner party, Joan Ganz Cooney, became the first producer.  She had been producing documentaries very successfully, and had a great future in this field ahead of her.

Joan did not fall into this role, she had to fight for it.  It was assumed that she would 'hand the concept on' to be implemented by someone else.  But she was not prepared to let it go.  Also, she spent months undertaking an extensive series of interviews with educators and wrote a paper spelling out the educational aspects of the upcoming tv show.  Cooney also had to fight for the involvement of Jim Henson with his influential puppets - the Muppets.

According to Wikipedia, Sesame Street is "known for its combination of Jim Henson's Muppets, animation, short films, humor, and cultural references" (click here).  It also includes cameo appearances by a huge number of celebrities - from Cher and Cheryl Crow to Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

The setting of the show, an inner-city street is novel.  As a child it seemed to me to be a great place to 'hang out'.  I am sure that many of us are still looking for that friendly neighbourhood.  (This might be the attraction of a well-run online community such as an open source software project - not the street setting, but the casual friendliness and willingness to go out of your way to help out.)

So what does this mean for the skilled facilitator?
  • Great ideas can arise when you least expect them.  Keep an open mind, and be prepared to jump when an opportunity comes up. 
  • Be persistent - fight for the roles that you are confident you can do, and fight for the involvement of others who you see as critical to your success.
  • Do your research.  You need to know what you are talking about - you need to know more than you cover, so if you stray you are still within your area of knowledge. 
  • If what you are doing is critically important, consider writing a paper, or a business plan, or a positioning statement.
  • You can entertain while educating.  Consider how your audience will take in your key messages.
  • Be fussy about who you involve, whether it is the Muppets or a celebrity - and don't just ask them to turn up, give them a job to do.
  • Consider interesting (and familiar) settings.  It is possible to ask people to use their imagination for this.  A few selected props can help out too.
Many of my insights here are from an ABC Australia podcast on the program Life Matters with Michael Davis, author of Street Gang: a Complete History of Sesame Street. I also checked out the Sesame Street website, and Wikipedia entries on Sesame Street and Joan Ganz Cooney.