After many years giving, following and arranging hundreds of workshops, I have put together my ideas of what constitutes a great workshop.
These notes are not exhaustive and you may have different experiences and also have hints and tips that can help and make any workshop a great experience all round. If you wish to send me your tips or even discuss these ideas over a coffee sometime, please contact me at the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Basic Rules – Before, During, and After
Prior to the workshop
Learn the first 5 minutes off by heart. by the time you have finished the 5 minutes you should be in full flow and just carry on…
Design your workshop
When designing/building your workshop, the first things you need to decide are the goals of the workshop. What are you trying to achieve, what message are you trying to get across and who or what is your target audience and maybe why you want to do the workshop i.e. What do you expect to get out of it yourself as well as what the participants will take away with them. You may wish to include the same information in various ways in order to support the various learning styles; Aural, visual, verbal, logical, sensory, collaborative, etc.
Remember, a workshop is a story, it needs a beginning a middle and an end (a conclusion)
A well known golden principal is:
Tell them what they are going to do / see / hear (prior to the start of the workshop)
Tell them what they are doing / seeing / hearing (during the workshop)
Tell what they have seen / done / heard (at the end of the workshop – recap to clarify/conclusion)
A good workshop is crafted to give participants the opportunity for guided instruction in doing things and a chance to try things out for themselves with others in safe environment.
Every workshop needs structure. Structure for the workshop giver and structure for the participants. People like stucture and look for it.
Have a compelling title for the workshop
It needs to appeal to a large audience, it needs to compel people to come along to the workshop, people will decide sometimes on the title alone if they are interested or not.
Only then will they read the intro text.
Ensure the title and descriptive text do actually describe the contents of the workshop well.
There is no point in getting people come to your workshop based on the title and intro text then give a completely different workshop. It does happen.
Think about how you are going to market your workshop.
Will you use Meetup? will you use Eventbrite? Facebook? Twitter? Flyers? Where does your target audience hang out? How can you find them and connect to them?
Can you ask people who are connectors to promote your post? Can you put posters up on notice boards within companies?
Building the Workshop:
Work the Triad
The simplest way to construct a workshop is to think in units of 3.
For example, when you explain something and or get the participants to do something (group work etc.):
- Walkthrough: Show how to do something or explain (at least twice) what people have to do. Ask if what you have said is clear.
- Exercise: Have everyone actually try to do that thing (while you wander around and help people one on one).
- Debrief: lead a discussion of where people got stuck, what parts were fun/hard/frustrating, and what things people learned, or realised they want to learn.
How did that make them feel, what surprised them? Get people to share if they wish
These triads can be of different lengths of around 45 minutes in total (15/15/15 or 10/20/15) or longer. Its best to start with small things and build to a larger projects as the workshop goes on. It’s fine for the ratios to change. A more challenging exercise might be 1:3:1 (10 minutes, 30 minutes, 10 minutes). (ideally though, the maximum length of an exercise should be no longer than 20 minutes otherwise people drift).
The triad also comes into play with the title of a workshop. Studies have shown that steps in a title are more popular. (Titles such as ‘3 step to a brighter future’, ‘How to do such and such in 3 steps’. Sometimes you will see more steps: ‘5 ways to change your life’, ‘7 lessons in Happiness’ etc.)
When planning, think about the information balance. Don’t try to give too much information in too short a time
One thing to remember is that time passes quicker than you think. It is (in my humble opinion) good to somehow over-prepare a workshop, but only so that you have alternative options that you can use if a workshop runs faster than planned, or with less people than planned rather than trying to fit in too much information and people start to switch off and stop absorbing.
Make a checklist of all the things you will need during the workshop. (e.g. markers, pens, post-it notes, flip-charts, etc.) If you are providing a workshop in someone else’s unknown environment, make sure you are extra prepared.
Ensure you have communicated your needs and expectations to the person(s) you will be working for/with. Prepare to improvise. Things go wrong. Embrace it.
You may wish to have evaluation forms printed in advance or you may simply wish to have a verbal feedback. One advantage of physical, written feedback is the possibility of gathering quotes and impressions which can then be used in marketing material if necessary or desired.
You may wish to provide handouts at the end of the workshop.
The handouts can contain a recap of all the info, a link to websites or books/references made during the workshop. It can also contain a short bio about yourself with contact information.
Note: try to avoid handing out info handouts during the workshop, it defeats the purpose of the workshop as people will stop listening to you and start reading the material. You may even have the possibility to make documents available online somewhere.
Note: When I do this I make sure they are pdf’s, so not easily modifiable.
You may, however, wish to distribute or have available; pens, paper for note taking.
I always try to avoid using Powerpoint or some other presentation software unless I really need to show statistics, charts, tables etc. I have seen far too many workshops where the trainer/facilitator just reads from the Powerpoint slideshow, that is NOT the point of a workshop. If I do use Powerpoint then I try as much a possible to use imagery with as few words as absolutely necessary. Use it as a support, not the main information point.
Remember to factor in regular breaks (tea, smoke, gadget/GSM or toilet) during the planning.
If you can get into the room where the workshop will be held, then make sure you test the technology (if any), and ensure you arrange the room how you want it.
Always, always, have backups and alternatives with you. Have backup Powerpoint presentations, files needed, music snippets etc on a USB key and or online.
For larger groups (20+), think about creating smaller work groups, otherwise the facilitator can be spread too thinly and not be able to get through so much material. Don’t think that groups work will allow you to sit back and relax, it simply means others can be busy with something constructive whilst you help the unsure or keep the process flowing.
Personal Talking Notes:
You can create a one or two page document with the main talking points, or quotes you wish to use, or with names and references you may refer to. I sometimes use what I call talking-cards with bullet points and keywords on and I leave them on a table or surface near me so I can glance at them discreetly when I need to.
Note: I sometimes even prepare the workshop on paper as a sort of script, I even write my opening lines as if I am speaking, you can practically write the entire workshop down in a timeline, so you know what to say and when, you can use a table with the timing shown so you know where you are in the workshop.
Make the room looks like a workshop room, if you have group work make sure you have the space to break out, if you need them to write make sure there are tables. Double check you have plenty of paper, post-its, pens, pencils, whiteboard markers, whatever you need for the exercises. You can put extra Flip chart paper on the walls (I use masking tape to put things on the wall, less damaging than sellotape or blu-tack.)
I always make a check-list of things I need to bring to the workshop.
Get people to help you arrange the chairs/tables if necessary. People like to help.
A lot of people suffer from nerves before a workshop, this is good. I am always nervous.
It is also why you should know the initial 5 minutes of the workshop by heart, because, generally, once you have started, the nerves calm down and you get into the flow and off you go.
So, have a drink of water beforehand, do some breathing exercises, maybe some power poses, check your clothes, shoes, hair, and teeth etc – avoid eating spinach or spaghetti beforehand 😉
Don’t try to imagine the audience naked, that doesn’t work. What I do is think about how I see other presenters, I always want them to succeed, not fail, no-one wants a bad presenter. Everybody is rooting for you and wants to learn and be almost entertained whilst learning something new. Assume a confident stance. If someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, be honest and say you don’t know and that you will endeavor to get back to them to help them find the answer if you can. I often move towards people that are (or appear) challenging and stand strong to appear more confident. (Fake it until you make it).
Remember not to take things too personally, some people are obliged to follow workshops and resist a little. Help them feel better by telling them you understand and empathise with them and say you will make the workshop as painless as possible. Ask them pertinent questions during the workshop, involve them, get them to agree or ask their opinion if they have expertise.
Section 2) During the workshop
Breathe in, drink some water, ground yourself, stand still in front of the group, don’t speak yet, look at the participants, smile a little, legs slightly apart, shoulders back, head up, eyes making contact. Breathe out.
Welcome everyone and thank them for being there today.
Introduce yourself, explain the workshop and what the agenda is for the duration.
A poster with the agenda can be very helpful and keep everyone on track and in their comfort zone.
It always helps to be comfortable yourself and wear nice fitting clothes that were not dropped on the floor of some hotel room the previous night.
Think about comfortable shoes,
You should stand with your feet slightly apart, stand tall and proud, not curled up and just whispering to the audience.
You can stand if you wish or you can sit, it depends on the dynamics of the audience and how easy difficult they are to control. It also depends on the size of the audience too. (Larger crowd = stand, small and intimate = sit)
Don’t rock from side to side or forwards and backwards it looks as though you are nervous. (you may well be, just hide it).
When you’re passionate about the topic and are speaking from experience, instinct, knowledge and pure passion – The audience will feel it. You’ll be able to feel the connection you’re making with each individual and as you start to make eye contact you will start to see nods of approval and wide-eyes indicating light bulbs going off.
You can ask people what their expectations are and put those on a flip chart in the corner of the room so you can adjust the level of the workshop according to the needs of the group. If questions come up during the workshop that you don’t have an answer for directly or they are not relative to the main topic, you can write those down to clear up later during the break or after the workshop.
This is the moment to set the ground rules.
For example: You can ask people to respect others by not talking, turn mobiles off, tell people ‘what happens in the workshop, stays in the workshop’, inform people to ask questions whenever they wish or if they should wait until the end.
You may wish to start with an Icebreaker to start the workshop. It all depends on the number of participants, their knowledge of each other and the length of the workshop. If there are a lot of people, there may be no time, if they already know each other there may be no point, although it can help you get to know the participants. If the participants already know each other, one icebreaker could be for everyone to write three things on a piece of paper, two things people may already know and one thing they wouldn’t know, it can be a lie, the truth or a dream and the others have to work out which it is.
Start strong, set the pace, speak loudly enough (but don’t burst their eardrums) to reach the back of the room. Don’t speak too fast, people may need to interpret or absorb the info, so leave gaps between bites of information. I often like to think of Captain Kirk in Star Trek, who speaks in a staccato style, somehow funny to listen to but lots of emphasis on certain words. (Which is a lot better than being monotone, so vary the pace and tempo and also the pitch for variety). Actually speaking softly can force people to really listen and can be a bit co-conspiracy like.
My main rule here when speaking to a group is also ‘Silence is Golden’, people need time to absorb things and formulate any questions they may have. Stop between sentences, it makes it far more powerful. If you ask the group a question, really give them time to reply. Awkward silences can work for you, it can oblige people to ask a question in order to fill that void. See how long you can last before someone speaks. Get comfortable with gaps.
Keep people’s attention
Remember: Explanations and exercises should be no longer than 20 minutes, for me this seems to be the longest people can safely go and still remain interested and involved.
Feel free to get people to stand up and take deep breaths one in a while if they are flagging.
Stay out of the centre
Facilitation is the name of the game. It’s your job to create an environment where everyone is comfortable enough to take risks and learn some things. You should laugh, so they can laugh. You should be passionate so they can be passionate. At times you need to be a teacher, to be in control, other times you’re game show host facilitating what’s going on, and other times you are quietly out of the way, helping people one on one or by group.
Match the promises of the title and description to the content of the workshop
I have often participated in workshops where the title and content bear no resemblance to the actual work done in the workshop.
One of the main reasons people come to specific workshops is because of the promise made in the invitation
Always have something like a Flipchart, Whiteboard, or a large sheet of paper for writing things on, parking questions, putting contact details up, listing expectations, drawing images, explaining details etc. Check you have whiteboard markers, not permanent markers!
Handy Hint, you can remove permanent marker by writing over the text with the same pen of a proper whiteboard marker, and wiping immediately whilst it is still wet.
Make sure you have water and maybe snacks and people know where the toilets are. Include breaks in the workshops, at least every 1.5/2 hours. If you see people are flagging, ask them if they need a break.
When talking try to avoid using filler words and sounds, like; um, eh, you know, and, etc.
Try instead to say thing like, don’t you agree?, or don’t you think so? have you come across that?, What do you think? what is your experience?.
Try to make the workshop interactive, make sure you get as much participation from everyone, as everyone has a voice, obviously don’t make painfully shy people stand up and give their life story, but ensure everyone has a voice somehow.
Make sure you make eye contact with everyone, if someone asks a question, you can even move towards them.
There is always one:
There are often people in the class who like to be noticed, or show off and say things like “well, in the last workshop I followed they did this and that” or I did a similar workshop years ago and they said such and such”. The best course of action is to thank them for their input and carry on as before. You can say things like, “let’s get someone else’s perspective on this” or “does anyone else, want to comment on this?”, or even “let’s move on, we can discuss that during the break or at lunch” etc.
You are the Boss:
Don’t be afraid to take charge and tell people to stop talking or interrupting, ask them to save questions until the end if they are asking too many questions or adapt your style to slow down or explain better or differently using concrete examples. Deliberately ask one of the quieter people what they think of whatever it was being discussed.
One technique I have used is to stop speaking until the talkers (talking amongst themselves) realise we are waiting for them. If that doesn’t work, ask them politely to share what it is they are discussing if it would be interesting for the other participants or to keep quiet so others can learn what they came to learn.
Add personal stories, or experiences, or stories so people can relate to the subject. People like stories.
Do NOT tell jokes under any circumstances unless you are an accomplished comedian, but do use a humour. People like humour.
I would advise not to always take the easy option, by this I mean, be brave and try stuff out. So long as you give people clear instructions and challenge them sometimes you can ask for people do all sorts of things.. You will be surprised what people can and will do.
Avoid telling people you have not had time to include an exercise or piece of information, that makes them feel bad and serves no purpose other than to cause dissatisfaction.
Do not stand and sway from side to side or forward and backwards as you are speaking, this is so off-putting. If you move, make decisive movements.
Remember not to turn your back on the audience for longer than is absolutely necessary.
Write clearly and large enough so people can read what you are writing.
Do try and include group work, people like collaborating, you can select or the group can self select one person to report back findings.
A full-day workshop can be daunting for both you and your audience if it’s just you and your slides. The key to making the workshop enjoyable and compelling is by getting your audience involved through activity or conversation. Two easy ways to accomplish this is to ask a question or passing around tasks that get the audience working together. Anything that allows you to take a break from telling your stories is where the magic starts to happen.
Role play can be a powerful tool, it can bring out the actor in people.
Section 3) Closing the workshop
Always have a conclusion at the end and a list of resources of where people can go to find out more about the subject if they wish. Especially if you have quoted statistics or research done by someone.
Go very briefly over each of the steps you covered and clarify what has been covered and what hasn’t, if relevant.
Thank people for their participation and ask if anyone has any questions.
Hand out any material you have prepared, ask for feedback or give feedback forms depending on your needs and circumstances.
Try as much as possible to give them next steps, with practical ways to implement what they have learned. Give suggestions of other workshops on the subject or inform of any follow up workshops there may be.
Have a sheet ready to take a list of email addresses and/or phone numbers if people want to be on your mailing list or be kept up-to-date on your events or for any follow up reasons.
Alternatively, ask for business cards (place in a jar to win a free workshop or coaching session or box of chocolates), or give the url of your website for newsletter sign-up.
Depending on the workshop content. It can be nice to send participants a follow up mail, to see how they are doing or if they need any further info.
If people really liked your workshop and what you do, it can be very handy to ask them to provide a testimonial for the workshop that you can use on the website (with their permission and with showing any details of the person (maybe just their first name and title).
If you want to take pictures of the people, always ask permission and if they are OK with that, respect people who say no and respect their decision.