Do you run workshops? 10 tips in 10 minutes to help you handle it like a pro!
The moment when you face a challenging task: you have to conduct a workshop on a specific topic. Simple, right? You know you’ve done these tasks multiple times, what can go wrong? After all, there is a difference between having an idea on something or using the tools in practice, and in teaching others to do so.
Today I would like to share with you 10 simple tips that will help you achieve your goal more easily, generating less stress, setting the expectations in the group at the appropriate level, and giving you the opportunity to prepare a game plan for problematic situations.
1. Prepare materials and the place in advance
Sounds trivial, but there is nothing worse than discovering 10 minutes before the workshop that markers are missing, paper boards on the walls are coming off, flipcharts are missing, the HDMI cable does not work, the presentation is not displaying, you do not know the Wi-Fi password, people do not have the places to connect laptops, etc.
If possible, prepare the place a day or two in advance. Think of this phase as of testing your own product. Go through your materials from the perspective of a person participating in your workshop. Ask yourself what you would need to participate in the exercise and give it. Think about the limits of a given space and work ergonomics, e.g. if you work in groups. Be your own test user. Use the materials you have prepared and you will be almost sure that you eliminated the basic problems, especially when you organize a workshop for the first time.
2. Clear communication and structure of the meeting
Leave no illusions. The agenda will allow people to plan their time in advance, especially if you run all-day workshops. Use and stick to one way of communication with the group (eg Slack or mail). Empathy is the key. They are often people who do not know each other. By giving them the opportunity to close the day within an easy to imagine timeframes, you will reduce their entry threshold and make their work easier. They will already be pre-on board!
Make sure your group knows:
1. When, where, at what address, and at what time you meet
2. How long are the workshops and what exactly is their course
3. What is the general structure of the meeting (i.e. do we divide into teams, why do we do it, etc.)
4. What is the goal of the workshops common to all group members
5. What materials do they need to go through before the workshop
*Extra: What are the most important rules that you care about (i.e. that we do not use mobile phones during the meeting or that there is no point in taking notes because the materials will be printed and sent after the workshop so that they can fully focus on the goal). A good practice is to send the first welcome message a week before and schedule follow-ups 3 days before and on the day of the meeting, summarizing the most important information pieces at each level.
Sample Agenda below:
3. Setting the expectations of recipients at the appropriate level
During the meeting, it is good to start by proposing a goal or goals that participants can achieve depending on their level of commitment and knowledge. We also mark the substantive areas we will follow during the workshop, define the framework that we stick to as a team. This will allow the group to have their eyes on the crucial path to achieve the desired effect. We also want them to accept how they might be feeling along the way. It’s ok to be overwhelmed by an all-day workshop.
It is a good practice to collect the expectations of a given group in relation to an already known area of the workshop. My observations show that asking at the beginning of the workshop what they want to get out of it is usually ineffective. It’s hard o receive any responses. I rather suggest sending a short (maybe even 1 question) survey, e.g. on Google Surveys asking a question about their expectations in the first message to the group. This allows everyone to anonymously answer this question in the comfort of your own home and at their own pace. It can give the person participating in the workshop a sense of real influence on its shape & can give the tutor the opportunity to respond to real needs in a given field of the workshop.
4. You came, I’m glad, but we have to play according to clear rules
The ball is round and there are two goals.
The idea is to score one more goal than your opponent.
~ Kazimierz Górski (Polish soccer coach)
Writing a contract is a common practice that can save you a lot of time during the meeting. Its purpose is to outline clear and universal rules that we agree as a group to follow in our collaborative work. Rules focusing on the psychological, substantive, and administrative aspects will allow us to play to one goal.
Start with the basic rules, such as we start on time according to agenda, we use/do not use phones or computers, what happens with questions that differ from the purpose of the meeting, etc. It is important that you also focus on the psychological aspect: it is worth mentioning mutual respect, commitment, that we try not to judge others, and that it’s OK to feel overwhelmed by the 8-hour workshop. Pay close attention to the group’s reactions, it sets the rhythm of your game. Ask them to share their point of view. Collect signatures under the synthesized contract (online or stationary) after all, signing a document is a completely different experience than nodding your head as a yes! In case of breaking the rules — refer to what you agreed.
5. Don’t forget to warm up!
Think of a workshop as a 40-year-old classic car. It’s hard to turn it on & floor it right away! The people in front of you are the engine & they need a moment to focus their attention. Often, they also need to get a chance to know each other and overcome the first barriers. Before starting the first exercise, give them a chance to warm up, learn something about themselves, remember some of their names, associate on what they feel good at / what their weaknesses are. A well-oiled and proven machine will give you the opportunity to reach your destination without calling a tow truck!
Use an easy exercise with simple rules that can help you to start. It could be sketching the image of the person in front of you who will have to add his/her name to the painting, it could be introducing people by themselves and telling about their first job or answering the question “if you could go back in time, where, when and why it would be?”. Be creative! The goals are to break the first ice, get rid of shame, increase creativity, create a more relaxed atmosphere, meet new people, and feel comfortable in the group.
6. People love to hear good stories
Storytelling is an important skill that will keep the group’s attention for longer, make their experiences deeper, involve them in the subject, and give new dynamics to exercises making them remembered for longer. A good movie is about the emotions and experiences of the characters, not just dry facts!
Think of the agenda for the workshop as a story. Perhaps it is possible for the exercises to result in one another, creating one coherent story to tell? Try to involve the listener by adding emotional thoughts to your speech. Do you have a connected joke? Tell it! Draw in the listener by asking rhetoric questions. I always try to add a real anecdote that can serve as background for a given exercise — do you have some? Write them down and tell them!
7. Listen, answer, but also park the topics!
There is a timeframe for each exercise & the rhythm of your meeting and you must remember that. Let’s make it clear, you won’t be able to answer every question. Often, they may also digress from the subject of the meeting and shift the workshop to a completely different track. Be firm and arbitrary. It depends on you when and at what time we answer the questions. Clear rules in this respect should also appear in your contract.
Be real. You don’t need to know the answers to every question! If you acknowledge it, you will get rid of a lot of unnecessary stress. You don’t know the answer to a given question? Say it! Save it and come back with the answer at the end of the workshop or do the research and return to the group after some time using the agreed communication route. When there are a lot of questions that differ slightly from your course, write them down on the “Parking lot” (board or document that will collect all the questions). Your group’s voice counts, you must show it. When there are a lot of questions in the parking lot, you can always apply the democratic principle of voting for the 2 most important questions according to each person. The two with the most votes in the group can be discussed in the workshop, the rest can be answered offline.
8. Take time to polish the instructions
You only have one chance for the people to understand what the purpose of each exercise is. The key is to make the group understand: what is the subject of a given exercise, how we will approach the exercise, and why it matters (what value does it give). From my observations, it is good to also focus on outlining one path to do the exercise. Each group will handle them individually anyway, and they may come up with an idea suiting them better. There is no right way to perform the tasks and you know it well because you have done these exercises many, many times. Still, when you give the group 3–4 possible paths, it can confuse them. The risk is that they will spend their initial time debating which path to take, and that will take them away from achieving the goal of the exercise.
Aga (SM @ VentureDevs) introduced me to a simple technique called The Rule of Three (mentioned in: The Change Facilitator: Dynamic Group Facilitation Skills by 91 Untold Limited). The human brain remembers things more easily when they are repeated. Focus on finding keywords that will help people understand the exercise and repeat it 3 times as you speak. This way you can be almost sure there will be no misunderstandings! Simple, and it works!
9. Two words about the mitigation of problematic people
It may happen that there will be people in the room who are very inquisitive and great! What if you feel that this person wants to act against you at all costs and starts to get awkward? First of all, it’s good to make it feel like you’re listening. Take notes, write down, and park questions and concerns of him/her. Make sure you also have an important task for that person, he/she cannot stay idle unless you want to be constantly under fire.
If the situation continues to be worse and you have no illusions about what is his/her intention, it may also help to talk directly to the person during one of the exercises and share your feelings privately. Remember that asking someone out of the room is the last option and should only be used at a critical moment.
10. Your best practices are…
At last! What are your findings and best practices?
What did you like about the last workshop you went to?
Maybe you’ve seen some anti-patterns and know how you can do things better?
Let’s experimentally use the comment section as a place to share our experiences. I will be very pleased to expand this subjective list with your feedback!
Thank you all!
Until next time ❤