I have participated in countless number of workshops and I have organized and facilitated dozens, as well. Some of them were memorable for me because of the people I met, the inspiration I found to become a better professional, and the skills that I learned. Others, were memorable because I wish I wasn’t there, I learned what “NOT” to do when running a workshop, or I ended up with a long list of “improvement opportunities” for myself. Great experiences and bad experiences haven’t scared me away of still enjoying participating and organizing workshops.
Looking back into my experience, I realized two important facts. First, workshops are a great tool to get work done and share knowledge taking advantage of the participant’s brainpower. Second, the key to make a workshop memorable (in the good sense) is to think like the audience when you are planning and facilitating, everything you do during the workshop should set the participants for success in achieving the objectives.
Planning a workshop is not rocket science. It requires decent communication, organization, and leadership skills. It also helps having common sense, empathy, patience, and some creativity. But even if you think you lack of some of these skills, you can make your next workshop a memorable experience for you and your audience.
As any project, a workshop has four main phases or steps. An initiation phase, a planning phase, an execution phase and a closing phase. I like to describe this phases in terms of the challenge they represent:
Discover– the purpose an objectives of your workshop, know your audience and their needs, and determine resources and budget needed.
Plan– Duration, Location, Agenda, Content, Materials, and Crew.
Perform: get ready, own the room, and keep it rolling.
Make it Memorable: Closing the event, evaluation, and follow up.
Now let’s see the details behind each phase, key questions to resolve and tips for success:
This phase starts when you learn you need a workshop. Most common reasons to bring people to work together is to resolve problems, evaluate solutions, set priorities, create strategies, analyze processes, learn new skills, promote teamwork, or even design new product.
During this phase you need to…
- Define the objective and the expected outcome. Make sure you establish a clear, concrete and measurable outcome of the workshop. It should be a tangible deliverable that stakeholders can walk out with and that will provide to participants a sense of achievement.
- Evaluate relevance of the workshop to meet the objectives. Assess whether having a workshop is the best use of participants time to accomplish the objective. The golden question for you is what are the additional benefits of completing the work together versus working independently?
- Know your audience and their needs. First, Identify who needs to be involved and the type of involvement: Participants: usually subject matter experts that have the knowledge and need to actively participate during the workshop. The crew: those individuals that can help you lead the crowds if the workshop involves a large group (more than 20). Some roles you might need: time tracker, facilitators, guest speakers, audio/video, and event coordinator. We will discuss their roles in more detail during the plan phase. Stakeholders: Everyone who is affected by the workshop, provide input to the planning phase or might be impacted by the outcome of the workshop. Second, know your audience as much as you can within the time you have. Three questions you can ask them before the workshop are: What is your role and how it is related to the objective of the workshop?, Do you have any questions of concerns regarding the objective?, and Tell me 3 ideas on how you can contribute and make this workshop successful?
- Determine the budget: This is a simple question, is there a budget in the organization for expenses, Are you charging the participants? How much do you need to charge to cover expenses and any professional fees from facilitators, speakers, event coordinators, etc. In simple terms consider the following:
- Venue cost
- Guest speakers or vendor charges
- Travel expenses
In this phase you get to work on the details to determine location and date, run of show, content and materials, and facilitators.
Location and Date
Location options vary depending on your budget and the purpose of your workshop. Do you want to indulge your participants with an amazing venue out of the reach of calls, day to day issues and interruptions or do you need to get the work done with minimum or zero budget?
When setting the date, consider how much in advance you need to invite participants to allow them to make travel arrangements, visa paperwork or participation approvals.
Another consideration for the date is the expected deliverable which can be delimited by important milestones in the organization. For example, you are planning a workshop to align priorities for the next fiscal year across multiple departments. According to the finance team, the budget needs to be approved by November. You need to plan the workshop few months before November in order to close any action items that result from the workshop and go through the multi-step budget approval process on time.
Run of Show
A run of show is a detailed outline of your workshop. Besides having the agenda with topics to cover, times, participants, and facilitators, it also has specific instructions on how the topics will be covered, what collateral, supplies, and layout of room is needed.
Typically you do not publish the run of show with the audience; it is a tool for the organizer and whoever is helping plan and facilitate the workshop. What you share with the audience is the agenda, which as a minimum contains date, time, location of the event (s), main topics to cover. You always keep the Agenda at a high level, especially if you distribute it well in advance when you haven’t finalize the run of show at a detail level. This gives room for adjustment of timing and activities without confusing your audience.
Usually, when planning a workshop to teach new skills, you start with layout based on the content’s source (a book, article, syllabus). In other cases, you might have an established methodology to the particular objective you are attaining. In the prioritization example, you might have an outline of the process to prioritize that your organization follows like 1) list initiatives, 2) discuss benefit-cost, 3) vote, 4) align stakeholders, and 5) finalize priorities. In this case, you can easily convert this five step prioritization process to an agenda with estimated times to get a rough “Run of Show”.
You will clarify specific activities, solidify your content and get more specifics on your resources and participants involved as you get closer to the workshop date. Be flexible to adjust both run of show and content simultaneously.
Ideally, you want to have your run of show finalized at least one week before your workshop. And have at least one dry-run with all your facilitators, content and final materials one or two days prior to the workshop in the same location the session will be held.
Content & Materials
Consider the audience’s perspectives. Use the input from the interviews we discussed in the Discover phase. In the prioritization example, during the interviews you learned that the biggest concern was about the voting approach because last year only few people drove the discussions and not everybody participated. Now you know that you need to address this concern and design the activities for the “voting” step in a way that ensures everyone’s participation. This should be reflected in:
- Run of show, calling out the activity of voting, who is involved, how it is done
- Content slides with instructions to participants on the activity and rules
- Materials: a facilitator guide and related materials to perform the activity as planned.
Sometimes the content is prepared by multiple individuals. Make sure that the materials have uniformity of language, terms, themes, analogies, and visual aids. Connect the dots for the audience when transitioning between speakers to ensure a consistent message. Make sure there is continuity when the workshop is performed in multiple days.
A simple way to link the days is to start the day with lessons learned and after thoughts from the previous day.
Make sure to include in your content and materials opportunities to experience the communication styles (visual, auditory, sensorial) so you can reach the attention of your audience. You can achieve this by:
- Including videos, analogies and diagrams of your content
- Explaining clearly in different ways and provide examples of how the content or activity supports the objective.
- Incorporating phrases that catch the attention of the different styles like “Can you see where we are going with this activity?”, “I would like to hear what you think about…”, “let’s get our hands on this problem…”
- Providing plenty of opportunities for the participants to draw, practice, write, talk, present a topic, and move around to achieve the objectives of the activity or section to cover.
Is there any pre-work for the participants?
Once you have a run of show and activities down to the detail level, you will have a better idea of any pre-work needed. Although you might find since the beginning of the planning when you know you need to bring teams to work together. The sooner you notify participants of any pre-work, the better. In our example of the prioritization workshop, you might need the participants to prepare a presentation to share with the group the year’s results, challenges and their individual priorities for next year. When requesting pre-work to the participants remember to:
- Keep it simple. Avoid overcomplicated templates and vague instructions.
- Provide examples of the level of detail needed, why it is needed and how it is going to be used during the workshop.
- Be realistic with deadlines and effort to submit the pre-work.
What material and aids you need?
Visual presentations, hand-outs, sticky-notes, posters, videos, templates, activity guides, agendas, quiz, etc.
The 3 golden rules about materials and aids:
RELEVANT to the activity or topic presented
LEGIBLE from every location of the room and for all participants
SUPPORT the point you want to communicate or the activity you need to complete
A quick way to know if a particular material follows these golden rules is asking yourself if you can run the show without it. If you can, you don’t really need it.
Less is more, you don’t want to print hundreds of pages and invest time on templates that participants will toss away once the activity is done. Keep it simple.
Once you have the run of show and content 50-75% finished, you can put more thought to how many people you need to run this workshop and start recruiting your crew.
Are you breaking the audience into smaller groups? Consider one or two floating facilitators to answer questions during the activity if you are busy with one group.
Are the groups larger than eight participants? Consider dedicated facilitators to help guide the groups thru the activity, keep teams on time, and moderate balance participation within the group.
Is this a highly visible workshop that is crucial for a strategic decision in your organization or time sensitive? Definitely consider a backup for the main facilitator, someone that in case something happens can step up and direct the workshop to completion.
Do you want certain people to sit together? Make sure to plan a seating chart and a host helping participants to find their seat as they arrive.
How flexible is the time allocated for your activities? If your schedule is tight and need to go through all your topics, bring in a timer that cues the facilitator when the section is about to reach the time limit to move on to the next activity.
Are you using heavily presentations, videos all along your workshop? Consider a dedicated Video/Audio technician that can deal with switching back and forward between presentation, audio, video and let you conduct the workshop.
Do you want the keep record of comments, questions and concerns that participants make during the session? Consider a scribe to register important notes during the session.
By now, you have the venue, the date and participants are confirmed. You have your run of show so detailed that you know by the minute what is going to happen during your workshop. You recruited the crew of facilitators, timer and all the people that you need to make this workshop successful. Hopefully, you still have a few days before the workshop to finalize your materials or final arrangements.
Now what? Get ready, own the room, and keep it rolling.
Prepare yourself: if you have topics to present, practice you presentation, familiarize yourself with the slides, transitions and content. Prepare answers for possible questions.
Prepare the crew: Go over the run of show with the people that will help you, clarify their roles and specific instructions. Present them the materials. Perform a Dry-run together from the start to end, to make sure that everyone understands what is going to happen during the workshop and make sure that presentations, materials, etc. are adequate.
A Dry-run is a practice exercise, a rehearsal, a trial.
Prepare the room: What is the optimal layout for your activities? Auditorium style for presentations, round tables for smaller group activities, U- shape seating for open discussions. Consider that you might need to change the layout for part of the workshop; in that case you need to plan the breaks and lunch time strategically to make the arrangements.
Do you need wall state for collaborating in groups? This is common in process analysis efforts, where you get to map processes in the wall with sticky notes or giant templates. When you select the venue you need to consider this kind of requirements. You might also need to ask the venue coordinator if you can remove art from the walls or what kind of tape they allow you to use.
Do you have visual aids to display or materials in the tables? Make sure to arrive with enough time before the participants to mount any posters or place materials in the tables.
Video and audio testing. The night before the workshop, test your presentations, how you are going to transition slides, make sure the audio and video works with the equipment in the room, and plan a backup in case it doesn’t once you are in the workshop.
Own the room
Follow your run of show, stick to the agenda and make sure you meet the objectives.
You own the room. Be prepared to stop discussions when they are going sideways and to bring the group back on track with the purpose of the activity or discussion. Do not hesitate to remind them the objectives of the day or workshop
This is where having a time tracker comes handy. It helps you concentrate on facilitating the workshop and delivering the content you need to deliver instead of checking the clock to make sure you are on track.
Although you might have co-facilitators helping to control the audience, time the different sections or answer questions beyond your expertise, it is important that the control of the audience always comes back to you or the person that is presenting or leading the room.
Communicate clearly how flexible you are going to be during presentations or activities. Sometimes you want the participants to save their questions until the end of a presentation. Other times you want to have an interactive discussion and it is fine to interrupt you in the middle of a presentation. Set the expectations before starting to avoid unwanted interruptions or derailing your topics.
Keep it rolling
Check and read your audience for cues on fatigue, confusion, and energy. Adjust as necessary and be flexible; maybe you plan to have a presentation for 2 hours without break, but one hour and a half in the session you notice people start to stare at the room walls or change positions on their seats (syndrome of the numb rear). What does this tells you? THEY NEED A BREAK!
It is always smart to ask participants for open feedback on the session, you can do this after lunch as a group or individually whenever you have a break.
When your workshop extends to various days, this “check and adjust” step is crucial. At the end of the session do a quick recap of how well the day went and areas of opportunity. Here are some questions to ask, always keep it in the positive side and bring prepare to receive good and bad feedback with grace:
- What did you learn that you didn’t know before?
- What worked well?
- What would you do different?
- Is there something that needs immediate attention?
Make it memorable
There are many ways to make it memorable for the participants and for you. Hopefully they remember your workshop as a productive experience that gave them the skills or the opportunity to deliver value to their own areas.
Every workshop has objectives and deliverables as we reviewed at the beginning. You can make your workshop memorable by closing the loop on the original objectives. For example, suppose you are running a workshop to bring people from different areas to build a new team. You can evaluate: Are there enough opportunities for the participants to interact, know each other better and embrace the new organization during workshop? How are you going to foster that teamwork once they go back to their regular assignments?.
Another example, If you are running the prioritization workshop, what are the next steps to make sure the priorities aligned will be reflected in the budget?, how does the communication and meeting cadence looks like to follow up on action items?, who owns coordinating the follow up meetings? Where can they access the content and deliverable from the workshop? Do you need to present the outcomes to other stakeholders?
Remember that you make it memorable nor only on how well you plan the activities, present relevant and interesting content, or how fancy your venue is. How you close your workshop and how much you make the knowledge or value delivered persistent in the mind of your participants is what it counts.
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