Planning a workshop is not only about designing a set of exercises, but also about your attitude, the atmosphere and relationship that you build with the participants, and your facilitation skills.
Below are 23 tips and tricks for how to conduct better workshops and create value for your participants.
Our tips for workshops are ordered according to the stages of the workshop process: preparation, the workshop itself, and post-workshop activities.
Planning the workshop
1. Establish clear goals
The workshop is a hypothesis.
Your client has a set of needs, problems, and opportunities to be discovered, and you need to do it all in a very limited time.
Build the flow of your workshop with the right questions in mind to make sure you make the most of the time you have with the participants.
Ask yourself and your internal team the following questions:
- What is the goal of this workshop for the client/participants?
- What is the goal of this workshop for you and your team?
- What should be the outcome of this workshop?
- What should participants know after the workshop?
Choose the most important goals and focus on them when designing your workshop.
2. Choose the right format
You can conduct your workshop in person, digitally, or as a hybrid of the two.
The choice of how to conduct a workshop is one of the key factors that influence its structure and outcome.
To help with this choice, you’ll need to assess: resources like time and budget, the goal of the workshop and project, and the needs and abilities of the workshop participants.
Traditional workshops done face-to-face with participants are more personal.
If your focus is on team building, creating relationships, or deeply understanding different needs – your best bet is an in-person workshop.
Face-to-face workshops’ biggest benefit is the energy that is created in the room between people. Team building, brainstorming sessions, and meetings that require alignment between stakeholders work much better in person.
With an experienced facilitator, it is the best way to solve problems that have so far been unsolvable or to throw ideas on the table that would never have been shared over a video call.
The main disadvantage of in-person workshops is the greater cost and time needed to carry them out.
It also takes time and effort to digitize the workshop’s results. The process of photographing Post-its and drawings is again time-consuming.
Virtual workshops have the main advantage of speed and convenience. You can use a multitude of powerful digital tools (like Miro or FigJam). Some of them even have built-in integrations for conference calls.
With a digital approach, you will also save time and budget. The result of the work carried out in such a workshop is immediately digitized. You will also save on transport, accommodation, and other expenses.
The disadvantage of digital solutions is their limited availability.
You may encounter a problem if the workshop participants are elderly people who do not use digital solutions on a daily basis. Also, if people with accessibility problems will be participating in your workshop, it is worth considering the face-to-face option.
It is also harder to feel the group dynamics. When you look at yourself through a webcam, you can’t get a good sense of the atmosphere in the workshop. This is not always crucial, but sometimes, a good understanding of the energies between participants can determine the success of your project.
The mixed approach brings together the best of both worlds.
These are typically digital-tool workshops that are conducted on-site with the client.
They combine the advantages of a close, more personal relationship between participants and the ease of digitizing the workshop results as you go.
Your on-site presence will also help you to resolve any technical issues.
With a hybrid approach, it is also worthwhile to remember the physical space that surrounds you. Whiteboard and Post-its are still your allies in solving problems quickly and involving participants.
If you use laptops, don’t forget to take short breaks for stretching as well–you don’t want your client to develop back problems while working with you.
3. Timebox everything
There are two points when you need to focus on the timing of each exercise.
Firstly, when you prepare the workshop, and secondly when you conduct it.
Before the workshop, it’s important to make sure you have enough time to go through the whole program and that you leave extra time for the unexpected.
During the workshop, it’s important to cut short any endless discussion and to help participants to focus on what is most important and impactful.
Before the workshop – calculate all of the time you’ll need. Include onboarding and breaks, and be generous, because there will always be something unexpected popping up.
In my experience, facilitators often want to do as many exercises as possible to get the most out of the time available. This is not the correct approach.
The workshop preparation phase is supposed to give you the opportunity to prioritize. Take advantage of it. It’s better to do fewer key exercises properly than to have to stop the workshop two-thirds of the way through because time is up.
Of course, it can happen that you fail to fit all the exercises you prepared in the scheduled time.
In this case, note it and analyze the reason afterward to make your workshops better.
During the workshop – Set a timer and make participants aware of it. Be strict. Of course, if a client is just about to share some crucial information, allow them to take a few more seconds.
Time management comes with experience and it is your responsibility to stick to the rules you’ve set for yourself and the group.
4. Send the agenda and links beforehand
Do not waste time during the workshop. Check in advance if everybody knows how to access tools (if the workshop is done digitally). It’s also one more chance to remind them – tomorrow we will have a workshop!
It’s simple – email them. But remember to be clear in your expectations. If you want them to read something, write it out for them; if you send them materials to work on during the workshop, say so.
During the workshop
5. Have a check-list at the start of the project
Just as a pilot has a list of activities to be performed before take-off, you need a list before you pilot the workshop.
The goal is not to miss any steps in the heat of the workshop preparations.
A simple template in Google Docs will work just fine. Just go one by one and make sure every step is complete.
Here’s an example template that we use for some of our workshops.
6. Set the rules
The rules are for you as well as for the participants.
Their goal is to set the framework for your cooperation during the workshop.
Most of the workshop participants want to cooperate, but they need rules for such cooperation. Clear rules will make it easier for them to navigate through the exercises you have prepared for them.
If any of the participants do not comply with the rules, it will be much easier to ask them to follow a previously agreed-upon code than to have to address the person’s behavior personally.
Have all the rules written down before the workshop.
Place them in a visible spot in the room or in the virtual space. Read them out loud and then ask all participants if they agree with them.
This is the moment to answer any rule-related questions.
It’s an important moment for your relationship with the participants and a powerful tool in any facilitator’s toolbox.
7. Align all participants around the same goals
Both you and the participants need a clear goal for your activities.
In order to successfully conduct the workshop, you also have to agree on it.
After the workshop, a clearly defined goal will allow you to more objectively verify the success of the meeting.
Make it into an exercise.
A simple note and vote exercise at the start of the meeting will clarify what your expectations of this workshop are.
It will allow you not only to align your stakeholders around the same clear goal but also ease them into the structure of the workshop.
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8. Think about the duration – less is usually more
Workshops usually run longer than they should. There are many reasons why it is worth limiting the time of the workshop.
First of all, you and your team need to have a lot of stamina to run the workshop and simultaneously process the information that you are gathering from the participants.
Second, participants must have the strength to be fully involved in the exercises. A workshop that runs too long may cause fatigue, and participants might rush through a key topic in order to reach the end of the workshop as soon as possible.
Spreading the workshop over more days will also give you time to think over the prepared set of tasks and make corrections.
The participants will also have time to reflect on the workshop topics Their output will be of much better quality the next day.
3 hours a day of workshop exercises is an ideal amount.
It is worth doing this work before dinner when the participants are still fresh and not busy digesting the pizza you ate together for lunch.
If you can’t afford this luxury, make sure that the total exercise time does not exceed 5 hours during a full-day workshop.
Also, make sure that at the end of the day you have time to take longer breaks and do lighter, more fun exercises.
9. Nominate a Decider
The Decider person has the task of breaking ties during votes when you need a clear answer. The Decider will also be an executive voice of the group that can close discussions when a decision is needed.
At the beginning of the workshop, ask the participants to choose a person from among themselves who will be the Decider.
Usually, it is the highest placed person in the hierarchy or a key specialist in a given field.
Sometimes the group will choose the person considered the brainiest or most likable. This is also okay – it is worth having a person whom the rest of the participants’ trust.
Also, remember that the role of the Decider should be used sparingly.
The strength of the workshop is precisely that it is collaborative work and not up to one person.
10. Take breaks
Looking at the base of Maslov’s pyramid, food, toilet and just a moment to stretch the body are absolute basics. Breaks are essential to the success of the workshop.
The breaks will also allow the participants of the workshop to clear their heads and you will be able to make small changes to the exercises or simply clean up and organize the collected information.
Depending on the time and subject of the workshop, take breaks every hour to two hours.
It’s also worth asking participants if they want to take a break. Very often, a committed team will want to continue working even after a long period of intense work, so listen to the needs of your participants.
Breaks also must not be too frequent because each break costs time and interrupts the flow of the workshop. It can take 5-15 minutes for participants to get back into workshop mode after a break.
11. Remember to eat smart
Eating during the workshop is more important than you might expect.
When and what your participants eat will affect their performance. Seriously!
It is best to conduct the entire workshop before lunch when participants are fresh. If you do not have this comfort, do not order pizza, pasta, or sushi for lunch. Carbohydrate-rich meals will drive your participants into a food coma that will kill their focus.
Light salads, lots of vegetables, fruit, light meats, nuts, or tofu are all ways to keep your participants full and energized.
If you run a face-to-face workshop, do not forget about coffee and snacks during the workshop to keep your energy up.
12. Be professional and be trustworthy
You are their guide through the world of workshops, and just like a travel guide, participants in your tours need to be sure you know where you are taking them.
Professionalism builds trust. You need the trust of your participants so that they can more calmly and confidently approach tasks that are new or difficult for them.
Professionalism and trust will also help you in facilitating a workshop. When participants perceive that you are trusted by a CEO, board member, or specialist, they will have higher trust in you as well.
Know the flow of your workshop and exercises inside and out.
When the workshop is underway, it is not the time to go back and read the instructions.
Thorough knowledge of your workflow will make it easier for you to make changes on the fly if the situation requires it.
This will also keep you calm. Even if everything is on fire, your job is to keep a cool head and keep everything under control.
13. Engage the participants
Maintaining high participant involvement during the workshop allows them to focus their attention and energy on the goal. Long workshop sessions are not conducive to focusing attention, therefore your task is to help your participants to stay engaged.
Greater involvement of participants also means a higher sense of ownership over the results of the exercises.
There are many small techniques that help to keep spirits up.
If participants write something, ask them to read their responses aloud.
If you are in the same room, ask them to get up and go to the blackboard to put up their Post-its or to write on the whiteboard.
Try to form at least one task in which participants must present something or comment on a topic for a longer period of time.
Use warm-up exercises. There are dozens of quick and engaging exercises to help you warm up your audience.
Also make sure that everyone has spoken. People who are overlooked will quickly start to lose interest.
14. Encourage everybody to speak
The quietest person in the room may have the most crucial things to say. You don’t want to miss this input, so getting people involved is essential.
Your task is to read the situation and identify which participants are more reserved and hesitant to get involved.
Breaking the workshop participants up into smaller groups can also encourage everyone to speak.
Do not be afraid of phrases such as:
“What do you think about it, Alice?”
“Before we go any further, I’m curious to hear John’s comments on this subject.”
15. Watch out for dominant personalities
Sometimes it happens that there is a dominant person among the participants.
They can interrupt other members of their team and keep them from speaking. They can also interrupt you and try to take over the workshop.
Remember that you are here for a purpose and it is your job to manage the group. If someone grabs the steering wheel out of your hand, it is your role to gently but firmly take it back.
It is natural that a group of people consists of different characters, including very strong ones who naturally take on the role of a leader – sometimes, maybe too naturally.
In such situations, you need to maintain a delicate balance between confidently facilitating the workshop and showing respect for the participants and their roles in the organization.
If your authority is undermined, it will be more difficult for you to lead the group.
If the climate in the room allows it, gently stop the person who is too dominant. If the situation repeats itself, address it directly and ask the person to express their views within the exercises you have prepared.
If the situation requires, take a break and talk to the person one to one.
Honesty, respect, and experience will help you choose the right things to say.
16. Help participants to shine
Like a wildlife scientist, your actions should not affect the delicate relationship balance of the organization for which you are conducting the workshop.
Workshops are a moment when everyone can express their opinion.
This is the moment when a person who hides in the farthest corner of the office on a daily basis has a chance to show their exceptional knowledge and experience.
A workshop is also a place where you can inadvertently expose someone’s incompetence or lack of knowledge. It is very important to be alert to such situations.
Be mindful of the group dynamics.
Be alert to non-verbal cues that may indicate a willingness to share knowledge, discomfort when answering a question, or disagreement with what is being said.
Ask questions: “Would you like to add something?” or “Does anyone have a different view of this situation?”
If you see someone getting tangled up in their speech or not quite sure of the knowledge they have, remind them and everyone else that there is nothing wrong with that. The workshop is just to find gaps in the shared knowledge of the team and exchange ideas and experiences to fill in those gaps.
This approach will also make it easier for you to gain the team’s confidence. Your job is to help them understand complex problems and solve them.
17. Ask questions
Being a good workshop facilitator is also being a good consultant. Good consulting is asking the right questions.
If something is bothering you, it is probably bothering you for a reason. If you ask yourself a question, some of the participants, or maybe all participants, are likely asking themselves this question too, but they may not have the courage to ask it out loud.
Your role is to break this barrier.
Following Simon Sinek’s advice: Be the dumbest person in the room and don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions.
First of all, as the one who is just getting to know the group, if there’s anyone who has a right not to know something – it’s you.
Secondly, asking questions, even those that seem trivial, does not mean that you are ignorant, but open-minded and curious.
Although it may seem so at first, asking questions doesn’t interfere with the aura of professionalism you want to project.
Mature participants will immediately see the value in the good questions you ask.
18. Be prepared for the unexpected
Once in a while, things happen differently than planned.
Being prepared for such a situation demonstrates your professionalism and experience, and will simply allow you to sleep better the day before the workshops.
Have quick exercises up your sleeve that can be easily woven into the flow of the workshop.
Use voting – this is the easiest way to quickly turn a discussion into a decision that is aligned with everybody in the room.
Use Parking Lot – familiarize participants with it and use it for important topics for which there is no place in the prepared workshop.
Rely on your experience. Every exercise and every situation you have encountered before can be the tool or answer you need in an unforeseen situation.
And most importantly, stay calm. If you need a break to make changes in the workshop, just say so. There is no shame in the fact that you need time for maintenance. It is much more important to help your client than to pretend that your workshop can solve a problem for which it wasn’t designed.
19. Always give participants a follow-up plan
When you close the workshop, all participants will still be impressed with the value you brought.
However, on the way home they might ask themselves “okay but so what?” Before you all go home, give them a clear follow-up plan.
Of course, you won’t be ready with a detailed roadmap right after the workshop. That’s not what I mean, and that’s not something the customer will expect from you.
It is enough to clarify the post-workshop process and timelines with the participants: when they will receive a summary of the workshop, what documents they’ll receive with the results, how long it will take to prepare them, and who will meet with whom to determine the next steps.
It is enough if all decision-makers leave the workshop confident that you are in control of the situation and that their hard work will be used in the further stages of the process.
It is also worth sending a short e-mail summary of the workshop(s) and next steps to all participants and stakeholders. You will be able to collect your thoughts, and your client will have a chance to quickly refer to the list of activities that are ahead of you.
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After the workshop
20. Document your efforts
Documenting your efforts will allow you to make improvements to the workshop structure and your facilitation skills.
Notes help you gather interesting threads and thoughts that go through your head during the workshop.
Photos from the workshops are useful for the participants to show off to other team members about how good it was to spend time with them. Of course, they’re also useful to you, with the appropriate consent, to show the world how cool your workshops are.
Easy – take photos and note down your observations and thoughts so you don’t forget them.
After the workshop, do not forget to come back to your notes and clean up and streamline your documentation.
The greatest barrier for you here will be the fatigue at the end of a day full of workshops. Include documentation activities in your standard workshop structure and reserve time and energy for them at the end of the day.
21. Get feedback
You want to get better and better.
If there is a problem, you want to know about it so that it can be addressed.
Measurements and feedback are key- Use NPS, a start / stop / continue survey or any other tool for collecting data on participant satisfaction.
Your and your team’s own assessments are also valuable – did we meet the goals for the workshop? Are there clear next steps? Does the client know what will happen and what to do next? Discuss these areas, share your insights with the rest of your organization, and implement improvements.
22. Evaluate and improve
The workshop you are conducting is a product.
Yes, a product in a classic lean design fashion, and needs constant improvement and optimization.
Make assumptions, introduce changes to your workshops, test them and measure the outcomes.
23. Share knowledge and teach new skills
You want your clients to be more and more effective in making decisions and creating solutions.
Customer development is also a development opportunity for you.
Once the client’s team has started to deal with the underlying issues on their own, you and your team will be able to focus on more advanced and out-of-the-box stuff.
By sharing your knowledge, you become a thought-leader – and you bet the client will follow the leader.
Organize training and educate the client. Translate the most important concepts and discourage simple frameworks.
Encourage working with the digital tools you used in your joint sessions.
Be open to questions and further consultation.
If you are wondering now whether this approach will make you lose your job, don’t worry. The tools and frameworks you use are not secret knowledge.
Your greatest value is the expertise you possess. Your client will always appreciate it and be willing to pay for it.
The last tip – remember that such training is also a great time for the client to shine and their superior or representatives of other departments may be inspired to have their own sessions with you. With a little effort, you can forge new opportunities for your business.
The success of a good workshop is, first of all, in the great energy that you create with your client.
Having fun will keep your participants engaged and energized throughout the workshop. When they feel they’re having fun, they will follow the group activities and directions with confidence and smiles on their faces.
Having fun during the workshop is also a guarantee that you will not be bored and you will be more able to deliver a great workshop every time.
Following advice from Kim Scott’s book, “Radical Candor”: be your authentic selves at work.
Be open, be real, be natural. Treat the client as a partner and look for ways to go in the same direction.
In my experience, it is better to finish a workshop with average results and great moods than it is to have amazing results and bad moods.
Professionalism, good humor, an open mind, knowledge of your exercises, a nice story or two up your sleeve – all these things will help you create a good atmosphere and deliver a great session.
Did I miss anything? What is your recipe for how to make a workshop a success?
Share in the comments!