Designing Workshops

A powerful way to develop and lead a facilitated workshop is to develop each phase, session break, and type of interaction from the perspectives of your audience. Each participant may have multiple perspectives that rise and fall depending on inputs and each workshop will have a range of perspectives based on participant backgrounds and agendas. Indeed personalities play a huge role within a workshop–including the personality of the facilitator, the makeup of individuals, and the workshop group as a whole. It’s best if you are able to pre-determine participant’s personalities, perspectives, and agendas when designing a successful workshop, but the ability to do this is often impractical. You’ll likely be seeing most attendees for the first time.

In light of the above, workshop designers often have to imagine the different types of people and their agendas, as well as personality types that can both enlighten and derail a workshop. Once imagined, different strategies can be explored ahead of the workshop.

The start of a workshop should give a clear overview that allows everyone to understand what is to be accomplished by the end of the day without just restating the agenda. It’s often good to have a candid conversation about expectations when you begin. Share a bit of your own goals, expectations, and challenges.

Workshop agendas help set expectations, although it’s important to follow the flow of the session and not stick to an agenda when it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes people need to speak about some things more than others. As a facilitator, you likely won’t have prior knowledge of what these will be, so flexibility is not just good practice, it is fundamental.

Breaks can be good ways to allow people to more easily move from one mode of thinking or discussion into another. Breaks need to be tightly controlled. They aren’t a time to disconnect from the session. Workshop designers need to consider this and plan accordingly.

The facilitator's role is to guide discussion, not lecture. Keep people on point, manage strong personalities, and draw out quiet or reflective participants. A well-designed, guided conversation will lead to clarity, or insight, or consensus. Most likely you will not be able to accomplish all three in any one session, nor would you want to.

Clarity is about bringing a group up to speed on an issue. It does not strive to make any decisions.

Insight is about understanding a problem well enough to create a path forward. Decisions at this point are more or less agreements to explore further, perhaps agreeing on participants or governance.

Consensus is about facilitating agreement on very specific future actions. Funding can be agreed to, lines of responsibility can be solidified, and approval for moving forward can be granted.

The question that a facilitator needs to ask themselves is at what level they are designing their workshop.

The end of a workshop recaps the day, a restatement of the intended goal (and whether the group feels they reached it or not), and a consensus on next steps.

 

Recapping

  • Design each step from the perspective of the participants
  • Prepare for different types of people and different agendas
  • Guide the discussion rather than lecture or lead it
  • Be flexible. Know what your goals are for each phase and by the end of the session
  • Work to include everyone’s voice and perspective
  • Design to the right need and level of workshop, i.e., don’t build a workshop around consensus when the group is at an earlier stage

Final thoughts

  • Meaningful facilitation comes from dynamic engagement
  • Potentially begin by providing something vulnerable about yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, why should they?
  • Remember to play the room, move around (you can even walk and speak from behind the group), look people directly in the eyes as you are speaking and listening
  • Refer to and acknowledge previous points made by participants–give people credit for helping focus or positively challenging the discussion
  • Be jovial, have fun, but don’t be afraid to be stern when needed. You wield tremendous power as a facilitator