What makes a workshop work?


Nodding off recently in a hot, stuffy room while the presenter droned through 70 slides has got me thinking yet again about what makes a workshop work. So many times something billed as a ‘workshop’ is actually just a series of lectures with a few feeble activities sprinkled in as a nod to interaction. I find a whole day of this saps my energy like nothing else can.

If you are intending to run a workshop, what can you do to make sure that the event is enjoyable and useful for the participants?

First, get clear in your own mind about the aim. If it is to transfer knowledge then never rely on verbally transmitted information. It is amazing how often the hole-in-the-head idea seems to be the theory-in-use of so many tutors especially if the event has anything to do with a university. The nature of adult short term memory makes this a very ineffective way of learning.  Adults do not have a hole in the head through which information can be poured. Send people stuff to read in advance, assume they’ve read it and if they haven’t, tough, and do something on the day which involves activity and which is fun and challenging – eg a quiz or a discussion.

Take care with the room. You have more than enough to wrestle with without having to wrestle the room. Generous space, an excellent acoustic, proper ventilation and heating, comfortable chairs, natural light – these are basic needs which so often remain unmet, let alone thinking about how to arrange the furniture to facilitate learning. Cabaret style or a circle without tables is usually better than rows where the only person with a good view of everyone is the tutor.

Most people coming to a workshop will already have knowledge of the topic. They are there because they want more. But what more, exactly? And how to make use of what they know while giving them at least some of what they want? The way to get around this is to be absolutely clear in advance about what the topic is, who it is aimed at and what previous knowledge or skill you assume. I have been to many so-called workshops where, frustratingly, it only emerged in the last 30 minutes of the day that the room was full of people who had valuable experience to share.

Plan the event in detail, calculating how long each activity will take. If you only have 2 hours it is a waste of time to do ‘creeping death’ as an icebreaker, asking each person who they are, why they are there and what they want. I well remember a premium-priced workshop which started 45 minutes late and then used up a whole hour while one by one the 20 participants rambled uninterruptedly on about their background and amazing skills and what they wanted from the day. Each minute of this subtracted from the time we might more usefully have spent with the leading expert who had been brought in from the US to enlighten us.

Design activities with meaning not just that limp ‘turn to your neighbour and discuss what I’ve just said’ stuff. Some ideas here: try out a skill, carefully briefed, with observation and feedback; run a demonstration and ask for comments; do a ‘fishbowl’; facilitate a whole-group discussion where the validity of your ideas is subjected to scrutiny against people’s actual experience of the topic. Use different media – YouTube is full of free video which could be relevant to your topic.

Ask for feedback throughout and again at the end. Listen calmly and undefensively to what people say. Make it possible for people to be brutally honest then if you’ve run a clunker at least you’ll know what to do differently next time.

Two of my books, both published by McGraw-Hill, have more info on these topics

Adults Learning is a general guide to how adults learn and how to design and run learning activities with impact

Facilitating Groups is about running events as a facilitator with chapters on how to handle facilitator nightmares and how to design and run a variety of activities for groups

Available from Amazon.co.uk