Wednesday 16 September 2015

Workshops that work: Six essential tips for facilitators

It is delightful to get plenty of positive feed-back on the workshops I design and/or facilitate. A few weeks ago one participant even described the workshop I facilitated as a "once in a lifetime experience"! Since I would love all workshops people attend to be useful, I have started asking participants to tell me what exactly they like about "my" workshops, so that I can share it here. Some of the points below have been made in earlier posts on this blog, others have come up in recent conversations.

  1. A good workshop starts with careful preparation. Spend at least as many days on preparing the workshop as you will spend in the workshop. Key points here: (a) Make sure the purpose of the workshop is clear and known to everyone involved: If there is no explicit purpose, don't waste people's time - scrap the workshop! (b) Get to know all participants ahead of time. A short web-based survey (keep it really short - a handful of questions!) is a good opportunity to introduce yourself to the participants and find out what they know about the topics to be addressed. (c) Encourage the organisers to invite the persons who really want and need to be there, to send out the invitations in good time, and to book a venue that is easy to reach and a pleasant (but not overly luxurious) environment for working together. Avoid basement meeting rooms! Daylight is important.
  2. Workshops are about people interacting with each other - not about funnelling ready-made packages of information into other people's minds. If people can get all the necessary information from reading a couple of articles, send them the articles, don't ask them to sit through boring presentations. Instead of bombarding the participants with dozens of power point slides filled with text, mobilise participants' own knowledge by asking them how they deal with the issues the workshop is about. "Buzz groups" of 4-6 persons discussing topics and then sharing them with the plenary are a good way of doing this. You can always provide extra information near the end of the discussion, if an important point is missing. But you'll find that in many cases, the knowledge shared by the participants in the room surpasses the facilitators'. I love using aspects the Technology of Participation (ToP) developed by the Institute for Cultural Affairs (ICA) for a quick succession of individual reflection, small group work and plenary discussion. (By the way, several countries boast their own ICA who provide ToP training and certification; there are also a couple of books about the methodology.)
  3. That is also why it is so important people have time to get to know each other. Use friendly, inclusive, non-competitive ways of introducing all participants to each other at the beginning of the workshop. Arrange the room in a way so that everyone can see everyone's face. "World CafĂ©" style seating is great for that - just keep reminding people that they can move their chairs around to look at others, for instance when someone behind them asks a question. Also, encourage them to sit next to participants they don't know well. Between sessions and after breaks, initiate short games to help participants memorise each other's names. By the end of the first day, you should be able to address every participant by their name. (In large groups - say, more than 30 - name tags may be necessary. In smaller groups I'd rather avoid them, or use them only on the first day.)
  4. Facilitation means making things easier. Your job is to help participants feel good and work productively. I believe that one can't be productive if one feels bad. Adapt your facilitation to the participants' needs and interests, also during the actual workshop if needed. If you are not sure what they want and need, ask them.
  5. Keep your poise. There is no reason to feel stupid or offended if people don't understand what you ask them to do or don't want to do it. Find out from the participants what it is that needs adjusting or more explaining, and adjust and explain.
  6. Involve the participants in monitoring the workshop. In multi-day workshops, I distribute short evaluation forms at the end of every day, asking participants to rate the quality of the participation in the workshop and the usefulness of every single session (multiple-choice questions with scales). In addition, I also like asking one or two participants per day to be "participant observers" who (a) can give me quick feed-back during breaks if they feel something is wrong in the workshop dynamics (e.g. if the facilitator has not noticed that certain people don't participate sufficiently), and (b) summarise the workshop process to the plenary at the end of the day, with recommendations as to what should be done differently on the following day.
For more tips, I recommend my earlier posts "Tips for multi-everything facilitation" and "The learning contract" (which is more about my broader philosophy of learning)

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