Five Tips for Leading an Amazing Workshop

Lidor WyssockyBlog

The first time I stood in front of a room full of people doing a presentation I was terrified. There were a few dozens of people in the audience, most of whom I didn’t know. I knew what I wanted to say, the presentation was ready, and I even had some cool props. Still, I had in front of me a room full of people and I had to make them (and keep them) interested for the next sixty minutes. And it was not trivial.

Years (and presentations) later – enough to make me believe I know what I’m doing, I found myself in front of a group of fifteen people, but this time not as a presenter. It was a workshop, and I had to drive the participants to immediate action. I had to make them get up from their chairs, take an active part in the activities, hopefully do them with real intent (otherwise they won’t work), and have fun during this process, not feeling they are forced to do something they didn’t feel comfortable with.

It didn’t matter how well I knew the plan, and how well I could present the key points. I knew that if the participant won’t be there in their minds, the workshop won’t be effective. Needless to say, it was like standing in front of an audience for the first time.  

Define Goals

It may sound trivial, but the first thing to do before starting to work on your workshop is be sure you and your clients are aligned on the goals. How can you not be, you may ask. Well, we tend to fall into assumptions, especially when we already have some experience (funny as this may sound).  

Following the creation of seempli, I started conducting creativity workshops for groups. These workshops are designed as a series of fun activities based on seempli, done in groups. Recently, I was invited to a conduct a workshop for a group of 30 people. It was reasonable to assume the goal of the workshop was to improve the creative skills of the team. But strangely, this was not the case this time. The initiator had a completely different goal: he was aiming to promote the group bonding. As it happens, this was not an organic group working together on a daily basis, so not everyone even knew each other. The activities I’ve planned for this workshop clearly had to take some different twist (even if their core was still focused on creativity).

The main activity of the workshop was based on splitting the group to five smaller groups. The smaller groups work great for the creative exercise, but now the primary goal is bonding. Won’t splitting the group demote this goal? I decided to do two things. The first was to come up with fun way to divide the participants to groups randomly (to overcome the natural tendency to form into groups of people already familiar with each other). Then, I’ve designed the activity such that every ten minutes some of the people change groups. Apart from spicing up the activity and making it more dynamic, these changes caused more people to work with a lot of people they didn’t know well before. And that was aligned with the primary goal of the workshop.  

So, making sure the goals of the workshop are explicitly defined is really the first thing you should do. The entire process of building the workshop, selecting activities, or even the setup and duration of the workshop might be affected by these goals. And it’s always best to explicitly ask, instead of assuming.

Setup

Next, comes the setup. No matter how well you design your workshop on paper, pure logistics might impact its effectiveness drastically, so don’t leave that to chance (but don’t think chance will not come for a visit… more on that in a moment).

Start with the big things. The first thing that comes into my mind is the location. Will the workshop be done indoor or outdoor? Is the space big enough for the size of the group and for the planned activities? Will acoustics be a problem?

Location is probably the most difficult thing to change as the date of the workshop approaches, and it can be rarely changed in real time, so try to get as many details as possible on the location (if you can visit the place in advance or get a video of it, you won’t be sorry).

But location is not the only thing to consider. Do you need electricity? Network connectivity? A Projector (and should I mention the impossible number of types of video connectors like VGA, HDMI, Mini HDMI, etc.)? Papers? Pencils? The list is endless, and you will be able to compile it only when you start working on the skeleton of the workshop. But if you want to be effective, I’d suggest to start with any information you can get on the constraints which you cannot affect, and take them into consideration in advance when creating the workshop.

Of course, eventually, only you will know what you need based on the activities you plan. So, the second iteration on the setup should result in a detailed list of things you need. Make sure either you are bringing these things with you, or your contact person is responsible to arrange them. And if you can, make sure you have a backup plan… which brings us to the next point.

Room for Change

So now that you have the goals defined and the obvious thing to do is to come up with the skeleton of the workshop. There’s a lot to say about how to constructed a workshop, and how activities should evolve throughout the workshop. But let’s focus on something which is less discussed: always have room for changes.

The first wave of changes might be needed during the preparation of the workshop. You probably have a collection of activities in your toolbox, but before you add them as-is to the workshop’s plan, take some time to review them, make sure they are effective for this specific audience and of course goals of the workshop. Take into account your experience (what you already know to work well), but don’t assume zero changes in advance.  

The second wave of changes is more challenging. Ideally, it won’t be needed, but you should be prepared for it. It can surprise you when you arrive to location or at any other time during the workshop. Imagine planning an activity for 60 people, and having to deliver it to only twenty. Now, imagine it the other way around! Imagine planning a photography workshop and realizing in real time some participants have not charged their cameras (true story).

In a recent seempli Team Play workshop the original plan (which was coordinated with the contact person) was to conduct the activity in a large hall used for conferences. This was important in order to allow each group enough space to work in. When I arrived to the venue I realized that the location was changed, and the room we were assigned to was much smaller. Luckily, just outside of it there was a vast lawn we could use. It was large enough for all groups to work in, we found some treasures around that were actually useful during the activities, and we enjoyed a beautiful sunny day.   

Anything can happen, and some of it will. So my best advice is to be prepared for some reasonable scenarios, and not getting too attached to any specific detail in your plan. As long as you have some alternatives and you are not intimidated by potential changes, you will do fine. In fact, you will do better than fine! You will even start enjoying the adrenaline of such sudden changes.

Never a Dull Moment

One of the key rules of a radio broadcast is to never have a moment of silence. Similarly, in your workshop something should always be happening. You must keep the momentum and the rhythm of your activities, and people should not get a chance to pick up their phone and wander to some virtual universe.

In order to achieve that the activities you build must be… well ACTIVE! They must be fun, dynamic, and require either constant interaction between the participants, or deep thinking and introspection. That goes without saying. But never having a dull moment is more subtle than that. You can lead an amazing activity, but make it a bit too long, for example. In such a case, even the most engaged people will look for something else to do after they have finished their task, while waiting for the others.

Balancing the need to align everyone and never having a dull moment is not trivial, but it is worth the effort. Once people go through your workshop feeling they were up on their feet (either literally or metaphorically) the entire time, you will know you had a successful workshop.

Be Present

And this brings us to the most important point. During the workshop, you must be present in the deepest sense. You must constantly sense the participants, see things from their perspective, and adapt the flow of the activity as needed. An amazing workshop always has a good attentive observer and listener leading it.

Running a workshop, always being one step ahead, and maybe addressing some logistic problems along the way, is difficult enough. Being attentive, observing the participants, sensing how they react and feel before, during, and after each activity, in real time is a real challenge. But it is absolutely essential.

Understanding the goals of the workshop is crucial. Preparing the setup as much as you can is a must. Making room for changes is essential. Keeping everyone on their feet is absolutely necessary. But all these tips cannot ensure a successful workshop if you don’t sense the vibes and act upon them.

Eventually it is the art of balancing a solid and effective plan and sensing in real time how it goes, and adjusting it along the way, that will make people feel they went through a meaningful experience long after the workshop is over.

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So, you probably already know seempli is all about observing, rediscovering, and creating. My mantra is always look around you mindfully and you’ll discover new insights. Well, I just read my article again and although I am its author, I rediscovered it as a guide to… (sorry for the big word) Life.

How is that for a recipe? Define your goals, proactively try to get the right setup and tools you need to achieve them, but at the same time leave room for change and don’t be intimidated by the unexpected; Design your life to never have a dull moment, and always be present: observe and be attentive to your surroundings and to yourself. Try it, and you won’t be sorry.

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