Ultimate workshop facilitation guide
Even if you’re not a professional facilitator, there may come a time when you are asked to facilitate or present at a workshop. This could be for your team, organization, or a customer. It’s important to be prepared and equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to successfully fulfill this role.
Other meetings and events might also benefit from dedicated facilitation by a third party. Scrum events such as Sprint planning and retrospectives being a prime example.
If you are new to workshop facilitation, this can be a daunting task.
This is the first of three articles in a series on how to facilitate a workshop. Drawing from own experiences and mistakes, the goal is to provide a comprehensive guide and equip you with tips and knowledge to feel more comfortable facilitating and/or presenting at a workshop or other event.
In this article, I go through planning, preparing, and executing a workshop. In the next two articles focus will be on on-site workshops and online workshops, respectively.
Host, facilitator or presenter?
Before diving into the details, let’s take a moment to clarify some terminology and consider the role you will play in the workshop.
Workshop facilitation can be used as an umbrella term for hosting, facilitating, and presenting, but there are distinctions and often you only play one or two of these roles.
- The host is responsible for the logistics and practicalities of the event. For example booking a room, sending out invitations, and making sure there are refreshments.
- The facilitator is responsible for the flow of the workshop. This includes things like timekeeping, making sure everyone is engaged, and moderating discussions.
- The presenters are responsible for the content of the workshop. Besides presenting this usually includes preparing slides, activities, and exercises.
As a dedicated facilitator you can focus on the structure and flow. In my experience the greatest challenge as facilitator is to make sure everyone is engaged and actively participating while not letting one or a few persons dominate or derail discussions, and at the same time making sure the workshop is on track.
If facilitating other presenters, talk to each one 1-on-1 before the event and discuss expectations and how you can assist. Also go through any ground rules, for example how you will handle timekeeping.
If you wear multiple hats, you need to balance the roles and make sure you don’t forget any of them. Facilitating and presenting can be especially challenging in a virtual setting. I will explain why in an upcoming article.
Now, let’s get to it!
The work starts long before the workshop proper. Having figured out your role, or roles, it is time to start planning and prepare for the workshop.
Goal and Expectations
Before you start outlining and planning the workshop proper, you need to have a goal. What do you want to achieve? Why should people attend?
If you have a client (internal or external), discuss the goal and purpose with them. They probably have ideas on what they want to achieve and why they asked you to facilitate or present at the workshop in the first place. Review any material and ideas together and ask for feedback.
Don’t be afraid to share your own thoughts and ideas. You need to feel comfortable with both the setup and content.
In a product workshop with a customer, I thought I was about to blow their
minds with the new features. Little did I know, they were as interested in my
presentation as a cat is in a bath. I persisted with my presentation and it was
some of the longest hours in my life.
Later, I discovered that the customer had concerns about the functionality that had already been delivered. They wanted to discuss those issues, not listen to my grandiose plans. In hindsight, I should have checked in with the customer before the workshop. Not having done that, I should at least have paused and asked them directly about their specific topics of interest, adjusting the presentation or even pivoting entirely to address their concerns and prioritize their needs during the workshop.
In addition to sending out a calendar event, it is important to share some additional information with participants. Here are some key details that should be included:
- Goal and purpose. What is the purpose and reason for the workshop?
- Schedule. What is the schedule? At least a rough outline with start and end times, and longer breaks. Will you have lunch or dinner together?
- Location. If it’s an on-site workshop information about the location, for example how to get there, where to park, etc.
- Rules of engagement. Expectations on presenters and participants. (See next section for more on this.)
- Contact information. Who should people contact with any questions they may have?
- Agenda. I like to keep this high level and just include some major milestones and key activities at this point.
Again, make sure to align with the client’s preferences. Determine whether you should send it directly to participants or if the client prefers to handle the communication themselves. Is there anything special they want to include?
Rules of engagement
A good practice is to set some ground rules for the workshop. For example:
- Are laptops and phones allowed? If so, should they be used for activities or only for taking notes? For an on-site workshop, I strongly suggest to avoid laptops and phones altogether unless absolutely necessary.
- How will you handle questions? Should people ask questions as they come up or should they wait until the end?
- How will you keep time and moderate discussions? Timeboxing discussions is a great way to keep discussions focused and on track. Use a visual timer to make it clear how much time is left.
If you are facilitating other speakers, discuss these rules with them and also agree on time limits and how you will enforce them.
If you are presenting, you need to prepare the content. Exactly what this means depends on the type of workshop: is it a one hour lecture or a full day or multi-day interactive workshop. For the former, you might only need to prepare slides. For the latter, you need to prepare activities and exercises as well.
Some general ideas and tips:
- Find a good mix of theory and activities. I try to have at least one activity in the morning and one in the afternoon for a full day workshop.
- Leave slack time. Often people will ask questions and you might end up in side discussions or go into more details on a topic. I generally see this as a definite positive as it means people are interested and engaged. (One thing to look out for is if only one or two persons are involved and talk about a topic only relevant to them.)
- Prepare extra material. Seemingly contrary to the previous point, it is also a good idea to have extra material prepared, for example extra slides covering adjacent topics.
- Kill your darlings. Don’t stick with a slide, topic or activity just because you love it. Make sure it fits the overall goal, that you have a good narrative, and enough time. Otherwise, cut it.
Mental timeline It’s difficult to know if you have prepared enough material, or too much. I try to form a mental timeline with the timing of important milestones to help stay on track and understand when I need to speed up or skip something, and when I can spend some extra time on a topic.
Setting the stage
The start of the workshop sets the tone for the rest of the day. There are things you can do to make sure the start of the workshop runs smoothly:
- Arrive early. Whether the workshop is on-site or online you want to get there early. This gives you time to set up and prepare before everyone else shows up. It also lets you welcome people as they arrive.
When the workshop starts:
- Present yourself. Introduce yourself. Give enough relevant information so people know who you are and why you are there. But don’t turn it into a long presentation about yourself. If you are facilitating other speakers, you want to keep this shorter still, and focus on introducing the other presenters.
- Rules of engagement. Remind people about the ground rules.
- Present schedule and agenda. Present the schedule, and reiterate the goal and purpose of the workshop.
- Check-in. Start the workshop with a check-in activity to get everyone engaged early. Some activities work better in an on-site setting but most are easily adapted to work online as well.
Share expectationsOne effective check-in exercise is to ask participants
what they hope to achieve or gain from the workshop. Provide post-it notes for
them to write down their responses, which can then be collected and displayed on
a door or flip chart.
This exercise allows participants to share their expectations and sets the stage for the workshop. At the end of the workshop, you can review the post-it notes to see if the goals were met.
In longer workshops, it’s beneficial to revisit the goals at the halfway point to make any necessary adjustments.
In the midst of unveiling the workshop’s goal and agenda, a participant boldly interrupted with a question: “Who are you?“. I had neglected to introduce myself. At first, I was dumbfounded and lost my bearings for a few seconds, but it turned out to serve as an unexpected ice-breaker, instantly loosening up the atmosphere and fostering a sense of camaraderie.
Prepare for the unexpected
Have a plan B. And a plan C.
Unexpected things can disrupt your flow or cause you to lose your composure. Most of these can be categorized into two main groups: people and technology.
- People arrive late or leave early
- People clearly showing they are uninterested or unengaged
- Getting questions you did not expect or can’t answer
- Technology malfunctions
- Losing your train of thought
- … ← thousand other things
Just come to terms with the fact that things happen. And that it is ok. I find that simply being aware of it and having thought it through helps a lot.
During a Scrum workshop, I was once confronted with a thought-provoking question from a team: “Why should we care about finishing things in the sprint backlog?“. Caught off guard, I momentarily froze, unsure of how to respond. Recognizing the value of the question and ask for some time to think about the answer is a good strategy.
Ending with a bang
The end of the workshop is as important as the beginning. It’s the last thing people will remember and it’s an opportunity to summarize and reiterate the goal and purpose.
In a shorter and more one-directional setting like a lecture or webinar, I prefer to end with a Q&A session.
In longer workshops where people have been actively participating, take time to share people’s reflections and takeaways. Here are some things to try:
- Bs and Cs. Kind of like a mini retrospective. Ask people to share there Bs (Benefits) and Cs (Concerns) from the workshop. You can go around the room or have people write them down on post-its and collect them. In a multi-day workshop, you can do this at the end of each day to get feedback and adjust the rest of the workshop accordingly.
- Revisit the check-in exercise. If you used the aforementioned check-in exercise review the post-its and ask people if they feel they got what they wanted out of the day.
- Takeaways. Ask people to share something from the workshop that they will take with them and use in their daily work. It’s easy to go back to business as usual after a workshop or training. This question help people deliberately think about how to apply what they learned.
Let people know how to get in touch with you later if they have questions or feedback. If you plan to share material or send out a survey, let people know.
Workshop facilitation can be mentally draining, but it’s also incredibly rewarding and fun. Take time afterwards to reflect and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment having facilitated a successful workshop.
I hope you have found some valuable tips and ideas that will enhance your workshop facilitation skills. Best of luck as you apply these strategies in your future workshops!
In the next articles of this series, I will provide additional insights and pointers for hosting on-site and remote workshops. Stay tuned for more valuable information!