Some topics take more than an hour-long meeting, and others require thorough rollout and training. For those subjects, professional facilitators utilize the workshop. Workshops are different from everyday meetings and stand-ups, though, requiring significant hands-on contributions from attendees and effective facilitation. 

With those common challenges in mind, we created this how-to workshop facilitation guide to help meeting facilitators prepare for and lead their workshops.

What Is a Workshop?

Collins Dictionary defines a workshop as “a period of discussion or practical work on a particular subject in which a group of people share their knowledge or experience.” In practical business applications, a workshop refers to an interactive meeting session that is centered around a specific topic or goal. 

Workshops differ from standard business meetings in length, typically taking much longer than a recurring meeting and sometimes spanning over more than one day. Workshops will often have many more attendees than day-to-day meetings, who take part in the presentations, collaborative activities, or other strategic planning.

Teams can leverage workshops for a variety of tasks, such as strategic planning for large projects or training for a new tool or initiative. Workshops should not be confused with seminars, which are much more focused on presentation from a subject matter expert rather than team collaboration and hands-on activities.

Understanding the Role of a Workshop Facilitator

Although not required for success, many teams bring in a professional facilitator or internal facilitator for their workshops. Workshop facilitators must balance a much broader workload, so having an experienced facilitator can hugely impact the outcome of the session.

Facilitators with experience in the workshop process can serve as a guide for the attendees, keeping them moving toward the ultimate goal. While some organizations have internal facilitators that can be used for workshop events, many do not and thus would benefit from bringing in a professional facilitator or committing a team member to a facilitation certification program.

Skilled facilitators can promote creative thinking, bring together different learning styles, and manage oppositional communications styles. Additionally, since workshops require a much higher commitment of time, they pose a higher risk of wasted hours. A dedicated workshop facilitator can mitigate that risk.

What Does Good Workshop Facilitation Look Like?

Like any good facilitation, workshop facilitation guides a group in collaboration toward a common goal. A skilled facilitator can ignite critical thinking and engage all participants in the decision-making process, making the most of the unique intelligence and key skills of all the attendees.

Nielsen Norman Group defines four facilitation goals:

  1. Full and equal participation
  2. Mutual understanding
  3. Inclusive and collaborative decision-making
  4. Shared responsibility

Successful workshops will bring together different perspectives and, through attendee participation, realize the vision for the event. Participants will feel bought in to the deliverables and may develop a stronger sense of connection to their team.

5 Ways Effective Facilitators Prepare for a Workshop

Much of the work of the workshop facilitator occurs before the session begins. With the proper planning, you can anticipate common challenges and implement efficient workshop facilitation techniques to curate a great session.

1. Establish Workshop Expectations

Take a moment to consider your attendees, the size of the gathering, and the overall culture and the group you are gathering. If you are an external facilitator and do not know the attendees well, consider taking a few minutes to chat with a manager or leader to get to know the dynamics of the group.

With those insights at top of mind, choose any rules of engagement that you’ll highlight at the top of the workshop. For example, if you have team members who have a history of talking over one another, you’ll want to remind attendees of expectations for respect and active listening. 

You can also utilize pop-up rules, which are simple guidelines that the group agrees to in order to hold the temporary space they share. Pop-up rules can be used for a successful workshop but also in other meetings in your organization.

2. Know Your Purpose

Take time to write a clear, succinct purpose for your workshop that you will share with the participants. Once that is established, you can share it with attendees. If attendees don’t know your “why,” they’ll be more likely to disengage or have a negative experience at the workshop.

Workshops can cover more than one topic, so it’s important to boil down to the core of why you’re dedicating a long period of time to the event. This vision should drive your decision-making as well as your guidance during the workshop.

Additionally, workshop facilitators should list any specific tangible deliverables they want to achieve. Before the meeting, you can prepare a template that will include those non-negotiable deliverables along with any intangible deliverables you’d like to achieve. An example of an intangible workshop deliverable is fostering a greater sense of buy-in from your team.

3. Create a Workshop Plan

Draft a clear workshop agenda, but remember that it may need to be flexible to best serve your ultimate goal. Your workshop agenda may include an objective, timeline, topics, and activities you’ll utilize. As part of your workshop plan, you should also detail practical information, like when breaks will occur and any key ground rules.

The best laid plans aren’t foolproof, though, so take the time to make a backup plan. Make sure you know what to do if you encounter technology issues, if you fall behind schedule, or if the workshop takes a different turn than you originally anticipated. Having a backup plan will make you feel more confident going into the workshop.

If you’re working as an external facilitator, you are unlikely to be a subject matter expert on the workshop’s focus, so you should also consider dedicating time to basic research. By having a better understanding of the topics covered in the workshop, you can better guide participants toward the workshop goal.

4. Gather a Workshop Toolkit

Successful workshops will require at least a few facilitation tools, from the online tools like note taking apps to the traditional supplies like a whiteboard. Start by reviewing what tools are included in and available to your workshop venue—and don’t forget to check for the basics, like making sure there are enough chairs and tables for every attendee to be comfortable.

Review the activities you’ll be leading during the workshop to double-check that you have everything you need for those activities. The activities themselves can be considered some of your most powerful tools and thus part of your workshop toolkit.

If you’re conducting remote facilitation, make sure you have all the software you need in working order and test to ensure that those online tools work properly when shared with your participants. Make sure you’ve selected tools that the participants have used before or that are user-friendly so no participant feels overwhelmed or unable to utilize the workshop tools.

Voltage Control offers a range of facilitation resources, including templates available for free download. These templates let you easily guide your facilitation group through specific exercises like empathy mapping, problem statements, and visual thinking. 

Consider also any accessibility or accommodations different team members will need. If you’re not sure where to start, read our thorough breakdown of workshop supplies in this article.

5. Establish Clear Communication

Before the workshop occurs, reach out to the participants to share any information they need in advance. If you’re an external facilitator, introduce yourself, but keep it brief and focus on sharing the goal for the workshop. 

You may create a communications plan for disseminating the materials that participants should receive before the workshop as well as sharing notes, deliverables, and surveys after the workshop. You can also brief any workshop speakers or stakeholders before the event so they know their responsibilities and are not surprised by any element of the workshop.

How to be a Good Facilitator During a Workshop

When the time comes for the workshop, trust that you’ve prepared well for the event and have the right workshop facilitation techniques and facilitation methods to ensure success. While facilitating, keep in mind the five foundational qualities that embody the facilitation mindset: purposed, inclusive, crafted, clear, and adaptive.

Below we’ve outlined important action areas to keep in mind during the session. 

Create an Engaging Environment

In your workshop, focus on creating a welcoming environment where participants are confident and comfortable sharing their ideas. Set aside time for open discussion, and share alternative ways to submit feedback for those attendees who aren’t interested in speaking publicly.

As the workshop facilitator, your role is not to talk at the attendees. Your dialogue should serve as a prompt for their collaboration and productivity, guiding them through different activities and keeping them on track to the ultimate goal. Be positive, thoughtful, and kind to the participants throughout the workshop.

As a successful facilitator, some of your foundational facilitation skills will be top of mind to accomplish this environment. By being inclusive, you’ll welcome everyone in and invite all perspectives. Additionally, by being purposed and crafted, you’ll have a well-designed plan in place for the event. 

With different workshop activities, you can engage participants and incorporate different communication styles. For example, design thinking activities like affinity grouping and dot voting provides a visual representation while also giving participants tangible work to do rather than passively listening to a discussion or presentation.

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Utilize Creative Thinking Techniques

Effective facilitators use creative thinking techniques to guide participants toward their goals. While creative thinking may sound intimidating to an analytical mind, it’s something all business professionals partake on some level—everyone has been a part of a brainstorming session.

Design thinking is a unique process used for creative problem-solving that fuses what is desirable, technologically achievable, and economically feasible, considering the problem holistically. Importantly, design thinking is human-centered and can be used for many topics and problems beyond design and creative services.

Skilled facilitators may also unlock the child’s mind to use the power of play of childlike curiosity. In Magical Meetings, this practice is explained, “Being active, present, and curious creates a fruitful foundation for discovery and productivity.”

Accommodate Different Learning Styles

In day-to-day work, employees can leverage whatever learning style works best for them. In a workshop scenario, they must follow along with whatever activities the workshop facilitator has selected, which can cause unexpected challenges. Your ability to accommodate your attendees will come from your adaptive and inclusive facilitation skills. 

Your workshop activities help cover the different learning styles of the attendees. Incorporate activities that vary in learning styles and communications styles, such as activities that involve hands-on problem-solving and creative thinking.

After the workshop, share takeaways in a written medium and recorded audio, if possible, with key moments and ideas highlighted in a succinct list. 

Communicate Effectively

Some of your most powerful tools as a workshop facilitator are your communication skills. Your communication is what leads the workshop forward, keeps it on track, and assesses if you’ve met the goals for the event.

Keep in mind the communication styles of the workshop participants, mirroring those communication styles when appropriate. For example, if you’re working with a group of very casual participants, don’t approach the workshop with a highly professional rhetorical style. When it comes to your facilitation skills, your ability to be clear will be central to your communication. 

Follow Up and Gather Feedback

Have you ever spent hours or even days in what felt like a successful workshop, only to never hear about the outcome again? That radio silence is incredibly frustrating, making participants feel like they wasted their time or their voices weren’t heard. To avoid this, follow up on the workshop in a timely manner. 

In your follow-up, you can include:

  • A thank you message
  • Workshop notes
  • Relevant deliverables
  • Next steps
  • Links to any resources

After the workshop, you should also request participant feedback. Utilize an anonymous, short survey to see what participants liked and disliked about the workshop process.

Keeping an open mind, take time to read both the positive feedback and negative feedback, appreciating what you did well and looking for areas of potential improvement. Negative feedback can often be the most helpful information, giving you a clear view of the facilitation skills you should work on improving.

Discover Workshop Facilitation Resources at Voltage Control

At Voltage Control, we are passionate about the art of facilitation and how it can be used to lead successful workshops. Whether you’re a novice facilitator or a professional who’s seasoned in facilitation methods, Voltage Control can help you harness the power of facilitation through our courses, workshops, certifications, and beyond. 

Voltage Control also hosts Facilitation Lab, a weekly virtual meetup of the facilitator community. Facilitation Lab provides a great place to engage in free and paid events that deepen learning and exposure to new facilitation techniques and workshop tools. 

Contact Voltage Control to discover the facilitation methods, certifications, and resources to learn how to be a good facilitator in a workshop.