14 Practical Facilitation Tips For Your Next Workshop

14 Practical Facilitation Tips For Your Next Workshop

A big part of the zu experience has been our workshops. Though we’ve been doing them for decades, it wasn’t until about five years ago that I realized that we are in fact facilitators. If you Google the world of facilitation, you’ll find an entire discipline that prides itself on formality and rules. But, what I’m talking about here is real-world facilitation, where it’s someone at the front of a meeting or working session, getting a room full of people to work together.

Over the years, I’ve had to train other facilitators and our internal team, so I’ve spent a lot of time observing the art of facilitation. As straightforward as the concept is, facilitating is very nuanced. It’s not just one thing that makes an effective workshop experience. Of course, you want to meet the session objectives, but so much more goes into making a good workshop into a great workshop: timing, entertainment value, room energy, food, breaks, slide design etc.

Most office people will have had to facilitate something one time in their career. So whether you are a seasoned practitioner, or simply want to run a more effective meeting, here are some of my off-the-beaten-path tips on making your next engagement more successful.

1. Never ever plan it the night before

I should have titled this “Coming to terms with the required effort of a great workshop”. This is because I’ll keep reiterating that a great workshop is the result of great planning. I’ve heard too many stories of being caught off guard with something that threw off the entire workshop. Plan A, B, C etc all takes time to consider and create contingencies. With so much to do (agenda, slides, rehearsal/walkthrough, room prep) you’re ridiculous if you think you can start the day before. Typically, we are planning all the steps out a full week before. The day before is room prep and walkthrough/rehearsal.

2. It's a performance

No matter what the size, the more serious you treat your workshop, the better you’ll be prepared. You need to be BIG at the front to command the room and get people to follow your lead or listen to instructions. It might feel weird and overkill, but the bigger you treat it, the better you’ll do. Think of the time you would take if you were asked to perform a song in front of your staff, and nail it.

3. Timing is everything

One giveaway of a novice facilitator is their inability to keep time. Being on schedule shows experience and builds trust. We’ve all been in a workshop where an ill-timed first activity sets the tone for the entire session, and you can feel the facilitator starting to lose the room. Make sure your first 2-3hrs are air tight. I often set the tone at the start by stating we’re here to get through busy day of activities, and we have to respect the timer.

4. Plan for ‘flex time’

Plan a few exercises that can be easily adapted to be longer or shorter depending on how much time you need to make up. Activities that run short are rare, but longer than scheduled breaks can be deflating. Having a flex activity planned closer to lunch or the end of the day will allow to control the time at important stage of the workshop. We often have activities where the group has to present their work or ideas, and we can control how long their presentations should be, depending on how much time we need to make up.

5. You are the SUN

Facilitators are the source of energy for the entire day. But it’s not just about being lively and well projected, it’s about creating a non-judgemental space for people to comfortably share ideas. We like to play music where possible, we like to theme our days and carry it through (all the way to the slides, music and food), and we like to have give-aways and stretch breaks. We make it an event. The best compliment is when participants are sad to leave or ‘can’t believe we did all this in 6 hours’.

6. Room & A/V

The space is often the X factor when it comes to energy. The wrong room can result in a bad experience. We take extra precaution when we’re facilitating in an unfamiliar room. We’ll often ask for photos or take a tour in advance. It might sound a bit overeager but we like to know what our A/V situation is, how sticky the walls are for post-it notes, are there logical areas for groups to separate etc. Leave no detail behind.

7. Every Maverick needs a Goose (or Rooster)

If you can afford to have a co-pilot to help out, they are worth their weight in gold. The lead facilitator should be focusing on engaging the audience, much like a band on stage, while the co-pilot is like the guitar/sound tech who keeps the show running. Their duties can be on time keeping, note taking, distributing materials, leading breakout groups, organizing food, answering questions, and now that we’re doing so many remote facilitations - keeping an eye on the audience to see if they have any questions or comments.

8. Keep your break-out groups small

We find that a good size for a break-out group is typically between 3-5. If it’s just a pair, then you lose that group work vibe, and if it’s over 6, then you’ll find people disengaged and on their phones. There’s a sweet spot right around 4 people that we find yields the best conversation.

9. Tie a bow before moving on

As you move through activities, make sure to quickly wrap up the previous exercise or talk before you move to the next activity. Ideally, each activity should lead into each other, but you need to connect the dots for the participants. Try to answer “Why did we do that last activity?” and “How does this feed into the next one?” It might feel unnatural at first, but once you get used to it, you’ll never go back.

10. Facilitator vs Consultant?

In workshops, we often find ourselves wedged between these two identities. Facilitators pride themselves on pulling out the best ideas from the participants, but sometimes your client will be looking to you for answers. Some facilitators are better at jumping in and being a participant and helping generate ideas or solutions. There’s no real tip here other than to ask yourself what your expected role is for the next session. Even go as far with your client to see what they expect from you. The best facilitators are ones who have some domain expertise or experience that they can jump in at anytime without feeling lost. So it’s always safer, if you’re strictly a facilitator, to do an ample amount of research to know the client or industry inside and out.

11. Invest in slide design

There are so many reasons why having well designed slides matters, we don’t really have to get into that. But what I will say is that it’s more than just having pretty slides, it’s about having useful slides. Especially when it comes to activity instructions. If it’s a complicated activity with a few steps, we’ll go as far as showing an example of each step, so they have an idea of what the finished activity looks like. And keep in mind what slide needs to be up while people are actively working, you’ll often need to provide a guide, a legend, an example etc. Always assume that nobody is listening to you during the instructions (which is often true) and they’ll just wait until the word ‘go’ to actually start working.

12. Sketch it

We love getting people out of their comfort zones and keep them on their toes. Nothing makes a group of office workers more uneasy than asking them to sketch their ideas. Whether it’s an ice breaker to design their own player card or to storyboard the future experience of a product or service, try to include a sketching exercise to bring energy to your next workshop.

13. Map the journey of your workshop participant

This is definitely overkill if you are only running a simple internal meeting, but for those of you still playing along, go ahead and take a human-centred approach to your next workshop. If you’re a fan of Journey Mapping, think of the participant experience from the time they get invited, to the follow up email, to the minute they walk in the room to the afternoon wall they might hit, to the follow they’ll receive the next day. You’ll realize all the touchpoints and ways you can affect their experience. It’s an eye-opening activity and will guarantee a better workshop experience.

14. Forget everything I told you

Now that we’re all virtual, everything is thrown out the window. Remote workshops have only increased the difficulty of facilitation, and hybrid (home/office) workshop are even more challenging. The energy needs to be cranked, the technical details needs to be triple checked/tested, and timing is even more important as nothing feels as dead as a gallery of people sitting in silence. So just make sure that when you hear a workshop is remote, that it only means that it’s more work.