5 Best Practices for Awesome Workshop Design (1 in 3-part series)

Author: Britt Andreatta
Posted On: October 18, 2017

Whether you’re designing your own workshop or facilitating something that someone else designed, there are some best practices that will help you achieve great results. These practices align with the brain science of how people learn and fall into 5 main categories.

1. Start with why.

It’s really helpful to start the workshop by making sure everyone knows what the goals or outcomes are. Even if they voluntarily signed up, it will help to get everyone on the same page about what you will accomplish together. This helps them align their expectations and makes it easier for them to know how to participate.

I make sure all of my workshops have clearly stated learning objectives so that we are all really clear about how we are spending our time together. It really helps learners manage their own engagement and participation if they know desired outcome we are all moving toward.

2. Create an environment where people can connect and contribute.

Because workshops are group experiences, you need to tend to important elements of group dynamics. For example, you’ll need to help people get to know each other so they can feel more comfortable participating and be learning together. You’ll also want to set-up the right kinds of activities to bring out the best in each person. This includes honoring different ways of learning as well as levels of experience and skill.

Depending on the nature of your workshop, you may need to make working groups that co-create something over the course of your time together. And if people have pre-existing relationships, you’ll need to be mindful of the impact those relationships might have in the room, both good and bad. Your goal is to create an environment where every participant can connect and contribute. Otherwise, you cannot accomplish the third best-practice.

3. Create an environment where it’s safe to learn, take risks and make mistakes.

This is vitally important because real learning can’t happen otherwise. Learning is vulnerable. We might have to admit we don’t know something or be open to improving and doing something different. Even if people are only together for a short time, your group’s progress will be much greater if you make it natural and comfortable for them to take risks and make mistakes.

I like to use the concept of a “sandbox” where we can try out certain behaviors. I say something like, “Alright, let’s roll up our sleeves and give this a try. It will be messy at first but don’t worry about that. Let’s just see how it goes and then we can polish it from there.” It can also help if you or another influential leader shares a story of trying, failing, learning, and getting better.

4. Honor how the brain learns by creating 20-minute chunks of content.

The brain learns best when content is presented in chunks of information that don’t go over 20 minutes in length before you do some kind of processing activity. You can string several 20-minute segments together to create any length of the workshop. This method not only helps the hippocampus move the content into short- and long-term memory but it keeps the group more actively engaged and energized throughout the event.

Even if your workshop is not currently designed in chunks, I strongly encourage you to rework the timing to do so. I guarantee you will see a huge difference in the participants learning and energy.

Processing activities can be quick too. In as little as 3 to 5 minutes, your participants can process what they just learned and be ready to learn more. Simple and fast activities include a discussion with a partner, doing a quick free write, or taking a short assessment. And of course, processing activities can be longer with people talking in more depth, designing or creating something, debating or problem-solving and rolling up their sleeves for hands-on practice.

5. Empowering people to practice in order to change behaviors and build new habits.

This is where you set-up your participants to succeed outside of the workshop, once they return to their “regular” schedules and lives. And frankly, this is the one that often gets the least amount of focus when it should get the most.

Unless we drive real behavior change, what’s the point? Yes, people may have had a great time in the workshop and thought you were a good facilitator, but if they don’t ultimately change their behavior, it hasn’t been a success.

So it’s important that your processing activities don’t just include talking about the issues or topic but actually trying to do them. Whether it’s time management, or painting, or strategic planning, or leadership, there are some behaviors they need to do in order to be successful. Get clear about what those are and have them spend time doing those behaviors in the room.

Together, these five best practices have made my own workshops much more impactful and effective. If you are not doing them now, start incorporating these elements into your design and facilitation. I am confident you will be pleased with the results.

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