The Workshop Survival Guide: How to design and teach educational workshops that work every time
by Rob Fitzpatrick and Devin Hunt
The Workshop Survival Guide is a straightforward guide to workshop design and facilitation. Author Rob Fitzpatrick teaches early-stage startups how to get customer feedback. Co-author Devin Hunt teaches mid-stage entrepreneurs on a variety of business topics. They’ve created and delivered workshops for audiences ranging from professionals to executives, undergrads to MBAs, disadvantaged youths to others.
The book has three sections. Part one covers design fundamentals. Part two is about facilitation. The appendix describes additional teaching formats and an example of a process for developing a new exercise.
A key premise of the book is that the facilitator is accountable for both the learning outcomes and the energy level of the audience. The best way to manage both is through the agenda. Begin laying out the agenda with the breaks first, focusing on managing the audience’s energy level. Then, in between the breaks, fit your learning “chunks.”
This may surprise those of us who try to cram as much as we can into our workshops and then wonder why the audience becomes overwhelmed and loses focus. Even the best content is meaningless if the audience is overloaded or the presenter has outlasted their attention span. The energy-management idea alone should make this book mandatory reading for any new facilitator or anyone looking to improve the impact of their workshops.
In the authors’ words: Most workshops don’t work. They fail to deliver real results and they fail to keep the audience energetic and engaged. They’re stressful to run and painful to attend. Designing and running a brilliant workshop is easier than you think. It’s not about flashy showmanship or natural charisma. Instead, it’s about following a set of clear, simple rules for structuring and arranging the day. At no point in the book will we ask you to “put on a big smile” or “project confidence”. That’s fluffy BS which doesn’t work. Instead, we’ll give you clear, concrete tools for managing a crowd and seamlessly guiding everyone to an effective outcome.
This summary is based on the 2019 Kindle edition.
This summary is meant to give you an overview of a book that I’ve found useful and want to recommend to you. A summary isn’t meant to replace reading the whole book. There is so much more than I can cover here.
Part 1 – Workshop Design Essentials
Workshops have an unspoken agreement: the audience gives you their attention in exchange for something new and valuable. Your job is to provide your audience with a small set of focused, valuable takeaways that will enhance their lives.
Early and frequent “a-ha” moments are the best way to capture and keep the audience’s attention and goodwill. Audience goodwill is a consumable but renewable resource. Goodwill is gained when you provide a nugget of value, such as an “a-ha” moment or valuable takeaway. It’s lost the value is low or slow – if the takeaways are few or too far between.
The two ingredients of a successful workshop:
- What people in the audience learn.
- Their level of energy and attention in the workshop, which influences learning.
You’re responsible for both, meaningful content and a good session design that continually renews the audience’s energy and attention, making learning easier.
Facilitation is made easier by a well-designed workshop. A lot of the heavy lifting will be done for you by focused content and good design.
Start with the workshop skeleton (not the slides). Three workshop skeleton ingredients form the foundation of a good workshop:
- Audience Profile – A brief outline of who they are, level of experience, why they’re coming, their concerns, their possible objections, and so forth. This will inform your learning outcomes.
- Schedule Chunks – Start with the breaks. Include plenty of breaks: 15 minutes for coffee (60 minutes for lunch) after every 60 to 90 minutes of content. This will define the spaces for your content chunks.
- Learning Outcomes – The most important takeaways.
Learning outcomes are related ideas that need to be addressed before the main takeaway can be fully understood. They are steps on the path toward a more significant outcome. To figure out these sub-points, ask yourself: “what do they need to think, know, or be able to do to properly grasp the overall learning [objective]?”
Make sure your learning outcomes are clearly defined and sharply focused. Everything else is easier – in development and delivery – when there are crisp, well-defined learning outcomes.
Choosing what’s out is just as important as choosing what’s in. Start with 30 to 45 minutes per learning outcome and then adjust. Instead of cramming in more outcomes, err on the side of more time per learning outcome. It’s better to cover a few topics brilliantly than many topics mediocrely.
Select your teaching methods
- They shouldn’t be your first choice but are necessary for:
- Providing context, theory, “book knowledge,” or stories and examples.
- Setting up the exercises.
- Discussing takeaways following an exercise.
- They should be limited to 5-20 minutes.
- Ideally, lecture segments should be paired with an exercise that provides interaction with the lecture topic.
- A lecture segment is made up of three to five parts: Introduction, main points (3 or fewer), and conclusion.
- Beware of the tangent trap; knowledgeable people are especially prone to veering off into tangents or ad hoc homonyms that get too far into the weeds.
- They shouldn’t be your first choice but are necessary for:
- Small group and paired discussions
- Small group discussion might be the ultimate teaching method. (According to the book.)
- Small groups expose new perspectives; pairs ensure that everyone participates.
- Useful for sorting through ambiguous options and grappling with personal implications.
- Limit to 2-5 minutes but allow 10 to 15 on the schedule. (If it needs more than 5 minutes, the topic is too broad and should be broken into pieces.)
- Provide clear, engaging, and relevant prompts that lead to good conversations.
- Complete the group formation before giving the assignment.
- Form the groups, assign the task, observe and listen, and conclude the exercise with a full-group discussion to reinforce the takeaways.
- “Try it now” practice
- Excellent for developing hands-on skills.
- Participants practice the skill or technique individually, in pairs, or in groups.
- Scenario challenge
- Great for developing critical thinking, evaluation, judgment, and decision-making skills.
- Two parts:
- Part 1: Participants assess the situation, identify what matters, and summarize their insights.
- Part 2: Participants discuss what to do next, including actions, decisions, trade-offs, etc.
- Follow the exercise with a full group discussion to highlight key takeaways.
- Question & answer (Q&A)
- Although useful for detecting major objections/confusion, it has a fundamental flaw: timid participants won’t speak up.
- Q&A usually isn’t interactive, but you can make it more so by including an exercise such as a post-up or dot vote.
- Q&A should be scheduled after each learning outcome or before each break.
- Consider Q&A segments schedule cushions that you can remove if you’re running late.
- “Stand and share”
- Not a teaching method but a facilitation technique to use after an exercise or elsewhere where appropriate.
- Call for volunteers or choose a participant, ask them to face the audience, and share their (or their group’s) takeaway from the previous segment.
Match the teaching method to the learning outcome. Scan the outline for takeaways that must be taught using a particular teaching format. For each learning outcome, identify whether it involves knowledge, skill, or wisdom. Knowledge is typically taught through lecture, skills through “try it now” practice, and wisdom through scenario challenges.
Lectures and Q&A shouldn’t be your go-to’s. You have latitude in your choice of teaching methods and exercise types. Don’t rely on lectures and Q&A because they are familiar.
To maintain energy and impact, switch up your methods. Changing the teaching method at least every 20 minutes helps to increase energy and attention. For example, a short lecture followed by a small group discussion followed by a stand and share with the entire group.
Start with the essential slides, which include:
- Learning outcomes (and their supporting arguments)
- Take them directly from the workshop skeleton.
- Have one on screen as you wrap up each discussion point or discuss a key point.
- State each learning outcome clearly and explicitly.
- Exercise prompts (instructions, rules, discussion topics, etc.).
- One for each exercise.
- Fits legibly and comprehensively on one slide.
- On screen for the entirety of the exercise.
- Introduction and conclusion
- Introduction: a title slide.
- Conclusion: your contact information and a call to action re: what to do next.
- Resource list
- Recommended books and other resources.
- Visual examples if your subject is inherently visual (fashion, architecture, etc.).
Focus on substance first, style second. Make two passes:
- First pass: lay down the essential content.
- Second pass: add the nice-to-have slides, visual elements, personality expressions, etc.
Use images carefully. Images can draw people’s attention away from you and your message. Any image must obviously and immediately support the message; otherwise, it should be deleted or changed.
Slide titles should contain your message, not the topic. Slide titles are valuable real estate. Use them to convey or support the message and learning outcome.
Workshop Design Checklist
- Create your audience profile, which describes:
- Who is attending the workshop
- Their level of experience
- Why they are coming
- Any objections or concerns they may have
- Identify the content chunks by first inserting the appropriate number and type of breaks into your timeline:
- Remember, you’re responsible for energy and attention, not just content.
- Plan the coffee and lunch breaks to keep people refreshed, attentive, and energized.
- Between breaks, 60-90 minutes of content is ideal.
- Choose specific learning outcomes for each content chunk based on your audience profile:
- Learning outcomes are high-value takeaways – the reason the audience is showing up.
- They should be specific and tightly focused.
- Add key ideas or talking points to support the learning outcome.
- Trim and remix the content until it fits the chunks.
- Select the teaching methods best suited to each learning outcome:
- Match the teaching method to the learning outcome:
- Lecture to deliver “book knowledge” and to process exercise results.
- Small group and paired discussions for engagement on lecture topics.
- “Try it now” exercises to put new skills to the test.
- Scenario challenges to help them develop critical thinking and decision-making skills.
- Q&A where necessary and to add flexibility to the schedule.
- Change teaching methods at least every 20 minutes to keep participants’ attention.
- Don’t rely on lectures and Q&A.
- Build your slide deck (if you need one), starting with the essential slides first:
- Essential slides…
- Summarize the learning outcomes and supporting arguments.
- Give exercise instructions and prompts.
- Include introduction (title and important preliminary information), conclusion (call to action and contact information), and resource lists.
- After the essentials, add the visuals and enhancements that support better storytelling or reflect your personality.
- Use images with caution; make sure they are relevant to your message and do not distract.
PART 2 – Facilitation Essentials
- Keep it brief. Begin delivering value – what the audience expected – as soon as possible.
- Provide just enough credibility for the audience to trust you and fortify their interest.
- If the audience is skeptical, tailor your message to their concerns.
Right-size your facilitation for the audience. Are you hosting:
- A “dinner party”? (Fewer than 12 attendees)
- You should understand each individual and have addressed their specific concerns by the end of the session.
- While the energy level may not be intense, people will still be enthused, attentive, and happy to be present.
- A “birthday dinner”? (12 to 20 attendees)
- Sometimes, you may need to stand up and demand attention to get heard since things are rowdier.
- A “house party”? (20 to 50 attendees)
- You won’t be able to speak directly to everyone who attends, which is fine. It’s still small enough that attendees feel comfortable approaching you for assistance if necessary.
- A “wedding”? (50 or more attendees)
- Requires good structure.
- You may need a stage and microphone.
Your tone and techniques should be appropriate for the size of the group.
For “crowd management,” go individual. Treating distracted attendees as individuals is generally the quickest and most effective method for groups of up to 30 people.
Choose seating that supports group formation. Arrange the seating so that it forms “natural” groups. The book suggests the best seating arrangement for this is cabaret style, with six people per table and the side on the front of the room left open.
If at all possible, avoid venues with fixed seating. If you’re forced to use fixed seating, design your exercises for smaller groups (2 to 3) or paired shares.
Manage the seating as people enter the room. It’s nearly impossible to get them to move once they’ve “nested.”
If the space is too large for the group, move everyone to the front or cluster them so you don’t have to compensate for and talk over a lot of empty space.
When forming groups, take the initiative to organize the arrangement and find spots for isolated individuals. Finish forming the groups before assigning them their tasks.
Consider reorganizing the groups periodically during longer workshops. It increases energy and exposes participants to new perspectives. This is best done during breaks. Inform them before the break that they will be seated somewhere else when they return so that they can consolidate their belongings. Treat the rearrangement as an exercise after the break, and facilitate it as you would any other workshop task.
Other venue considerations that help to maintain energy levels:
- Natural light
- Ready access to coffee and snacks
- A distraction-free setting
- Plenty of room
To get the most from the exercises:
- During the exercises, walk around the room. Listen to make sure groups are on track. Clear up any misunderstandings. And answer questions. Afterward, use what you overheard to share an anecdote, story, or another piece that relates to the segment’s learning objective.
- At the end of each exercise, conduct a “stand and share.” Choose two or three pairs or groups at random. Choose the first person with care because they set the tone for the rest of the sharing.
When answering questions, the “trick” is to have a prepared list of stories. Create a mental file of powerful stories and anecdotes before the workshop. This could include interesting case studies, amusing incidents, stories of struggles, errors, and victories, and so on. When someone asks you a question, choose the most pertinent one and make the most of it.
How to answer questions that are:
- Off-topic or too specific, offer to discuss it with the participant after the event.
- Something you’re planning to cover later in the workshop, then say so.
- Something you’re unable to answer, say so. If a large portion of the audience is concerned, offer to take it on as a homework assignment and promise to get back to them with your findings when you send the workshop follow-up materials.
- Something you’ve never encountered before, say so and maybe ask if anyone else has seen it.
If you’re starting to run out of time, then say so and move on to the next topic.
Regrouping after exercises. The best way to recover after an exercise is simply to get back to delivering the content. You may have to talk over people for a while, but attention will recover.
Regrouping after breaks. Be directive about the time limit for a break. Expect to spend the last five minutes of the break getting people into their seats. Give folks a 2- to 3-minute warning, but at the appointed time, just start talking.
Don’t strong arm. A better tactic is to call on a participant to do a “stand and share.” That gives you the moral ground to tell the audience, “Hey folks, so-and-so has the floor. Let’s give her our full attention.”
Managing difficult participants:
- Audiences who have been “compelled” to attend. Rare. Recognize their concerns before diving into the content.
- Participants who ask endless or off-topic questions. Offer to speak with them one-on-one during the break. Use this “appointment” to avoid answering any further questions.
- Disengaged attendees. Find out the reason. They might be a spectator or intimidated by the group. If they’re a spectator, seat them off to the side. If they’re intimidated, find a participant to buddy up with them and bring them into the group.
- Hostile “experts.” Disarm them by finding a way to put them on a pedestal. Get them on your side by drawing on their expertise.
- Troublemakers. Talk with them one-on-one during the break – human-to-human rather than facilitator-to-participant. Call an early break if they’re really disruptive. If they’re a paid participant, offer a refund and send them home.
If you’re starting late…
- Announce it as soon as you know it.
- Only postpone the start once.
- Honor the new start time. Begin delivering the content regardless of who is present.
Give the audience verbal cues: be explicit about the time, announce the halfway point if appropriate, and countdown to the end.
Use two timers: one for sections and the other for exercises.
Don’t use your phone or wristwatch as a timer. Looking at either of these devices conveys a different meaning.
If you’re running late, consider trimming content rather than cramming everything in. Start cutting with the Q&A segments.
If you must exceed the scheduled end time, request permission, make it acceptable to those who must leave on time, and devise a method for them to obtain the content they will miss, such as an email summary.
Increasing your charisma. Charisma has three qualities:
- Power – authority, and credibility
- Warmth – demonstrating friendliness and openness
- Presence – giving the audience your full attention
To elevate your warmth and presence:
- Stay out of the dead zone (behind the podium). Use your clicker and stand at the front of the stage or off to the side of the podium.
- Don’t use your phone or watch as a timer. Glancing at them sends the wrong message.
- Walk the room during exercises. It breaks down the facilitator-participant divide and demonstrates openness.
- Avoid off-putting behaviors, such as finishing participants’ questions for them, fidgeting, excessive nodding or gesturing, or anything else that makes you appear less than in relaxed control of yourself and the room.
You must manage your energy as carefully as the audience’s, especially for events lasting longer than a half-day. You are expected to be social before and after the event, but the coffee and lunch breaks belong to you. You may need to use part of the time to manage the group, but reserve some of the time to recharge yourself so you can continue giving the group your best.
You can lighten your load by using:
- Co-facilitators or co-teachers can take some of the facilitation load off of you. The downsides can be financial cost and the extra coordination it takes to clarify roles and meld styles. Although not addressed in the book, there can be questions about intellectual property and ownership to iron out.
- Guest speakers are “experts” who are brought in to provide perspective on a topic. They can provide another angle and examples based on their own experiences. Audiences especially enjoy hearing “how we did it” stories from peers who have successfully “been there, done that.” Like co-teachers, make sure your guest speakers are well-prepared.
- Logistical assistants can troubleshoot facility or platform problems and ensure food and beverage breaks are on time.
- Facilitation aides can help with the group exercises, troubleshoot technical issues, and help with the audience management around breaks.
Unexpected things will happen. When they do…
- Remember, unless it’s an emergency, the show must go on.
- Your reaction will be mirrored by the audience. They’ll be cool if you’re cool. So stay calm, delegate the situation to an aide or the host, and get back to delivering the content.
Reduce your risk by planning for reliability and preparing thoroughly:
- Practice good communication with the client and venue.
- Fly a day early, so you have a time cushion in case of travel delays.
- Bring your “delivery-critical” items with you – adapters, cables, copies of your slides and handouts, and anything else that’s a necessity (in a carry-on).
- If you must ship things in advance, check two or three days before the event to ensure it has arrived.
- Have a backup delivery plan for critical sections of your workshop.
Workshop Facilitation Checklist
A week before the event, confirm with the event organizer:
- The audience profile and participant numbers.
- The room setup.
- Any necessary equipment and supplies have been ordered.
- Anything you shipped has arrived.
Things to pack in your workshop bag:
- Clicker and an extra set of batteries.
- A USB drive with a backup of your slide deck and a copy of your handouts (in addition to copies in the cloud).
- Contact information for your guest speakers.
- Video adapter cables.
- Your timers – section and exercise timers with extra batteries.
- Fresh markers (just in case).
- Portable speakers (if using videos or music).
- A physical copy of your workshop skeleton, section timings, and exercise instructions.
The day before:
- Confirm your guest speakers and any aides.
The day of, upon arrival:
- Confirm that the coffee and food will be delivered as scheduled.
- Check the room setup and make any necessary adjustments.
- Do a sound check and test the other equipment you plan to use: projector, clicker, wifi, power, etc.
Before taking the stage:
- If you’re starting late, make an announcement, then start at the revised time. (Reset the start time only once.)
- Close any extraneous computer programs and block notifications.
- Mute your phone.
During your workshop:
- Keep the introductions short – folks are there for the content, not your CV.
- Stand at the front of the stage or alongside the podium, not behind it (dead zone).
- Use your timers (segment and exercise), not your phone or watch.
- Manage group formation: fix uneven groups and find spots for isolated individuals; finish forming the groups before giving them the assignment.
- Walk the room during exercises.
- During stand and shares, ask participants to speak to the audience, not you.
- Control the crowd by focusing on individuals.
- To silence a distracted audience, just start talking or ask a participant to do a stand and share.
- Make use of at least part of the break time to recharge and re-energize yourself.
- Finish on time even if it means cutting content; start cutting with the Q&A sections.
- When the unexpected strikes, ask an aide or host to manage it, shrug off the emotional impact on you, and keep going.
What the Book Doesn’t Cover
The book doesn’t address the following items, but here are some suggestions from other sources:
- “Housekeeping” information such as restroom locations, parking peculiarities, etc. Aren’t covered by these authors. Others suggest it’s the host’s duty to announce this information before the facilitator takes the stage. Good advice. Make sure that happens but have the info in hand in case you must cover it.
- Participant introductions. While the book discusses the facilitator’s introduction, it does not address whether, how, or when participants should introduce themselves. Other resources suggest that this should come after the facilitator’s introduction. Individual introductions are either impossible or impractical for a large audience. Consider having participants introduce themselves to their tablemates. With smaller groups (fewer than 20 or so), a full round of introductions becomes more feasible. In any case, keep it brief: name and what they hope to gain from the workshop. Model the introduction for them; they will most likely imitate it.
- Agenda review and outcomes. Finally, the authors do not address whether, how, or when the agenda and learning outcomes should be reviewed with the participants. This would normally come after the facilitator’s introduction.
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