How to design an effective workshop in five steps

The challenge

I have observed that when someone is designing a workshop, they often tend to jump to ideas for sessions and workshop activities. The workshop takes shape in an unstructured way, with agenda items being added and removed iteratively until the agenda “feels” right. If a group of people is involved this tends to be even more the case and the result can be a camel instead of a horse.
There is a real risk that lot of time and effort is invested but that the workshop outcome and the experience are disappointing, both for organisers and attendees.

The solution

The key to an effective workshop is to use a structured approach that is focused on the workshop objectives. Here are the five steps I use to design an effective workshop.

Step 1: Write down the objectives in detail

  • Dig deep and question what exactly you want to achieve. Your objectives could be: raising awareness of an issue, gathering views from attendees, getting attendees to brainstorm ideas, encouraging them to take action, etc. What do you want attendees to think, feel or do after the workshop?
  • Be mindful of having too many objectives. What the ideal number of objectives is depends on the length of your workshop, how familiar attendees are with the topic, how challenging the objectives are, and so forth. You can start with a longlist of objectives and prioritise them. As you work through Step 2 you should get clarity on which objectives to cut. You may have to "murder some darlings"!
  • Think whether you can break the objectives down into specific sub-objectives. The more specific your objectives are the easier it is to keep the focus.

Example: Workshop with life science companies

  • Objective 1: Sharing key trends from market research with attendees
  • Objective 2: Gathering information from attendees
    • Objective 2.1: Understanding what issues and challenges they experience in their business
    • Objective 2.2: Understanding the barriers they face in inter-company collaborative projects
  • Objective 3: Facilitating networking between attendees

Step 2: Think about the motivation of the participants

The workshop will only be successful if it meets the needs and expectations of attendees. They are giving up valuable time so attend, so make sure it’s worthwhile for them. We all have attended a promising-sounding workshop that failed to deliver. Think carefully about:

  • What do the workshop attendees want to get out of the workshop?
  • What are their interests?
  • What will really be of value for them that they can't get from another source?

If possible consult with a few key attendees to check your assumptions.

In our example, attendees were interested in:

  • Gaining high-quality market research insights relevant to their niche sector
  • Hearing insights from others in the industry
  • Discussing ideas how the sector can work collectively to increase revenue
  • Targeted networking which may lead to collaborations with companies with a complementary offering

Now it’s time to revisit your initial list of objectives to take into account the needs and interests of your attendees. You may have your own objectives that your audience would not think about spontaneously — that’s fine. An example could be raising early awareness of a regulatory, policy or legal issue that may affect your attendees’ business in the longer term.
It’s crucial to understand your attendees’ needs and interests at the right strategic level and how you can add value — beyond what they say they want to hear about.

Step 3: Tailor the implementation to the objectives

Once you are satisfied with your list of objectives, take each objective in turn, and ask yourself:

  • What type of interaction is required to achieve the objective? E.g. formal presentation from an expert, Q&A, moderated panel discussion, audience polls, small groups working on a task.
  • If you want participants to take action after the workshop, how can you get their commitment?
  • What do you want the audience to think/feel/do? What is the best format to achieve this? For example, plenary presentation by market research analyst followed by plenary Q&A with analyst and industry panel, small-group discussion with a few targeted questions, working in pairs to generate ideas.

This is an iterative process. Question your ideas critically and be ruthless — if an idea doesn’t deliver an objective, ditch it!

Step 4: Think about flow

Consider what sequence will work best – both to achieve the objectives and to give participants a good experience. Make sure the flow will feel logical to participants.

Example: This flow is a good fit for our objectives:

Sharing information >> Stimulating discussion >> Gathering ideas

Think about the experience of the workshop participants – people’s attention spans are limited! Mixing up different activities helps to keep the energy up — but transitions from one activity to another should feel natural.

In our example a mix of activities was used:

  • Formal presentation requiring concentration
  • Q&A to create interaction
  • Attendees move to break-out rooms
  • Facilitated small-group discussion
  • Quick, fun exercise in pairs
  • Networking coffee break

Think about participants’ expectations. For example make sure the composition of small groups encourages targeted networking.

Step 5: Close the circle

Now comes the most important step: imagine that the workshop has taken place.

Have the objectives been met?

From your own perspective:

  • Have you achieved what you set out to achieve, eg. gathering insights from attendees?
  • Do you have the information you need in the right format so that you can act on it?
  • Are attendees likely to think, feel or do what you had envisaged?

From the participants’ perspectives:

  • Did they get out of out what they needed/expected?
  • Did they gain something valuable that they can't get from another event or source?
  • Did they have a positive experience?

I hope this approach is useful. Enjoy designing your next workshop!

Feel free to drop me a line to share your experience with this approach — {catherine} at {}.

Photo by Skitterphoto on pexels