Facilitating your first workshop? Start here.

You’re about to run your first client workshop. There will be quite a few people coming and it seems like a daunting task. You’ve been a participant in some really great workshops before, but you’re not quite sure how the facilitator did it – they seemed to work some kind of magic.

But facilitation is not some kind of “mystical” talent that a few people have. It’s a skill that can be learned and improved with practice. From my own experience, I’ve seen that there are three stages to building confidence and skills in workshop facilitation. In this post, I’ll break them down so you know where to start.

Stage one: make it collaborative

For your very first workshop, concentrate on creating a well-designed session that will get people talking and working together. A basic knowledge of group dynamics is useful, but mainly you can use visual frameworks and other tools and exercises (like the ones available on Hyper Island toolbox and IDEO’s Design Kit), to build your workshop structure.

During the session, prioritise the activities that have the most visible benefit to participants – introducing the exercises, keeping to time, and taking notes when breakout groups report back. This will hold the workshop together and keep it going. You’ll also need to make sure everyone has a chance to speak and contribute, but the exercises you choose can do some of this work for you.

Stage two: guiding the content

For your next workshops, challenge yourself to introduce more questioning and active listening. Get more involved by helping your participants to see connections between ideas, synthesising and summarising content, and asking probing questions. Always remember that your role as the facilitator is to help participants to generate content, not to get involved in ideation yourself.

Stage three: read the room

With practice, you’ll start to become more perceptive and responsive in your workshops. You can concentrate on getting better at thinking on your feet, and being flexible to the different directions that the workshop might take. These qualities help you to sense the mood, know when energy levels need to be lifted, or if you need to tweak the workshop outline in some way. In contrast to the very visible support you provide when you start at stage one, what you do at stage three is virtually invisible to participants, but in reality you’re constantly scanning the room, staying alert and picking up on subtle cues.

These skills develop as your confidence grows, and they improve with experience and practice, self-awareness and review. You’ll also find that they have benefit beyond the workshop setting when you’re collaborating and generating ideas with your team.

What other things seem daunting about running your first workshop?

Also read:

How to run a productive team workshop

2 thoughts on “Facilitating your first workshop? Start here.

  1. Great post. I remember how intimidating I found it the first time I facilitated. It was a disaster. After forcing myself to do it again and again I got pretty good at it. I could have used your post back then when I started out ;-)

  2. Thank you for commenting Alex. Yes, all great facilitators had to start somewhere – from the beginning! I’m glad you like the post.

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