If You’re Ever Gonna Do A Workshop…

The beautiful McNamara Alumni Center in Minneapolis, where SRCCON was this year.
The beautiful McNamara Alumni Center in Minneapolis, where SRCCON was this year.

In June, I was invited to facilitate a workshop on communication for remote workers at SRCCON with Davis Shaver.

Have you ever facilitated a workshop? I hadn’t. It’s not a common thing for people to do at conferences, and it’s incredibly different from giving a presentation. And, to be honest, SRCCON is an incredibly different conference. There are no speakers, only facilitators. The organizing team open-sources all their planning docs. And, the conference feels more like a community helping each other learn than a place for select people to “show off” (cough, SXSW).

A workshop on balloon mapping, because that's how SRCCON rolls.
A workshop on balloon mapping, because that’s how SRCCON rolls.

In putting together our workshop, Davis and I talked on Slack, brainstormed on the phone, and organized in Google Docs. A few weeks before SRRCON, I thought we had a pretty excellent, detailed outline, with exercises and discussion points.

But here’s the thing about workshops: it’s hands-on learning. The contents of the workshop change depending on who attends, and what they say. How can you plan a brand-new workshop without partipants running the workshop with you? I had no idea.

Fortunately, I work out of an amazing co-working space called Workbar, with a fantastic community of people. So, I sent out an email asking for help.

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I ran the workshop bright and early one Monday morning. It was good, but not great. Here’s what went wrong:

  • I blabbed too much. I treated the introduction to the workshop similar to a talk or a presentation, which was boring as hell. Get right to the exercises, and get your attendees talking and engaged. Also, skip introductions – attendees can get to know each other in their discussion group.
  • We planned too much. When Davis and I planned the workshop, we thought we’d have plenty of time to go through an intro and three exercises in an hour. Nope. We got through two exercises only, and subsequently changed our outline.
  • We didn’t have enough structure. For each exercise, we assumed that attendees would “figure it out,” but that’s time consuming. We fixed this by creating slides for each exercise, which we would leave up for the duration of the exercise. It would include a clear prompt, explicit goals, and a time limit.
A SRCCON workshop, photo courtesy of Becky Bowers.
A SRCCON workshop, photo courtesy of Becky Bowers.

At the end of the trial workshop, I got a ton of helpful feedback. Davis and I made some significant changes to the structure of our session. So, if you’re ever gonna do a workshop…

  • Create exercises that build on each other. In our session, we had two exercises, each with two parts. Each exercise built on each other, so that you would take what you learned from the first exercise and apply that to the second. This type of progression helps attendees feel like they’re working toward something, and gives a flow to the workshop.
  • Direct the conversation. For each exercise, you have a core goal or point you’re trying to get to. As a facilitator, ask questions and help guide the attendees to focus on this point. The trial run allowed me to see the natural arc of discussions so I could more easily predict the types of conclusions that would be drawn. The more times you’ve facilitated a particular workshop, the easier it will be for you to facilitate discussion.
  • Take a moment for conclusions. After every exercise, we took a few minutes to wrap up the discussion and bring it back to our core goal for the exercise. This helped with retention, so that attendees could take what they learned and apply it to the next exercise.
  • Keep it loose. As much as you plan, your attendees will dictate the direction of the workshop. Be ready to incorporate new ideas and opinions into your workshop, and move the flow of the workshop with the discussion.
  • Build in lots of time for discussion. More than you think you need. For each exercise we had the groups present their findings, which took longer than we anticipated, but was so valuable. We wanted to end by going around the room and having each attendee say one thing they’ve learned, but we didn’t even have time for that.

Facilitating a SRCCON workshop was such a valuable learning experience for me, because it was something I’d never done before. I’ve blogged a bunch (1, 2, 3, 4!) about working remotely, but putting together a session forced me focus on what I thought was important about remote communication. It was also really rewarding to see attendees share problems and solutions, and (hopefully) walk away with some new ideas and perspectives. I’d absolutely do it again, and I can’t wait for the next one.