“It wasted my time and took me away from my real work.”

“It was so boring I almost fell asleep.”

“It was a useless talkfest. Nothing happened with our input!”

You don’t want to hear any of these comments about a workshop that you’re running.

A well-facilitated workshop looks effortless, whereas, we all remember some of the more badly facilitated ones we’ve experienced. Yet, often somebody can be given the job of facilitating a workshop when they have no experience. It comes naturally to some people, but for most of us, we’ll struggle in the first few workshops.

There’s a skill to getting people to open up in a workshop. There is also a skill to getting overly enthusiastic people to quieten down and let others have a turn. These are skills that need practice.
You want to strike the right balance between talking enough to set the scene versus putting answers in the mouth of the participants.

If you’ve been thrown in the deep end, here are some useful tips for being a facilitator.

Nail down the purpose of the workshop

It can be easy to get drawn into a discussion about the details of the subject matter and the context, but you need to make sure that you’ve got the purpose of the workshop nailed down first. You can’t facilitate a workshop unless you’re crystal clear on why a workshop is needed.

Figure out the intended outcome and outputs

A corollary to the first point, you also need to ensure that there is a common understanding about what you’re going to get out of the discussion at the workshop. After all, you won’t know if you’re successful if you don’t know where you’re aiming to get to by the end of the session. A common mistake is to assume that you can achieve more than what is possible.

Research the topic

As a facilitator, you can’t always be fortunate enough to get a workshop that is in your area of expertise. In fact, it can be good to facilitate a workshop that you’re not familiar because you won’t come in with assumptions. But that doesn’t mean that you walk in with a completely blank slate. You need to research the topic enough to know the common information and to know what questions to ask. Otherwise, you’re stuck with only asking generic questions.

Get the timing right

Do you think you can facilitate a risk workshop with 15 people and get an entire risk assessment nailed down in an hour? That’s probably unlikely to happen. You might end up getting as far as risks, causes and consequences, but that’s only if there isn’t a debate on the objective behind the risk assessment. That might seem really obvious, but what people often forget is that the opposite is also true. If you let a workshop drag on for too long, that’s also a drain on the participants.

Get people to stand up

One of the best ways to engage people is to get them to physically stand up in a workshop. If you can get them to move around to cluster ideas on a wall, or to write ideas up on a whiteboard, then it can help stimulate their thinking.

Have action items or next steps

People can be cynical about workshops if they don’t lead to something. There’s nothing wrong with having a workshop to explore a problem as long as you’re clear that is what you’re doing. Either way, given that people have given up their valuable time to attend the workshop – you need to make sure that something is happening with the results.

Know your audience

Some people love workshops and they’ll spend the entire time talking your ear off. Other people are very quiet and you’ll need to work to get them to engage. If you know what kind of audience you’re dealing with, you’ll be able to make sure that your approach is tailored to them. For example, for some audiences, I’ll start with a post-it note exercise because they prefer time to think things through.

Don’t forget the power of a simple SWOT analysis.

It can help workshop participants set the context, analyse a proposal or work through a problem or issue.

This diagram is one way to do a SWOT analysis.

Top tip for risk workshops

And because I have a particular interest in risk management, I just wanted to share my top tip for risk workshops.

Don’t get drawn into a definitional debate on whether something is a cause, a risk event or consequence.

You can eat up an entire hour with debating whether reputational risks exist or whether they’re just consequences of other risks. Believe me, almost everybody in the risk world has an opinion on that one!


And last but definitely not least. Have a good reason for running a workshop. Not everything will need a workshop – sometimes, it’s better to talk to people individually or send something out for comment via email.

That isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but they’re tips that I’ve found useful when facilitating all different types of workshops, including risk workshops.

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