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Designing a workshop

Category: ActivitiesName: Sarah Young, Stakeholder Engagement Officer
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Some people hate going to workshops. Badly run workshops are full of dull Powerpoint presentations, have no focus and can be a waste of time and money. So how do you prepare for a workshop that will be not only relevant and productive, but also memorable?

Why?

Workshops are fantastic for brainstorming, interactive learning, building relationships and problem solving. Giving people time and space to spend time with others interested in the same subject is valuable. It can help build a common understanding of issues and challenges, facilitate sharing of information, spark creative thinking and lead to real progress. Workshops allow new relationships to form between your stakeholders and help people from different backgrounds understand others perceptions.

Having said that, running a workshop is a big job, it takes organisation, resources and a lot of creativity.  So there needs to be a good reason for getting people together and plenty of advanced planning.

The Celtic Seas Partnership used workshops as a primary engagement tool.  We hosted workshops for the task groups, individual country workshops and several multi-national workshops.  We also held a workshop at the end of the project to help promote all the good work of the partners.

“The final project workshop in Dublin was much more engaging, interactive and involved than the usual ‘final event’ conference. It emphasized networking and building relationships. It is hard to quantify the value of this, but everyone came away from that day feeling full of energy and connected to each other.”

 

Step by Step

  1. Define the goals. Have a clear reason to host a workshop (rather than a focus group, telephone meeting or large conference). That reason needs to be important to the people you want to attend (not just important to you!). Think about if your workshop is going to be a one-off event, or part of a series to help deliver your engagement strategy.
  2. Start by writing objectives and clearly articulating what you want to achieve: networking, sharing information, brainstorming ideas, understanding a problem in depth, creating new guidance, sharing experiences? This will help you work out who to invite and how to design the day. This is best done in collaboration with others, so everyone has the same expectations.
  3. Decide who you would like to attend. If you are trying to develop a detailed solution to a problem or reach a decision fewer people are better. If you are spreading information or networking a larger group is more appropriate. If you want a range of views then make sure you invite representatives from all the different sectors. If you secure attendance from high-level or famous individuals they might be a draw for other to attend.
  4. Keeping the people you would like to attend in mind, identify a date and location easy for everyone. In order to spread the travel and organization responsibility the Celtic Seas Partnership held multi-national meetings in Liverpool, Paris and Dublin.
  5. Will you need to provide translation services?
  6. Invite people to the workshop. In the invitation try and make it sound useful and fun.
  7. Create a facilitation plan that describes each activity, who is needed, the time it takes and the equipment required. Include instructions for the introduction, evaluation and end of the workshop along with details of any tea, coffee and lunch breaks. The more detailed your plan, the more likely your workshop will run to schedule – and be successful.
  8. As well as a facilitation plan, you might want to consider a communications plan to promote the workshop and encourage conversation on social media.
  9. Consider how you will evaluate the workshop. We shared a questionnaire at the end of each event.
  10. Provide feedback and the outputs of the workshop to everyone who attended.

Top Tips

Make the content relevant. Small organisations, civil servants, in fact anyone with a day job will have to justify their attendance, so the workshop needs to be useful for them.

“Practically people have to justify having a day out of the office and sometimes it just doesn’t wash that they come along to be in discussion all day. There has to be more to it.”

Getting everyone involved is key to a successful workshop. If you stand up and talk for three hours, you’re just giving a lecture – not facilitating a workshop. Everyone needs to participate and everyone there is an expert with valuable thoughts and opinions that could benefit the whole workshop.

We used a mix of facilitation techniques from large ‘spectrum exercises’ to small group working, live internet polling, games, stories, market stalls and participatory mapping.  We tried to make all the activities fun, but productive.  Equipment can break, the number of people can change, some activities can be shorter or longer than expected.  Always have a plan B.

Many people are nervous about speaking up in an unfamiliar group so we used experienced, neutral facilitators who could keep the activities on track and make sure everybody was heard. Working in break-out groups also helped with this.

“CSP brought 50+ people together from different areas of the Celtic Seas/Europe to discuss issues surrounding MSFD. It would have been very difficult to do this otherwise. People were not afraid to contribute to discussions as the government were not leading, there was no agenda”.

Determine how you’ll record the ideas from each group. Will participants shout them out while you write them down? Or will they write down their own ideas and then give them to you? This is a small, but important, detail that’s often overlooked.  We often filled in pre-prepared templates and wrote people’s responses on flip charts.  That way the person who has contributed the idea can make sure it is recorded properly.

The venue is an important decision. Does it have plenty of space, natural light, catering facilities, equipment, conference support, access to the internet, parking and transport connections? Can you use the venue as an attraction i.e. a famous place, sports location, aquarium, eco-building, marine science center, historical site, or somewhere surrounded by nature?

There are normally several reliable and interested people who will happily attend all your events.  The challenge is getting the people who wouldn’t normally come in the room. The Celtic Seas Partnership did this by:

  • Attending other people’s events
  • Helping cover the costs of attendance
  • Using personal invitations
  • Designing the workshops around issues of broad interest
  • Regularly reviewing the attendance list and actively looking for contacts from underrepresented groups.
  • Promoting our workshops at sector specific events
  • Having high-status government or industry speakers

Engaging industry is a difficult task – you’ve got to keep chipping away. Lack of industry attendees skews the perspectives and outputs a bit…”

Have regular tea, coffee and food breaks.  Don’t pack your agenda full and then run over into the break.  Having time to move around and refresh the mind is vital to help people stay focused and motivated.

Resources

Time

It took us about 6 months to arrange and plan each multinational workshop. The country workshops took less time because we used the same format and facilitation team for each.  The sooner you can set a date and let people know about your workshop the better. With multinational workshops participants are often travelling a long way and will need time to raise the funds, or persuade their boss it is important to attend. It is also wise to allocate time after the workshop to writing up the report, distributing the presentations, analyzing the evaluation results and thanking people who attended.

People

This depends heavily on the scale of the workshop.  Multinational workshops require lots of organizing.  We had one person focusing on the logistics – venue, travel and expenses, a person helping design the facilitation plan, a person who put together the promotional materials and communications, people leading the development of each activities within the workshop and the project manager making sure we were all on track and coordinated.  We had a team of 6-10 facilitators helping deliver the workshop on the day.

Cost

Again this depends on the scale of the workshop.  They were all required significant staff time.  The country workshops were for approximately 30 people for one day. The multi-national workshops lasted 1.5 days for 60-100 participants.

In addition, the Celtic Seas Partnership covered participants travel and accommodation costs.

“I genuinely feel better connected, I met more regularly with certain groups of people and organisations. If the Celtic Seas Partnership hadn’t paid for my expenses, I wouldn’t have been able to attend, this experience has been quite valuable to me. For example, there is a Coastal Futures Workshop in London soon, but there are no expenses paid so I won’t be able to go.”