Every Leader Should Learn the Art of Engaging Groups
Written by Dave Bailey
Workshops may seem like something only a professional trainer needs to worry about. However, the ability to run an effective workshop is a major asset to senior leaders.
There are many reasons to give a long presentation. Perhaps you’re unveiling a new strategy, onboarding a new recruit, or leading a discussion about culture with your leadership team. The problem is that long presentations tend to suck the oxygen out of a room.
On the other hand, a good workshop can leave people energised and excited, offering them an opportunity to participate, as well as receiving information.
How to Design an Effective Workshop
It takes more than sticky notes and coloured pens to make a great workshop. In The Workshop Survival Guide, Rob Fitzpatrick and Devin Hunt provide three simple principles to design powerful workshops.
Principle 1: Write out your audience profile.
Even though you may intuitively know who’s in the room, it’s a good idea to write out some of their most important characteristics. Fitzpatrick and Hunt recommend answering these four questions:
- Who is the audience?
- How experienced are they with the topics?
- Why are they bothering to show up?
- What are their concerns and objections?
Principle 2: Focus on a limited number of learning outcomes.
If you try to say everything, your audience may hear nothing. The starting point of every workshop must be to clarify the learning outcomes or messages.
If you have multiple messages, choose one as the lead and use the others as supporting messages. This is a technique known as top-down communication.
Principle 3: Vary your teaching formats at least every 20 minutes.
There are four main formats you can use in a workshop and each has its pros and cons. Varying them — by using different formats for each supporting message, for example — allows you to manage the energy of the room and keep people engaged. The four formats are:
- Presentation: This is the classic lecture technique, although it drains energy from the room.
- Group discussions: Choose a focused topic to discuss as a group. Alternatively, break into smaller groups of three or four people — just remember to let them find a group before revealing the topic. Discussion always increases energy in the room.
- ‘Try it now’ exercises: Allow people to practice techniques, or actively reflect on a set of questions. To end the exercise, invite one person to stand up and share what they’ve learned — it’s a great way to get people to refocus: ‘Come on, guys, let’s listen to Alex.’ Exercises can be quiet or noisy but they all tend to increase energy in the room.
- Q&A: Participants ask the facilitator questions, which may be useful or not, depending on who asks them. When questions dry up, you can always ask the audience questions of your own: ‘Who overheard something interesting in their group?’ for example. Q&As tend to reduce energy levels, but they’re great for filling extra time.
The workshop ‘skeleton’
Once you’ve defined your audience, your learning outcomes, and your teaching formats, all that remains is to create the timeline. Don’t forget you’ll need a break at least every ninety minutes, to let people go to the toilet and fill up on coffee, so they can stay focused.
Here’s what a workshop about running workshops might look like:
[9:00 a.m.–10:15 a.m.] Part 1: How to Design Your Workshop
- Why does knowing your audience matter? (Discussion)
- Audience profiles and learning outcomes. (Presentation)
- Choose the right teaching format. (Exercise)
[10:15 a.m.–10:30 a.m.] Coffee Break
[10:30 a.m.–11:15 a.m.] Part 2: How to Facilitate a Group
- Facilitation techniques. (Presentation)
- How can you deal with hostile teammates? (Discussion)
[11:15 a.m.–11:30 a.m.] Wrap-up and Q&A
Reflections after many workshops
I’ve run dozens of workshops and I’ve come to appreciate their simplicity. The presentation is only a fraction of their worth, because their true value lies in the discussions and opportunities to engage with the topic.
So, next time you’re leading an all-hands, an away day, or a team training session, take the extra time to clarify your messages and choose your formats carefully. It might just lead to the breakthrough your team needs.
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