Facilitating Workshops – what I wish I’d known

I’ve been facilitating brand workshops for at least 14 years and have done about 65 by now. Although I was lucky enough to receive professional training in facilitation when I started, the more practical and political side of things I’ve had to pick up as I went along. So, to save someone else the learning curve, here’s what I’ve learnt.

The political:

Always speak to the main decision-maker beforehand and have a frank conversation about who should/shouldn’t be there, output expectations, elephants in the room etc. The only two workshops I’ve done which bombed were ones where I hadn’t been able to access anyone client-side beforehand. Second-hand intel from the agency AD is not an adequate substitute, speak to the main client directly, even if it’s just 10 minutes on the phone.

Always prepare participants so they know what to expect on the day by sharing a boilerplate invitation with your client to distribute and include why we’re meeting, what we hope to achieve and when we’ll start/finish. Include directions to the venue, nearest car park etc. if it’s offsite.

Holding a workshop offsite can be great to make it feel important, get everyone out of the everyday mindset and avoid distractions. But the travel and day away from the office has to feel worth it. If it’s going to be a shorter session, or is more about stakeholder buy-in than outputs, or the clients are really budget-conscious, the client’s boardroom might be a better bet.

Nominate a workshop helper from the agency team. They’re responsible for sticking completed flipchart sheets on the wall and co-hosting the hospitality side of things. If they’re the most senior agency person in attendance that works well as it helps to break the ice and at that level they’re usually great at setting the tone.

Ban laptops. Politely, obviously. But nothing will kill the collaborative vibe faster than a senior stakeholder’s 30 minute powerpoint presentation and no-one needs to record the outputs, that’s what you’re there for.

Always leave the client’s meeting room as you found it. I’ve made some valuable allies in the client’s support team (sometimes even the CEO’s PA) by clearing up the catering and airing the room before I leave.

The practical:

Get the numbers right. Less than 8, including agency people, and you won’t have enough to make the day feel participative and productive. More than 14 and it leans more towards crowd control than facilitation.

Always have a spare exercise up your sleeve. Sometimes the client’s corporate culture isn’t super-collaborative and despite your best efforts the exercises won’t generate as much discussion as you’d like. Equally, always have an exercise on the agenda that you can drop if you’re running behind.

Give the main decision maker an agenda for approval with very rough timings, but ask them not to circulate it to all attendees, as there’s nothing worse than a room full of clock-watchers wondering why the next exercise is called TOWS and why it didn’t start 5 minutes ago.

Wherever you hold your workshop, make sure the room is big enough for breakout groups and has natural light. An agency I once worked with insisted on holding an important, senior-stakeholder, all-day client workshop in an undersized, poorly-ventilated, underground meeting room during a heatwave, with predictable results.

Get the catering right. Welcome everyone with hot drinks and something to nibble, make sure lunch is substantial finger food, timed to arrive just as you’re wrapping up the morning session and stock up on sweets, coffee and pop to fuel participants through the afternoon. Stress to the venue how vital timing is on this.

Know your venue. Whether it’s your office, the client’s or a hotel or business centre, find out whether there’s a fire alarm test due, where the toilets are, who to ring if you have any issues with the room or catering and what the parking arrangements are. Also ask about their ‘sticking things on the walls’ policy.

Ask for TWO flipchart stands so you can leave one sheet up for reference as you move onto the next, or simply play it by ear on the day.

Bring everything you could possibly need – bluetac/whitetac /magic tape/masking tape for sticking completed flipcharts on the walls for reference, your own flipcharts (so you can prep them in adavance, plus the ones that come with the flipchart stands are usually already half-full), loads of sharpies, hundred of post-its, a notebook to stealthily record names on a seating plan, the sweeties mentioned above etc. I once took an actual suitcase to a workshop in order to fit everything in.

Arrive early. Really early. You need time to potentially move the furniture around, set up the flipcharts, chase up the catering and still be there smiling with a room ready to go when someone turns up 15 minutes too soon.

Take a few ‘in the moment’ photos unobtrusively during the day so that you have something for the first page of your writeup.

End on time. All your hard work with stakeholder buy-in will be tarnished by a room full of people who thought they were going home 20 minutes ago.

As your first job at the end of the day, as soon as the participants have left, take photos of every flipchart sheet – one can easily get mislaid while packing up and once you’ve done the writeup you can recycle the bulky sheets, safe in the knowledge that you’ve got them saved in photo form.

If you have a brand positioning, brand strategy, campaign strategy or how-the-heck-do-we-move-forward problem where a workshop might help, please get in touch.

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