My 10 *NOT SO SIMPLE* Rules on Running Interactive Workshops

A post about learning from experience…

Debrief with facilitators
Each time I run a workshop I learn how to improve

Subtle and tricky things about running workshops

I just watched an inspiring video about a recent science-meets-art, hands-on workshop that looked really exciting and productive, and it got me thinking about workshops again. I’ve actually learned a lot of subtle and tricky things that go beyond the basic rules on running interactive workshops I’ve written about before. So (you lucky things!) I have put together 10+ NOT SO Simple Rules on Running Interactive Workshops for you, based on my recent experience of running a few at EMBL-EBI. I’ll keep sharing stuff with you as I hike my way up the learning curve.


Flickr: Jolijn
Flickr: Jolijn


My 10 NOT SO SIMPLE rules on Running Interactive Workshops

(For brainstorming, understanding challenges and exploring solutions)

1. Impartial facilitation is essential, even if this impartiality is “false”

Subtle / Tricky

When I work with workshop organisers to devise a plan, they are usually very enthusiastic and quick to put themselves forward as co-facilitators. This is ok in principle, but the brainstorming sessions will only work if they can make a serious effort to be impartial – and that might mean setting aside their own ideas. It’s just too tempting to add in one’s own perspective to the brainstorming (I would do it!), and the team’s thinking and priorities end up becoming biased towards those of the organiser. As the person running the workshop, it is your job to clearly communicate to the facilitators that their ideas may NOT be included. You may find that an explanation of the bias issue will make would be-facilitators opt out.

2. Give facilitators top 3 tips by email, and on an index card on the day

Subtle / Tricky

If you don’t facilitate workshops very often, it’s handy to be reminded of the rules. You, the organiser and the facilitators will agree how the facilitation will be carried out beforehand, and one of the outputs of this agreement should be an agreed list of the rules of engagement. Here’s an example of “top three rules” from the last workshop I helped with:

  1. Role of the facilitators: Facilitators help articulate the ideas put forward by their team members, and make sure they are captured on paper. Facilitators moderate, rather than lead, so they may not contribute their own ideas. Reporting back the team’s ideas should be done by a team member.
  2. Time management: The facilitator should keep an eye on the time, and make sure each team member is given a chance to contribute. The facilitator should try to give 10 min, 5 min and 2 min warnings to team members.
  3. Interpersonal issues: The facilitator gauges how the team is working together, and identifies issues such as misunderstandings, or a bad atmosphere/imbalance emerging in the group. Inform the workshop organiser sooner rather than later, as there may be scope to mix up the teams during a break.

3. People generally say what they really think in the last 40 minutes, so plan for this

Subtle / Tricky

The majority of the workshops I run are in Britain, where people often don’t feel comfortable saying how they really feel about a subject until it’s almost too late. (People who are not from Britain are often exasperated by this, particularly if they are from somewhere like the Netherlands or the U.S.)

As the sand in the timer starts to run out, participants become more candid and the atmosphere becomes more focussed – intense, even. I’ve been trying to engineer ways to get to this point earlier in the workshop, building it into the programme in different ways. One way is to minimise ‘talk and chalk”/”death by powerpoint’ time and get to the hands-on and social activities (the fun part) sooner. This informal aspect, if successful, encourages people to let down their guard and be less cagey with their views.

This segways nicely into my next rule…

4. Political issues are not discussed even though they are real and present

Subtle / Tricky

To be frank, I don’t know how to address this one!  All I know is that I need to work on this…so the rule is, if you have honed this skill please get in touch: @jennifercham

5. Get one big name as a draw

Subtle / Tricky / Just wish I’d thought of it sooner

Science celebrities may be less well known generally, but amongst specific communities they are the key to getting good attendance at science/tech workshops.  Compared to mainstream stars they are (obviously) cheaper and possibly easier to get hold of for an event, but you need to book them well ahead.  (Tech-superstars may however be more expensive!)

6. All your important invitees should NOT give presentations, however important they are

Subtle / Tricky

Just because you invite an important scientist/executive/opinion leader to a workshop, that doesn’t mean you have to give them a long presentation slot. An interactive, brainstorming-focused workshop isn’t the same animal as a networking event or conference; the value your high-profile guest will bring is in the ideas he or she shares within their team (see bonus rule *11* for more on how to sell this notion to the organisers). Your challenge is to emphasise the importance of participants sharing their views extensively in break-out sessions, discussion panels and, of course, the as-nice-as-possible-given-the-budget dinner.

7. Hire a capable intern (ideally with some domain knowledge) to help

Subtle / Tricky / Just wish I’d thought of it sooner

An intern is great when it comes to helping plan and deliver a workshop. They can also help pull together the post-workshop analysis, photos, review and report, and you may find that the extra pair of hands makes a world of difference.

8. Pin down the brainstorming topic if you are limited on time

Subtle / Tricky

I am always surprised at how vague scientists and techies can be. This can be a challenge for effective workshops because your attendees want to come away feeling that they’ve learned something specific. Your programme would ideally start with a high-level overview and drill down to specific topics over time, with activities to address each topic, but you might not actually have time for that. One way you can get folks to be specific is to (you guessed it) set more specific tasks! You may not explore the whole space you need to, but at least for the material you do cover, the outcomes will be detailed enough to feel worth the effort of capturing.

9. Do NOT start brainstorming before lunch – or on a Friday afternoon

Subtle / Tricky / I just have to say it again

This is actually a simple rule, and one that we kind of covered in our paper. But I find it hard to follow sometimes – especially in light of Rule 3 (the one that addresses the caginess of Brits). You may need to lobby, bribe or torture the organisers to get your way, but make sure you do!  Remember: your name and reputation is at stake, so if you want this to be the best workshop it can be, you may have to put your foot down.

10. Write down your ‘learnings’ straightaway

Subtle / Tricky / I can’t say it enough

I’m still not sure if ‘learnings’ is actually a word outside of Borat‘s vocabulary, but I love it so I’m going to use it. When it comes to learning stuff, mistakes are not the problem but not learning from them is!  I recommend writing down (privately) how you felt about the workshop and what you learned right after it ends. I mean it: do this immediately after the participants have left. I did this after a recent workshop and now I have this (edited) list to share with you – result!

Think of it like a video game: you are collecting coins or points along the way. So when you are older and wiser (and better paid) you will have this huge treasure trove of insights that you can apply to deliver the best workshops ever!  [In reality this analogy breaks down a bit, because you are actually learning new things that reflect cultural, environmental and technological changes over time, so by the end, some of the coins you collected years ago may have gone out of circulation, but hey – that’s analogies for you].

*Bonus Rule: 11: Trust your instincts and be assertive*

Subtle / Tricky

If you have run workshops successfully in the past, stick like glue to what you know works. As a consultant or workshop moderator, your options during the planning phase might be:

(A) Follow the path of least resistance: The workshop organiser or host suggests that ‘gamestorming’ is for primary-school children and that important people/executives/scientists wouldn’t want to play, and you promptly become deflated. You concede to the organiser’s idea of what a workshop should be (e.g. a whole day of Powerpoint presentations) because it’s easier, and they put forward a strong case for what they believe is more appropriate. If you choose this option, you will be able to say, “I told you so,” (with a measure of smugness) when the workshop fails to deliver and everyone goes home tired and bored.

(B) Stick to your guns and deliver a good workshop (tip: choose this one!): Hear your host out, then give all the reasons why you think your approach will work, giving examples of the activities and cases where they’ve been successful. Be assertive and embrace the ‘broken record’ assertiveness approach. You are much more likely to deliver a great workshop that makes the most of the participants’ time and gets ‘on-target’ workshop outcomes that meet the original objectives.

A word on constraints…

I know it’s not easy. There are political and practical constraints that might make it difficult to follow your own simple and not-so-simple rules, let alone mine. But keep on striving for the best practice, because it will get noticed – and appreciated – sooner or later.

Useful links

My tips on running workshops (at

Paper: 10 simple rules on running interactive workshops

My upcoming workshop at UX Scotland 2014

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