30 Aug 2015

Workshop Participation

The Nightmare

The elevator doors are about to close, but you just manage to get a foot in, and barge your way into the already overcrowded metal box as you hear several not-so-subtle sighs coming from the people behind you. Panting and sweating, you look at your watch, it’s 8:55am. It’s OK, you’ve still got five minutes, the class can start on time, the client will be happy. Sure, you really need the toilet, but that’ll just have to wait. If only the traffic wasn’t so bad!

The elevator doors open, and like a sprinter to the sound of a gunshot, you rush out, taking a right turn as you leap towards the receptionist who then points you to the training room. You barge open the doors with your sweat stained shirt, fully prepared to apologise to the group of eager participants. But low and behold, there are only two people there typing away on their laptops and they barely notice you.

Over the next twenty minutes, trickles of trainees stream in in groups of three to five. You keep on starting and then restarting the icebreaker as yet more participants stream in. Finally you wait until most have arrived and start the icebreaker for one last time. But by this time, half of the room has done the icebreaker several times already and return to their seats out of boredom. The others give up too. Looking slightly embarrassed, you say “OK, good, lets stop there and I’ll introduce myself”.

As you start talking, laptops open, and phones magically appear in hands. You rush your introduction and get straight into the course. The trainees bide their time by playing with their phones and pretending to type emails on their laptops whilst actually browsing their favourite online stores. You finish your talking part and get straight into an activity. This should keep them busy for some time. Thank god, a chance for you to go to the toilet.

Ten minutes later, with your business all done, you return to the room only to find three quarters of the participants missing, and the rest sitting there on their computers again.

Suddenly your eyes open and you sit up taking a deep breath. You’re in your hotel bed, covered in a cold sweat. It’s OK, it was just a bad dream. It’s 6:30am, and you have two and a half hours to make sure none of that happens.

Create a Sense of Purpose

I’m not going to advise you to arrive early to the venue. In my experience of training in Beijing, it doesn’t matter how early you depart, there is still a high chance of being late. But what I will advise is that no matter what time you arrive, it’s important to create a sense of purpose from the very beginning.

In an ideal world, before the course has already begun, HR will have set certain expectations about the course, and you will have spoken to several of the trainees. The benefit of this is that it focuses their expectations in the right area, and gives them a chance drop out before the course has even begun if it appears it’s not relevant to them. Of course this doesn’t always happen so I’ll just move on.

Now that you’re in the training room, take some time to get set up. First get your equipment set up and make sure that whatever you need is there. Next, make sure the trainees are mostly there. There will be some late starters, so make sure at least 80% have arrived before starting anything. Chat with the trainees if that’s your style, get to know them, make friends with them. If that’s not your style, just let them know that you’ll be starting in roughly X minutes, giving them a chance to go out and take care of some other tasks in the meantime.

If necessary, set ground rules from the very beginning, and be strict with them. If trainees have laptops open as you start the class, that is a sign to clamp down. Distractions are like cancer, they spread, and if you don’t kill them early they gradually grow to an uncontrollable level. Tell them to close their laptops. If they need to work, they can do so during the breaks or outside of the class. Stand over each individual until they politely shut their laptops. You won’t need to do this all the time, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. You also don’t need to be an arse about it.

Now it’s time to create purpose. There are so many icebreakers that you can choose from, but the most effective for creating a sense of purpose is the type that extracts from the trainees their expectations. You can use questions such as the simple “What do you want to learn today?”, or more carefully crafted types of questions that subtly pull out trainees’ own case studies for you to refer back to throughout the day. This kind of information is gold for you as a trainer or facilitator, especially at the very beginning of the course. You know exactly what’s on their minds, and can start to identify the most and least relevant parts of your training, and begin the process of on-the-spot customisation.

A question that trainees may have is “Why am I here?”. The longer this questions stays in their mind, the less involved they will be, because they still have not realised the value for them. Exterminate this question at the earliest possible opportunity. This is why you should introduce the agenda at the very beginning of the day. Share the topics you will be covering, and for each topic refer to a relevant example that was drawn out in the icebreaker. This will show trainees the value, allowing their minds to transition from questions and concerns about the course to anticipation about the course.

Create a Safety Net

I once sat in on a facilitation session that started off great, but gradually turned into a shambles. The facilitator had prepared a series of questions to be used as the basis for discussion. After each set of questions, there would be a sharing, and then a further discussion based on the learning points shared from the previous discussions. And this would go on for about 3 hours. At least, that’s how he hoped it would have gone. What actually happened was they did not arrive at the learning points he was hoping they would, so when they moved on to the next set of discussion questions the participants had very little to work with. They started to make things up, and their discussions wandered off into the realms of casual chit-chat. Yet he still continued with his original plan. Eventually he got so far through the process without extracting what he was expecting, that the trainees could no longer even force learning points out. They started off by politely saying “sorry, we don’t understand what we’re supposed to do now”. Yet he still continued. Eventually, most participants walked out of the room, the session finished a lot earlier than expected, and the facilitator had an upset client and a damaged reputation.

Your activities will not always go to plan. And when you depend on one activity after another going exactly according to plan and building on top of each other, you increase the chances of failure. You need to step in at the earliest possible opportunity and change things around. Either retreat back to the first activity and see if you can get it working according to plan, or change the process altogether from there onwards.

Some trainers may argue the “be tough” approach, and say that it’s your job to force the process. My personal belief is that if they are distracted from the original plan, so long as their focus is still on points relevant to the learning objectives, then go with the flow. The more you align your activities with their focus area, the higher the levels of participation you will enjoy.

The more experienced you become as a trainer or facilitator, the easier you will find this. You will have a catalogue of activities and discussion points stored in your mind, ready to pull out and utilise whenever necessary. If you are less experienced though, you will need more of these activities. Take advantage of any experienced facilitators around you and ask their opinions of your process. Ask for their suggestions as to back-ups that you can do. Spend as much time as you possibly can preparing as many activities as you possibly can. This will improve your confidence, as well as helping you become more adaptable.

On a side note, this is also one of the main advantages of focussing on one specific area in your training career. Trainers who try to be a jack-of-all trades will not have as much subject-specific knowledge or as many relevant activities to apply to their workshops. If you are a real expert in your training subject, then you will have spent a significant amount of time learning lots about the subject, preparing multiple ways of explaining the various knowledge points, collecting an assortment of anecdotes and case studies, and designing a plentiful supply of relevant and engaging activities. Eventually, you will even get to the stage where you do not need a PPT or even a structure to your course. You will be able to completely wing it. But, you will still need to create a sense of purpose from the very beginning.

Open and Restrict the Process

For some trainees you will struggle to get them to speak up, whereas for others you will struggle to get them to shut up. Whatever type of trainee they are, you will be able to control them better if you modify the process to suit them.

Picture the scene; you reveal a discussion question on the PPT and ask the trainees to discuss in groups. One group goes completely quiet as several trainees stare down at the table looking like they’ve just been given the death sentence. A few others pick up their phones again and pretend they’re looking at their emails. One even shamelessly starts taking a selfie. In another group, two of the participants are talking amongst themselves, whilst the others observe silently not daring to speak. As for another group, they’ve completely finished their discussion, in ten seconds flat, “Yes” is their answer.

The above example is the outcome of a process thats too open, combined with a difficult group of trainees. If you have a great group of trainees, sometimes you don’t even need to give them a discussion question, they’ll happily discuss something of relevance amongst themselves, and allow everyone to participate equally. Alas, unfortunately we do not always live in a dream world. And when you are faced with the above scenario, you need to restrict your process.

A restricted process will break down the activity into relevant steps. These are great for discussions with difficult groups. Here is an example:

  1. Write down answers individually
  2. Share answers with the person next to you
  3. Share answers with the rest of the group
  4. Appoint a scribe to write down the key points from your discussion
  5. Appoint a spokesperson to share the main points of discussion with the rest of the class
  6. Allow each group to share their key points one by one

Of course, you could restrict that process even more if you wanted. You could go through the whole process for one question, then repeat the process again for the next question. Or you could get one pair to focus on another question, and another pair to focus on another question. The more you restrict it, the less room for error and chaos there is. And this is a fantastic option for groups that are not participating as much as you would like them to. But if they are already a highly participative group, then open it up as much as is necessary to release
relevant learning points in an engaging way.

Another way of restricting the process is to use props. Throw a ball at relevant trainees to indicate it’s their time to talk. Give a box of matchsticks to each group and distribute an even number of matchsticks to each participant in the group. Every time they want to talk they have to take one of their matchsticks from the ‘not-yet-spoken’ pile and then move it to the ‘already-spoken’ pile. When they’re out of matchsticks, they shut up.

Use More Limbs

I once ran a brief experience sharing session with over 90 hotel managers to help me collect case studies for a course that I was designing for them. I had prepared a series of discussions that would draw out the case studies I needed, but by the time the third discussion came around, it was obvious that they’d had enough of discussing. So I applied a simple yet highly effective principle; use more limbs.

This particular discussion was to see if they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements. So instead of getting them to stay in their seats, on their round tables with ten to a group, I got them all to stand up and revealed the statements one by one. If they agreed, they were to move to the left side of the room, and the right side of the room if they disagreed. Suddenly they became much more involved, and shared some fascinating insights. They even started to interrupt each other and talk for much longer than I was hoping they would do. And everything they discussed was relevant to the learning objective.

It is such a simple principle to apply, yet it has a huge impact on levels of engagement. Instead of writing their answers in their books, get them to stand up and write their answers on flip-charts. Instead of getting them to answer all questions on that one flip chart, write down different questions on different flip charts located in various parts of the room. Instead of getting them to share examples of the challenges they have whilst sitting down in their chairs, get them to write the challenges on post-it notes and then match them to different categories of challenges again located in different parts of the room.


Learning only happens when we do. The more participatory your workshops are, the more participants will learn. So always make sure you get off to a good start, have plenty of backup options, and know exactly how to adapt to match the circumstances.

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