How do I ensure participation when I design a workshop?

How do I ensure participation when I design a workshop?

Claire Pillay  took a deep breath.

My head is spinning. I have to begin before I begin and I have to begin twice because people have to first come into the room and second  into the learning material. With all this beginning, when does the workshop actually start? Won’t I lose the people along the way?

I can see why you get confused, but it is simpler than you think. Tell me how do you usually begin a training programme or conference?

Aside from the room set up and materials etc? Because you said that is part of it.

Yes, those are part of beginning before you begin, we will covered that, but you can go ahead and tell me what you do once the people are in the room.

Well, the convener will welcome them, do a few logistics including an overview of the programme,  and then introduce the speaker. We give a short bio and then the speaker takes over. If I run the workshop myself, I will introduce myself and tell them what to expect from the session before launching into the topic.

That introduction you just described, together with the room set-up and the materials and the ‘begin before you begin’ BBYB exercise that we introduced , forms the first three steps of the Story-Strategy that gets people from their life outside the learning (kids, partners, traffic etc) into the learning space:

1. Sketching a picture of the current reality (Once upon a time there was someone, somewhere in a certain fix).

The most obvious way this is introduced is by giving people name tags that tell each other who they are and often also their companies and job titles. These name tags say: We acknowledge your current reality outside of this learning space. Usually there is tea served before the time so that people can ask each other: who are you and what do you do? Where do you come from and why did you come to this conference or workshop?  Speakers and facilitators usually also make it their business to find out as much as they can about their prospective audience even before the learning event.

Then the  BBYB exercise take this further and say: we acknowledge that you have current opinions about the learning we are presenting.. Your introduction of the speaker then establishes the speaker’s current reality: name and position and back story i.e. what brought them here.

2. Issuing a Call to Adventure that opens up new possibilities   (then one day something unusual happens).

The conference pack or learning material, the room set up and pictures on the walls all have their purpose in the second step of the Story-strategy. They set the scene for something new and unusual, novel and interesting. It captures the brain’s attention and focuses energy. Introducing the speaker and their topic takes this even further opening new possibilities around the subject. Going through the logistics and the agenda for the day helps participants to feel safer  building certainty. This is especially important if you did a BBYB exercise which could have made them a little uneasy because it was unexpected.

If you do use participation or dialogue, it is very important to also let people introduce themselves to each other, this brings in a sense of relatedness and helps people relax into the learning space and each others’ company. You can even combine this with the next step.

3. Making room for debate and doubts (But there are obstacles and questions)

If you really put out an attractive invitation, people will have mixed feelings of both excitement and anxiety. They may even wonder if what you are saying isn’t too good to be true. At this point you may want to ask participants to comment on their experience of the BBYB exercise, the room set-up, the conference pack or the agenda you are proposing.  In this way you acknowledge their mixed feelings.

This step is especially important if you are using participative methods like Applied Improvisation, creative drawing, World Cafe or Community Conversations. We will elaborate on this further in the next post.

Claire smiled  wryly:

We seldom do things risky, so we just ask people if they have any questions about the programme or whatever. Does that count?

Sure that counts, but people who are trapped in mixed emotions will seldom speak up. You need to address the emotions directly, else it blocks further engagement.  However, if you take them through this cycle, you greatly increase the potential for participation and shift.





Why the brain likes it when you begin before you begin?

5.2 Why the brain likes it when you begin before you begin?

Story-Strategy Act 2, Episode 5 continues – The Journey: Current Reality 2

Whether you use high levels of participation as in the example of Ross Kidd and the posters, or implied participation through the use of story as in the Blue Beard example, it is how the strategy captivates the human brain that lends to it the power of transformation.

According to the AGES model Attention is one of the key components of learning that sticks and it is the job of the conference designer, workshop facilitator or speaker to make sure it is captured and held. Both story and participation captures attention because it involves emotion. When emotion is connected to an event, the brain builds a stronger memory of it. Additionally, the emotion activates the Amygdala which signals to the Hippocampus  that the event is salient and must therefore be more deeply encoded.

Both the involvement of emotion and the activation of the visual cortex through pictures helps the brain to Generate more associations with the ideas presented. Stories generate pictures in the mind of the listener, and the use of posters also stimulate this part of the brain. If you then also introduce a social aspect where people share their impressions of the story or the participative exercise, you create even more opportunity for generating multiple perspectives and associations.

Both Generation and Emotion are also aspects of the AGES model to help us understand how the brain takes in information so that the learning sticks. Between simply telling a story or allowing people to work with and talk to each other about the ideas through participation, the latter strategy is obviously more powerful for helping the brain to remember, but it is not always the most practical.

If you need more motivation to increase participation levels when you speak, train or conference, take a look at the SCARF model of David Rock. By letting people form an opinion about the story in the room and giving them a voice even before the facilitator or speaker has begun, you heighten the Status of the participants significantly. Suddenly they are not inferior to the facilitator, but co-creators of meaning.  Allowing them to choose which pictures to comment on and what words to write down increases Autonomy too. Talking with each other directly, or indirectly by the way in which people notice each other’s comments on the news print also builds Relatedness. Finally putting everyone through the same process and making them co-creators of meaning increases the feeling of equality and Fairness.

The only element of the SCARF model that is not directly involved is the sense of Certainty. It is usually also this aspect that makes people dislike participatory methods. The sense of fear and uncertainty caused when walking into a room where things are not as you expect the, to be can cause a fight or flight response. But with careful structuring it is possible to change this emotion to one of excitement and novelty which draws Attention and uses positive Emotion.

Click here for examples of how you can begin before you begin.


How does Story-Strategy work?

Story-Strategy, Act 1, Episode 3 : Debate

As I finished explaining the Shift model to Clair Pillay from FUNDA Training and Conferencing, she wrinkled her nose and said: :

Okay, so old fashioned lecturing is something of the past and it is necessary to attend to the learning design of presentations and conference, not just content design,  and to invite creative participation from delegates and trainees. What I don’t get, is how does Story-Strategy do this. I know that stories can be very powerful to communicate a message, but I am hearing something else when you talk about story as strategy.

Story-Strategy does not exclude the use of stories to communicate messages, but is not limited to it. Any single well crafted story follows a particular structure and logic: the same structure and logic followed by almost every other well crafted story. It is this structure and logic that makes it such a powerful communication tool.  It is designed to help listeners cross boundaries and integrate opposites. The Beginning of a story always sets up a current reality for people to identify with, the middle of the story takes them into a new and often opposing view of that reality, usually temporary,  and the ending of the story shows an integration, more stable new normal. Think of Cinderella starting in poverty, being introduced to temporary riches at the ball and then ending as queen with a new more stable normal.

The trick is how to get the main character from the current reality across the threshold to the ball and then across the second threshold to permanent queen. So, h do we get FUNDA Conferences from being mostly filled with lectures to being revamped as powerful learning experiences that wow and impact their audiences? We can give your delegates a taste in the form of a keynote at the start or somewhere in the centre of the conference as temporary experience of what is possible, but to make a real difference, the conference itself must be designed as story, taking delegates from where they are into a new way of seeing and equipping them to apply that new perspective in their workplace. Shall I give you the logic and structure of story so you can see what I mean, or do you want to raise other reservations?

You can give me detail in a minute, but there is something else that worries me. You talk about creative participation from the audience, but many of the people who come expect to be served with great information, delivered by experts. They don’t want to play games. They want input, they don’t come to give it. How do you help people be open for interaction and not feel self conscious?  This self-conscious thing is a big one because many of our delegates come from the financial and government sectors. They are reserved people comfortable with numbers and routine. Some are tired of all the changes that are constantly happening, especially those in the government sector.

Yes, it makes sense to take special care with your particular audience and their characteristics. The point of Story-Strategy is to meet people where they are and take them gradually to a new place. That new place includes one where they are open and comfortable with participation. As I said earlier: the power of story and therefore of Story-Strategy is in how it draws participants in and help them cross the thresholds.  To cross the first threshold, you need to lead people through their doubts and reservations, making sure you allow them to be expressed, acknowledge and then address them.

Much like you are doing with me now?

She smiled and I smiled back.

Does it really work, though? How do you make sure that what they learn goes home with them and has a lasting impact?

You are talking about the second threshold now, and you are spot on. This is definitely the biggest challenge for just about any training or conference or OD intervention of other kinds. There is no simple answer. Even the best story tellers in the world will tell you that ending a story is the hardest part of its design. It is easier to make the story go on and on like a soap opera. Like a story too, to end a learning process is an art form, but Story-Strategy gives you good guidelines. I suggest you hold this question in the back of your mind and bring it up again when you think it is important.

 Ok, I will keep challenging you on this.

I look forward to it, I say and smile. Anything else before I launch into the detail?

You mentioned neuro-science earlier. I am curious to know how Story-Strategy works with the brain.

Great question, I will make sure to highlight the neuro-scientific aspects of the model as we go through it.