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.