We just got home from a sushi making class. A poorly planned sushi making class. An expensive, poorly planned sushi making class. The kind of expensive, poorly planned sushi making class that compels you to write a blog post about getting your shit together if you’re running any kind of event where people are expected to participate in any capacity.
Granted, anything involving cooking food has a high difficulty level. Lots of cleanup and prep, varying experience and comfort levels, and a room full of strangers. But that’s why what I’m about to say is really important. Listen up. [This post got long, so I’m inserting animal gifs to break it up a bit. Enjoy!]
Any workshop is going to involve some back and forth between a presenter/facilitator talking and activities. Ideally, you want to use the talking part to set the stage for the activities and then let the actual learning take place while the participants are doing something. You always, always, always want people to construct their own knowledge. Say it again: CONSTRUCT THEIR OWN KNOWLEDGE. That’s really the entire point of the workshop format, right?
Facilitators need to understand that in a workshop setting (i.e. a situation where I have not paid to see you perform), people are not there to listen to you. They’re there to try it. They’re there because you’re providing the equipment and the environment and the guidance.
How the construction of knowledge happens should be determined by the goal of the workshop:
Is the point to develop and practice skills? Then a demo followed by ample opportunities to practice would make sense.
If the point is to develop understanding or generate ideas, then you want to use modeling sparingly. One way to approach this is to provide tools and facilitation and then back off.
But wait…there’s more! Let’s say we’re running a “skills” workshop. If the goal is for everyone to practice the same set of skills, every single person needs to get their grubby little hands on the same set of materials so that they can all practice the complete set of skills. You can’t have Chris chop the onion while Sally prepares the sauce.
Everyone needs to do their own individual little thing. People prefer to get their own kit of parts, especially when it’s a group of relative strangers. Eliminating any awkward social negotiation over who gets what tool or material will save time and get people focused on the skill itself. If people are there to learn a skill, the workshop should not depend on group dynamics or sharing.
Can it be a logistical nightmare to get enough space, time and materials for each person to work simultaneously? Yeah, that is that hard part and, presumably, why the participants paid you for the workshop. This is where you figure out that you need twice as many cutting boards because there’s not time to wash them all during the class. Spend that time. Because cutting boards are kinda important at a sushi class.
Upping the difficulty level: prep your materials so that you eliminate any steps that are not essential to practicing the skill. It’s like editing a piece of writing: strike anything that doesn’t help you make The Point.
Now, let’s return to the “ideas” or “understanding” type of workshop. Here’s where group dynamics might be a lot more important. If it’s a group activity by design, not necessity, try to provide as much structure and direction as possible in terms of the administrative work of the group. Assign people to groups, do not let them sort themselves. If there are roles to play, like note-taking or time-keeping, consider designating individuals at the beginning.
The truth is, we humans like being given clear tasks and then fulfilling them. The operative word is “clear.” If you’re leading a cooking class, don’t say “Okay, we need a volunteer to make the filling” with no further instruction or details. Some people will volunteer for everything, but most people will not jump at the opportunity to do something mysterious. Be specific, be clear, and assign tasks when possible.
Secondly, in an “ideas” workshop, since you don’t want the group merely copying your example, it’s important to provide the right tools to scaffold learning, creativity, and inspiration. In this kind of session, people need constraints, and it’s up to the facilitator to provide the guardrails. Figuring out how to frame an activity is a different kind of work than physically prepping materials, but it’s just as necessary.
Finally, have Plan A totally mapped out and have a Plan B in mind and ready to go. Anticipate some potential problems that may come up. This is where those of us catastrophizers have an advantage. Don’t go far enough with this thinking to drive yourself crazy, but be ready to be nimble.
Why is this important? People know when the leader doesn’t have their shit together. In a workshop situation, people already feel vulnerable because they’re not sure what they’ll be expected to do (trust falls? being called on at random?). When a workshop is disorganized, the leader is actually passing the burden of logistics onto the participants.
And hey, if you’re doing something free and informal, that’s fine. But if you’re ever, EVER, charging money for a workshop, do not wing it. Have enough materials. Have a plan for every step of the process. Have backup plans. Be professional. Do the 90% beforehand so you don’t have to sweat the 10%.
** I don’t usually position myself as an expert because it seems like something a marketing blogger does. But I really do have years of experience with workshops and event production and a there’s a strong, Type A streak in me that gets incredibly frustrated when something is shoddily organized. Also, this is part of XD, or at least the kind of XD we do. A poorly planned class is bad experience design, full-stop.