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How to run very big workshops

by Pamela Hamilton

Some of the most exciting workshops I’ve designed have been the big ones.  Whether a creative inspiration event for a large client group, a strategic workshop to align teams of global business partners from around the world or inviting 8 different types of consumers to co-create for a day, they can be fantastically energetic, creative and productive.

Here are some dos and don’ts for you to refer to if you are designing a workshop for more than 50 people:

Do:

  • Consider the atmosphere – prepare the room in advance to feel welcoming, friendly and informal, using music, decorations, magazines and food, with a welcoming team who reassure and direct people to where they need to go.  This is especially important in a more corporate setting – you want people to feel it’s going to be an enjoyable day, not a boring business event.
  • Keep up the energy and momentum – make sure break out working sessions happen at regular intervals through the day, are structured and task based (rather than just discussion based), and have time limits to prevent people from becoming bored (break out exercises should be no more than 45 minutes long).
  • Maximise space – the venue should be spacious enough to allow for groups of people to sit in distinct areas in one big space, far enough away from each other to allow discussion and working sessions to feel comfortable and not too noisy.
  • Give people time to talk – especially at the beginning, getting to know the other people on your table is an important set up for the rest of the day’s work.
  • Mix them up – change where people sit and who they sit with through the day – this keeps people lively and interested and keeps the discussion fresh.
  • Keep tidying – lots of people means lots of cups, glasses, paper, and stuff everywhere.  Have a team who tidy at hourly intervals, or the clutter will take over on the tables and leave teams with little space to work.
  • Give good food – no plates of dry biscuits or piles of sandwiches!  Keep people energetic and creative with fresh fruit, fresh foods and healthy options to keep their brains in good shape – they will feel (and work) better for it.

Don’t:

  • Have different break out rooms that people need to go off to and come back from – this wastes time and dissipates the energy in the room.  Far better to have one big room where you can keep an eye on everyone and use the time they have for discussion and creation, rather than losing them to wandering around corridors to get lost, check their phones or get distracted by other conversations on the way there and back.  Plus one big room creates a buzz of excitement!
  • Allow phones and laptops.  Explain in advance that laptops should be put away and not left on tables or kept open.  Ask people to check their phones in breaks or leave the room to take or make calls.  Being present is the main purpose of a workshop, technology creates distraction, and people can use it as a reason or excuse not to participate fully.
  • Underestimate the importance of sound – carpeting or wood flooring is best, play music in break out sessions to create a mood, and have a sound technician all day for sound levels of films, presentations and microphones for speakers.
  • Forget to check how much space there is between tables – if people can’t get past each other or the seating is too cramped it soon feels very overwhelming for participants.
  • Allow people to keep their coats and briefcases with them.  When you are moving people around all day, coats on the backs of chairs and large briefcases start to litter the room in the wrong places.  Have a manned cloakroom or specific area for people to leave all their stuff, so you can move people through the day without having to move their coats and bags too.
  • Have lots of glasses, water, sweets or unnecessary decorations on the tables.  Put a water station at the back where people can help themselves.  Keep the tables decoration free apart from the stimulus and stationery you want people to use.