Dame Nancy Rothwell is a leading neuroscientist, and the first woman to lead the Russell Group of elite universities in the UK. In her first interview she recommended that teenagers should take a mixture of art and science to broaden their horizons, rather than missing out because they are forced to specialise in either arts or sciences too early.
As the author of The Workshop Book, I agree. I’ve spent years basing workshop approaches on psychology, collective intelligence and neuroscience. Which is good, right? More than ever, people want evidence that their time is not being wasted, and proof that our approaches are correct. The problem is, especially in a remote working world, we risk being all work and no play.
I’m not suggesting we should stop doing workshops and start doing “playshops”. I know I’m not the only one who remembers the toys, crayons and embarrassing energisers we were forced to do in creative workshops in the early 2000s… (I am still scarred). I am saying that how we work together, learn together and create ideas together can’t only be about getting down to business, whether you are doing creative workshops or training workshops. Even if we are basing our approaches in science, there’s an art to how workshops are delivered, and that art is more important now than ever before.
Online workshops are a journey, not a single event in time
Every online event is a journey, which starts well before the live event, and the impact should last long afterwards. So think about it like a marketing campaign, with the people who are coming to your workshop as your customers. In any good campaign, you should already know who your audience is, the channels you will meet them on and the messages you want to get across. But we all know it’s not enough to just tell people the date and time and expect them to buy a ticket!
From the very start we need to get people interested, intrigue them, make them want to be there, and help them commit to our event above any other choices they have that day. If the science is knowing who we are inviting and what we need to say to them, the art is in getting them there in the best frame of mind, totally ready to participate. Now that we are all facilitating online experiences, we need to bring both the art and the science into our online workshops when we are planning, facilitating and creating an impact after.
Plan to surprise and entertain people
A great workshop is 80% planning. Science tells us we are creatures of habit. I think you’ll agree that the reason why we have a training workshop or a creative workshop is to make people think differently, create something new, or do something different. So if we want them to learn something new, or come up with better decisions, we need to disturb their habits.
The problem is, we’ve all spent the last 6 months or longer working remotely and developing habits of behaviour that we all bring to our online workshops. Which is why if we think back to our customer journey — it’s so important to surprise and entertain people, even from the first point of contact about the session, to show them this is not the same old meeting, this is something new and different.
Think about how to make even your invitation feel special and unmissable. Set expectations not only for what’s in it for them if they attend, but also how enjoyable it will be so that people look forward to it. People are under so much pressure right now, we all need things to look forward to at work! The art of planning for an online workshop is in engaging people beforehand, so people don’t turn up expecting yet another boring meeting.
Top tips for the planning stage:
· Please don’t just move an 8 hour face to face workshop online without changing anything! Online events are intense, and they need to be shorter, we suggest no more than 2 hours or 3 with a break. If you need more time, split it across different sessions in a week
· One of the main benefits of an online workshop is that you can send information, inspiration and prep work in advance for people to do — and I’m not talking about a 100 page pre-read. Send a friendly film of yourself explaining the event and what to expect, or film a debrief or a podcast for people to listen to, or ask them to do something interesting to prepare for the session. This means people come already inspired and positive, and crucially, you’re not spending live valuable time doing a download.
Facilitate the energy and the participation
Facilitation is crucial to any workshop, more so online. Science tells us that online video meetings increase our cognitive load because it takes up a lot of our conscious capacity, more so than being in person. This is because we need to work much harder to process because we are missing so many non-verbal cues, especially body language. Also because we are focussed only on each other’s faces, we are heightening our emotions, because it’s like standing close to each other and staring into each other’s faces intensely! And let’s “face” it, looking at ourselves on screen only adds to the stress!
Add to this that don’t have any downtime to chat or get coffee, sometimes going from meeting to meeting for days at a time without breaks. So it’s no wonder online workshops can be intense and stressful. The art of the facilitation is to think about how to make it more friendly and comfortable for people. Here’s a short film to show how much energy and participation we create in our workshops.
Top tips for the facilitation stage:
· Facilitating online is all about helping people to really participate. The art is in managing different energy levels through the session, helping the group move between being reflective and learning, to and then being active and participating.
· The facilitator needs lead by example, by being fully engaged and positive, and making sure that people see each other, interact with each other and contribute. This might mean intervening if someone is dominating the discussion, or someone else hasn’t said anything for a while.
· Think about using games, quizzes, competitions and fun tasks to make people smile and enjoy themselves — not to waste time but to make it feel better being there.
· We believe that online workshops should never have long downloads, debriefs or cascades of information. You don’t need people to be live to listen to something — pre-record it and send it in advance, that way when you meet live, that valuable time is for questions, interactions, debates or ideas. If there is a presentation to listen to that needs to be delivered live, make it short, and ask people to do a listening task — adding ideas to the chat or an online white board as they listen.