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20 tips on facilitating brand workshops

I’ve found that my workshops are at the heart of my success as a brand consultant.

How do you engage, thrill and inspire people to implement meaningful change? To get people synced up, aligned and all pulling in the same direction you can do no worse than reaching into the toolbox and grabbing the age-old ‘Workshop’ method.

Workshops give a space for voices to be heard. Ideas to be formed and shared. Concepts to be positively challenged. They allow people to be heard. They allow people to speak. Allow people to be educated. Allow people to build and contribute. Allow people to define a common language. Allow inspiration and passion to be experienced. A good workshop should synthesize thinking and motivate future action.

Brand theory is great. But the real action happens when ideas are released and grappled with. This happens in my workshops. Around not only the content of those workshops but, more importantly, the experience leaders have in a workshop. I've found this can make or break a strategy. And like it or not it's not always a rational thing. Leaders are people (surprisingly enough!). So they are emotional. How you make them feel makes a huge difference to what they do after the workshop. Do they get on the bus and begin to build on the things agreed in the workshop or do they go away resentful and skeptical - finding ways to work against what has been discussed.

Therefore, a strategist downplays the EXPERIENCE created around their strategy to their peril.

I’ve been running workshops for over 15 years and most weeks I’m facilitating at least two, usually with leadership teams located all over the world. As a facilitator, I have designed and implemented hundreds of workshops and I believe creating a good workshop experience is crucial to aligning and energizing teams.

Me (Matt Davies), in action!

Recently I was asked by a Mastermind Group that I lead for tips I could give them on running workshops.

Here’s a starting 20 ideas which I shared and which I also hope you might find helpful:

1. Preparation

Showing up and conducting a workshop can look easy. But often hours of time has been put into preparing. At the very least a workshop needs to have an agenda circulated to all participants so they can see what to expect. This should be prepared with the workshops ‘sponsor’ (e.g. the CEO) and approved by them so you know you have an advocate for what is going to happen. Exercises should be designed and carefully considered so the pace and energy of the session is comfortable. Breaks should be included so people know if they will have a chance to check their emails.

If opportunity allows I always like to call each participant before the workshop - this allows for me to get a personal connection with each delegate, get input on the agenda and build rapport. It also allows me to get a sense of any potential issues which may crop up. In these pre-workshop interviews, there is also an opportunity to seed ideas. Usually, I will explain some core brand strategy principles and get a feel for their views.

2. Set-Prework

Setting some pre-work for participants to do which will be used within the workshop is a great way to get participants to begin to get their minds in gear before the event. It also allows them to feel they don’t have to come up with everything in the moment. For example, I usually get participants to craft a statement based on a pre-set template. However, you could also do things like ask participants to prepare one prominent example or share a story about a particularly relevant issue.

3. Set the context, purpose and objectives

As a facilitator, you have to appear to be in control. This is easier said than done when working with leadership teams. One way to do this is to be confident from the start. Call the workshop to order and clearly articulate the context of the workshop (how it's come to be necessary), what the purpose is (why are we bothering to do this) and what the objective is (what are we going to go away with). These north stars are important to set expectations and direction. The clearer you can be here the better. Other issues might come up in the workshop and so having clarity upfront allows you, as a facilitator to say something like “I hear you - but we are here today to talk about X. Perhaps we could have another session about Y in the future?”.

4. Introduce everyone

When working with teams that are spread out across geographies I find its helpful to not assume they all know one another. Ensure there is some time for everyone to introduce themselves. Who are they, what do they do and what do they want to get out of the session is a good place to start. If you want to make it more interesting ask them to tell the group what their superpower is (!).

5. Lead with empathy

It's really important you ensure you are inclusive and understanding. I have found empathy is key. If you get the sense people would rather be elsewhere explain you are grateful for them carving out the time. If you get a sense they are all excited to be there explain how thrilled you are to be a part of where the business is going and the energy they are all putting into the workshop. Address some key fears you might be aware of. Highlight the outcomes and why it will be good for each participant and for the growth of the brand. Be empathetic to sensitivities.

6. Be clear on communication

For each of the workshop tasks, it's important to set out how you, as the facilitator, expect people to communicate during the exercise and throughout - for example, what should someone do if they have a question? Raise their hand or just say something? If they are going into breakout groups, how do you, as the facilitator want each group to present back to the group? Do they need to select a spokesperson or a scribe? Making this clear can limit frustrations and ensure you get what you need from each exercise.

7. Embrace the moment

Although preparation is important I find the hardest thing some facilitators grapple with is being “in the moment”. By this, I mean throwing away a script. Having the confidence to speak to people in the moment. Connect with them. Command the floor. One way of doing this is to ensure that as you run through your patter you bring in things like reference past conversations you’ve had, compliment someone on what they are wearing / something on their Zoom background, have something about yourself you can reference every now and again (I always like to pick on my beard - “as a bearded person I often find…), reference people’s past points and build on them (“to Larry’s point, we should…”). I also find that if something is going wrong (tech for example) that you should address it. Be self detrimental and blame your bad luck with projectors for example. The point here is to be in the room. Connected to the moment. Never be afraid of that because without it the experience will be stale. Steril. Boring. Mono-tone.

8. Put on a show

We can sometimes forget that the experience is as important as the outcome of a workshop. This is a show. A show that people will interact with, contribute to and help create together. It is not simply a group of robots computing a solution to a problem. Therefore as a facilitator, you need to think in these terms. I’ve found a bit of humor works well (e.g. some sarcasm, self-deprecation, or even, in the right circumstances teasing another participant). Obviously, you need to be careful not to ‘over-egg’ this - you should never detract from the focus of the workshop too much and I often find a good rule of thumb is that once you’ve got a chuckle to bring it back to the objective or exercise in hand. Also if you ever tease anyone be sure to do this after you feel you know them a bit and have got a sense they will be comfortable with whatever you are teasing them about.

9. Know (and address) your weaknesses

I know I am terrible at spelling. This can be awkward in a workshop scenario. So - I address this upfront. I might say something like: "Ok so give me your best ideas and I'll whiteboard them - but note, I'm mildly dyslexic so if I spell something wrong please just nod and smile - we'll get through this together".

What are your weaknesses? How can you address them and put your audience at ease?

10. Explain why (Educate)

If you do not explain why you can lose your audience very quickly. Especially with decision-makers. Senior people are busy. If they fail to see the relevance they will drop off the Zoom call or find some excuse to leave the room. And rightly so. The "Why" is therefore so important - both at a macro and minor level. We’ve already mentioned the setting out of the purpose at the start of a workshop but the same goes for every task within the workshop. Lines like: "To help us better understand X we are first going to explore Y together in this exercise” are essential for keeping up engagement. Use the workshop to help educate people. I find this is really important when it comes to brand strategy - at every stage, I like to show examples and give some theory from a book I've read or present a famous quote. This helps them to feel they are growing in their understanding of branding and then they get to try the idea out together in an exercise that follows. This is super powerful for creating a positive experience.

11. Challenge / Ask the stupid questions

I often facilitate as an external consultant. This gives me the ability to sometimes ask the question others would like to have asked but felt they should know the answer so haven’t. Being external means you can ask the “stupid” questions and sometimes this can add huge value in a workshop. I always like to ask why it is something is the way it is or if there is another way we could do something. I always caveat a question like this with “Maybe it’s because I’m external and this is your world but could you explain for my benefit…”.

12. Be inclusive

Group dynamics are crucial for a facilitator to navigate. Power plays. Big mouths. Authority. Sensitivity. Personalities. All of these wonderful human things get put into the washing machine of a workshop. But the reason workshops work is because they weave together lots of ideas into a cohesive narrative and output, swiftly. For this to happen everyone must be heard. I make it a rule (and state this usually at the outset) that there is nowhere to hide in one of my workshops. Everyone will need to contribute. I am constantly scanning participants to find the quiet ones and I will come to them directly if I feel they need to be heard and invite them in.

13. Divide and conquer

One way to ensure that views and opinions are brought to the table is to set an exercise and then divide the workshop participants into breakout groups. When the breakout groups come back together you then give the floor to a spokesperson from each group to explain their outputs. As a facilitator, you can then ask that person further leading questions to uncover their thinking. One way I like to ensure that more introverted people are heard is to put them all in one break-out group. This way one of them is forced to contribute their ideas. Putting all the verbose people together also means they have to merge their thinking into something more concise than if all of them spoke one at a time.

14. Defuse de-railing challenges

Challenged can sometimes be good. In fact, as a facilitator, I think it's important you challenge any statements that are made without qualification. But within a workshop sometimes you find what I call a "derailing" challenge. This might be a challenge that undermines the objective of the workshop or initiative. It might call into question the right for another participant to have a view on a particular issue. It could be a number of things. But it will have the potential to ruin the experience of the workshop. If I hear such a challenge I will patiently thank the speaker for their view but suggest it's taken offline as the task in hand is to reach an agreement on the specific exercise using the current information available. Pragmatism is a key thing to emphasize. For example "Yes you are right we do not have data on that market yet - let's take that as a workstream to initiate outside of this workshop. In order to move forward for now in a pragmatic way, what do we think, based on our own experiences, will be the key issues to bear in mind...?"

15. Prioritise outcomes

When generating ideas or documenting a group's thoughts I love to use Post-its (or their digital equivalent if running a virtual workshop). The added benefit of this is that you can also ask the group to vote on the results which they feel are most relevant. This allows you (and them) to see, as a group where their focus might need to be. When playing back outcomes you can then present the top 3 outcomes from each exercise which can help to ensure playback reports are not too overwhelming.

16. Give a voice to leadership

Always be aware of the key decision-makers that are in the room. My advice is to get feedback from them throughout. Often I am brought in by a CEO to help leadership teams. I would always recommend that facilitators check in with such sponsors regularly throughout a workshop. This can be done in breaks or even in front of everyone - "Are you happy with that Jane or would you like us to explore this further?", "Is this working for you Bob?". When people see their leader say they are happy they tend to also fall in line so this is a helpful way to continue the momentum.

17. Layer thinking

When designing a workshop, or series of workshops, I always like to "layer" thinking. By this, I mean that some of the decisions or outputs of initial exercises are then used to build on and contribute as inputs to later exercises. This way, as you go through a number of exercises as a group, the group feels that they are making progress and they can see how the work they have done at first is helping to shape later exercises. This is powerful and helps to build and shape decisions in a way that is hard to later pull appart - for example, "we have ended up at Z because of what we did with Y. We got to Y after deciding on X".

18. unleash the deadline monster

Forcing people to make decisions in short bursts of time can sometimes be very good. They don't have time to overthink their reactions. They are forced to get things done and output something of value without too much second-guessing. When the deadline monster starts running around and a small breakout team know they will be shortly asked to give their collective view it's amazing how alignment can be found. So set deadlines and give time limits. As a facilitator explain that outputs from exercises don;t need to be perfect and that there will be an opportunity for the group to sense check their outputs together.

19. Mix things up

Ensuring that workshops are not predictable is a great way to keep peoples attention. I try and run different collaborative exercises. Some in groups and some as a collective. I also try and mix up breakout teams often. This keeps people of their toes and allows them to get to know each other's points of view more. Put time into designing variation in your workshops and you'll find you'll keep people's attention more easily.

20. FInish on a high

So important that towards the end that you, as the facilitator, tie up all the things the group has outputted. Make sure you prepare a summary. Be positive about the output. I often say something like "Wow, you have all contributed so much. We have got so much out of this that we'd have never got if we had tried to do this by email!". This kind of line reinforces the value of the workshop and the time spent. It's also important at the end to communicate next steps. Often, for me, this means preparing a playback report along with some recommendations. Be sure to set expectations and when the group might hear any follow-up on the time they spent. Make sure though you finish on a high - remember the experience is everything. Be sure they leave feeling they have contributed to something important and thank them heartily. As a facilitator, you could not do your job without them.

So - there are 20 tips. I'm sure I'll have more but these are the ones that came to mind when asked! If you have anything to add I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks and all the best with your next workshop facilitation.


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