Workshop Creator - Lesson #5: Facilitation Essentials

Workshop Creator - Lesson #5: Facilitation Essentials

The first four lessons in this series have focused on design: from defining who your workshop is for, to creating clear learning outcomes, building a structure for your session, and bringing in cornerstone content.

Now you have the key elements of your design in place, it’s time to move into delivery – the facilitation of your session.

Just as there are several flavors of workshop design, there are various types of facilitation and several definitions of what a facilitator is.

Here’s one definition by Terrence Metz which aligns well with our thinking:

“[A facilitator is] a meeting or workshop leader who creates an environment where every participant has the opportunity to collaborate, innovate, and excel.”

Terence Metz

But how do you go about creating this environment?

In this lesson we’ll dive into what makes for a good facilitator, and how you can set yourself up for success before your session.

Let’s get going.

What’s in a name?

A ‘facilitator’ can be a bit of a nebulous term. For some people, it probably feels kinda cringe-worthy.

Sure, there’s that definition mentioned above, but isn’t what we’re doing here just teaching a class, or hosting an event?

Yes and no.

As with many types of terminology, this is all open to interpretation, but my personal take is that facilitation is not the same as instructing, teaching, or hosting. It has elements of all of those, but per the Metz definition, there’s a larger focus on creating an environment to give people opportunities.

It’s also worth noting the nature of a facilitator’s work may change depending on the topic, learning outcomes, and audience.

Some workshops have more content and thus more teaching-style work to explain concepts; while others contain more hands-on exploration for attendees and thus the facilitator acting more like a host who guides conversations and activities.

In fact, there are 3 flavors of workshop; this resource explains the similarities and differences between them.

However the session shapes up, the overall focus of the facilitator is on creating the best possible environment for attendees to collaborate, innovate, and excel.

As I mentioned, some of this is semantics, but for today’s lesson let’s use the Metz definition as a guide for our work as facilitators.

Facilitator Principles

What makes a good facilitator?

It’s not an easy question to answer – there are many different attributes that contribute to success, and different attributes will show up in different contexts.

Here are some of the attributes that help make a good facilitator:

  • Serve the purpose and goals of the group
  • Be clear about their role (and agenda)
  • Recognize learning styles
  • 2 ears and 1 mouth
  • Be themselves
  • Generate increasing participant/group ownership
  • Ask open questions 
  • Invite and encourage 
  • Summarize 
  • Instill confidence
  • Come prepared
  • Expect Challenging Situations
  • Optimize space
  • Have a plan
  • Ready to change it
  • Embody the energy they want to create
  • Let the group show where the energy is
  • Open with intention
  • Be honest, transparent and real 
  • Remove obstacles
  • Answer questions
  • Gracefully troubleshoot
  • Over-deliver

Ok…there are a lot! But if we distill this down a little, a few common characteristics emerge.

  • Confident
  • Charming
  • Charismatic
  • Professional
  • Empathetic
  • Gravitas
  • Approachable

If you don’t feel you possess some of these – don’t worry!

I believe everyone has the capacity to exhibit these characteristics, especially when delivering content they feel connected to and invested in. I’ve seen all sorts of people become superb facilitators – all it takes is some practice, and understand the principles we’ll outline here.

If you’re still not convinced, let’s break facilitation down into 3 parts, just as you did with your structure – but instead of the Beginning, Middle and End, let’s look at Before, During, and After

The rest of this lesson will focus on what you can do in advance of your workshop before moving into ‘on the day’ facilitation in the next lesson.

Before: In advance

In advance, there are 4 key areas most worth focussing on:

  1. Validate assumptions: What assumptions are you making about the attendees, the timing, the content? This can be a lot tougher than it looks. Ask for someone else to take a look at your plan – they’ll probably notice something you haven’t. 
  2. Customize: Which elements of the session should you customize based on the group you’re working with? Is there a case study or topical story you can share that will add extra life to your content? Also note at which point customizing makes you feel uncomfortable: it’s easy to try and be all things to everyone and end up being not enough to anyone (this is an easy trap to fall into!)
  3. Practice: Some people like the short, steep on-ramp when it comes to rehearsing, but it usually pays to allow plenty of practice time, especially in the early days of your workshop facilitation. Trying to memorize the entire thing word for word will likely work against you however, so focus on having a good handle on key concepts, and the transitions between them (pro tip: smooth transitions can work wonders!). Again, get someone else to sample your work – they’ll be able to spot parts that are too fast, confusing, or go on too long
  4. Onboarding: What do you need to have in place for your session? Which resources, assets, people? It could be handouts or software logins, venue partners or co-facilitators. All these things need preparing and onboarding in one way or another. Without taking the time to do this in advance you’ll find yourself scrambling on the day itself and starting your workshop on the back foot. 

A good rule of thumb here is to feel you have a really strong feeling for:

  • The overall arc of your session
  • The first 10-15 minutes
  • The cornerstone content you’ve created

This isn’t to say the rest is unimportant, but trying to have the entire session committed forensically to memory often gets in the way of good facilitation. Feel ok about giving yourself some space.

Once you’ve gone through your preparation, what about the day itself? 

Before: On the day

Your preparation on the day itself shouldn’t feel too much like hard work.

By preparing ahead of time, you can focus your energies on the following areas before you get started:

  1. Arrive early: Allow an hour before the workshop session starts to check in with venue hosts, get the space set up, and welcome any early attendees. Often you’ll need far less time than this (especially if it’s at a venue you know – for example, your company’s office), but it’s always best to err on the side of caution; give yourself ample time and space to get comfortable with the venue and surroundings. If you’re online, again use the divide by 2 rule; 30 mins should be fine, but don’t cut it much shorter!
  2. Equipment check: Many workshops use equipment of some kind: most often a projector and laptop for slides, or anything from clay, to film, to scissors, to post-it notes. Checking the equipment is crucial: making sure it works, that there’s enough to go round, that you have a backup available (and can revert to Plan B if you really need to). Also bear in mind you may be relying on others to provide some of this (for example an IT technician to connect your laptop to the projection system). If you’re online, this most definitely still applies!
  3. Arrange the room: Get the room and materials set up in a way that’s appropriate for your session and the audience’s needs. Usually, this comes down to common sense (and working within the constraints you have), but there’s more to explore on the environment design in the next lesson. Online rooms still need arranging; you may to plan out breakout rooms in advance, set up some music to play on arrival, or leave an introductory prompt in the chat.
  4. Allow yourself some space: All being well, you’ll find yourself with some time before the session starts. Go to the bathroom, get a glass of water, do whatever works to help you relax and feel comfortable. The closer you are to your most present, natural, and comfortable self, the better experience, and outcomes your audience is going to have. Note: Go out of the room for a short while if you like, but be aware you’ll need to be ready and welcoming for any early arrivals (and sometimes they can be very early…). 

You may be thinking all these points are obvious. You’re right. They’re simple. They’re usually easy, too. 

They’re also easy to skip, and simple to miss. Missing them can invoke THE FEAR. We do not want THE FEAR. More on this in the next lesson 🙂

Invest properly in the preparation and your on-day facilitation will be a whole lot easier.

The next lesson is a bumper edition and will focus on exactly that – delivering a great session.

See you there.