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a woman jotting down notes on how to plan a workshop

Blueprint to Success: How to Plan a Workshop the Right Way

Featuring tools that help you turn “Art” into “Craft”

Volunteering work and political engagement often involve planning and coordination within teams of volunteers. Everybody who has been part of volunteering organizations knows that this process can happen through lengthy WhatsApp threads, tedious meetings, or - if things go well - through an engaging workshop run by a facilitator. The facilitator mastering the art (and craft) of workshop planning is the factor that can make the difference between a memorable workshop and a forgettable meeting.

metaFox co-founder Tobi recently had the honor of assisting the European party “Volt” in planning a campaign kick-off workshop with volunteers from a local party chapter.

With such a group workshop being a classic scenario that many facilitators face regularly, we’ll review his steps to help organize this event and what we learned. These steps were:

  1. Clarify the workshop goals and logistical needs

  2. Plan the schedule

  3. Pick the right engagement methods

How to Plan a Workshop: Clarify Goals and Identify Logistical Needs

When planning a workshop that engages and delivers tangible outcomes, the devil is truly in the details. And yet, it is crucial to take time for the fundamentals: What do we want to achieve with a workshop?

Again, taking inspiration from the Volt Campaign Kick-Off Workshop, the first step in planning a workshop is a phone call with the client to identify the workshop’s goals, logistical needs, and potential workshop participants.

How does one do that?

Well, we kept these points in mind:

Understanding the Client’s Objectives

The workshop leader’s job almost always involves interviewing the client or stakeholders and learning about the workshop’s goals from their perspective and how those align with their broader objectives.

In our volunteering example, those ranged from enhancing team cohesion to developing a new campaign strategy. Clarify these aims early to ensure your workshop is designed with the end goal.

Needs Assessment: Learn About Your Participants

Before jumping into planning, it’s crucial to identify the needs of your target audience for the workshop. This involves understanding their skills, knowledge gaps, and what they hope to achieve by attending.

For example, one of the workshop’s goals was to brainstorm new approaches for recruiting volunteers. The client and I needed to assess whether our attendees were either seasoned campaigners or newcomers.

If all attendees were veterans, we could directly engage in co-creation and facilitate group work to tap into everyone’s experience. If all attendees were newcomers, we’d first educate them on basic volunteer management skills.

If the workshop were a healthy mix of both, the goal would be to enable the seasoned campaigners to co-create new strategies while helping newcomers pick up skills and get involved.

Setting Clear Goals and Content Requirements

Once you have an overview of client goals and participant persona, it’s time to set concrete goals and outline the required content to support the learning process.

For this part, we used the S.M.A.R.T Approach. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound, and directly linked to your identified needs.

For instance, in our Volt Campaign Workshop example, we set goals like “Equip participants with three new strategies for volunteer recruitment” or “Create a personalized volunteer engagement plan.”

Navigating the Logistics Maze

Logistical planning can make or break a workshop.

Here are key questions to consider, inspired by the comprehensive setup of the Volt Campaign Kick-Off Workshop event:

  • Time Allocation : How much time do you have? Ensure your agenda is realistic, accounting for discussions, breaks, and unforeseen delays.

  • Number of Participants : Know your participant count to tailor group activities and discussions effectively.

  • Materials Needed : Will you need flipcharts, post-its, or markers for brainstorming sessions? Based on your activities, make a checklist of supplies.

  • Technology Requirements : If your workshop involves digital tools or presentations, confirm the availability of Wi-Fi, projectors, and charging stations.

  • Breaks and Meals : A well-timed lunch or coffee break can keep energy levels high. Plan these intervals carefully, considering options for eating areas if you’re not providing meals.

Crafting an Engaging and Productive Agenda

With objectives clear and logistics in place, it’s time to design an agenda that ensures successful workshops by flowing logically and keeping participants engaged.

Depending on your workshop’s goals and participants, incorporate a mix of presentations, discussions, and hands-on activities, ensuring each segment moves you closer to your workshop goals.

For inspiration, look to events like our example workshop, which expertly balanced deep-dive sessions with interactive workshops and networking opportunities.

Planning a Schedule

When it comes to orchestrating a successful workshop, a thoughtfully crafted schedule is the scaffolding that supports your entire workshop. Here’s why it’s indispensable:

  • Prevents Time Crunch : Without a clear schedule, it’s too easy for sessions to overrun, squeezing out valuable content or discussions later in the day. A detailed plan helps you allocate time wisely, ensuring each segment of your workshop receives the attention it deserves.

  • Boosts Confidence: Standing in front of a group can be daunting, but a solid schedule is like having a map of an unfamiliar city. It gives the workshop facilitator the confidence to lead, knowing exactly where you’re headed next and how you’ll get there.

Planning the Topics

Start by planning the topics

Before diving into “Who says what” or “Which facilitation method makes sense here?”, it helps to map the 3-4 big points or “Topics” that must be tackled first. These topics are derived from the client goals and participants’ needs, which were considered earlier. This structured approach allows attendees to explore ideas, collaborate with experts, and have meaningful discussions.

Planning your schedule requires understanding the flow of energy throughout the day. Start with high-energy activities to engage your attendees from the get-go, and consider more reflective or group-based activities when a recharge is needed, especially after lunch.

In our Volt campaign kick-off workshop, this meant that we structured the day into three blocks: We started with (1) a warm-up to help everyone arrive, followed by (2) short presentations to get everyone on the same page, then (3) use this knowledge to co-create in group work.

Selecting the Right Tools for Planning

Equipping yourself with the right tools can streamline planning and make execution seamless. Here are some invaluable resources:

Pen and paper

Sometimes, the simplest tools are the most powerful. Sketching your initial thoughts and outlines on paper can be a quick and tactile way to start organizing your workshop layout, especially when your workshop structure is simple and there are few participants.

Google or Excel Spreadsheet

For slightly more complex workshops, digital spreadsheets allow for easy adjustments and real-time collaboration. They're ideal for mapping your schedule, tracking tasks, and sharing updates with your team. 

The screenshot above is Tobi's spreadsheet for planning the Volt Kick-off Campaign workshop (our example). It’s also served the metaFox team in planning training sessions or “ metaFox Experiences ” for many years. And yes, you can also download the spreadsheet  here .

The spreadsheet keeps track of everything to consider during your planning processes, such as logistics, participant needs, workshop goals, and more. Let’s go over the columns briefly: 

  • The  Start  and  Duration  columns easily allow organizers to keep track of the flow of the entire workshop. Just define your start time on the spreadsheet linked, and it will automatically calculate a timing forecast. 

  • The next two columns,  “What/Topic”  and  “How/Description” , also go hand in hand. You can overarch your Topic blocks to the details of “How” to run every block, which method to use, and so on. 

  • The  Materials  column can be considered a to-do list for preparation for each topic/block. This allows you to pick the right materials for each session.

SessionLab - For Framing Topics and Sketching Agenda 

SessionLab is a sophisticated online platform designed to streamline and enhance the workshop planning process for facilitators, trainers, and teams.

The software offers a wealth of features to make the design and delivery of workshops more efficient, effective, and enjoyable.

Here's an overview of how SessionLab can transform the way workshops are planned:

  • Automatic Timing Calculation: One of SessionLab's standout features is its ability to calculate the timing for your session plan automatically. This ensures that each workshop segment is perfectly timed, helping you manage your session's pacing without the hassle of manual calculations.

  • Drag-and-Drop Agenda Planner: The platform provides a user-friendly agenda planner, making organizing your workshop's structure easy. This tool allows for quick adjustments and flexibility, ensuring your workshop agenda is tailored to your needs and goals.

  • Extensive Library of Activities: SessionLab boasts a free and open-source library of facilitation techniques and activities, providing users with various options. Whether you're looking for icebreakers, team-building exercises, or brainstorming methods, the platform has you covered.

  • Collaboration Tools: SessionLab recognizes the importance of teamwork in the workshop planning process and offers collaboration features that enable teams to work together seamlessly. Users can co-create and edit workshop plans in real-time, fostering a collaborative environment that enhances creativity and efficiency.

  • Templates and Examples: For those seeking inspiration or guidance, SessionLab provides a range of templates and real-life examples of workshop plans. These resources can serve as a valuable starting point or provide new ideas to enhance your plans.

  • Accessibility and Convenience: Being an online platform, SessionLab allows users to access their workshop plans anywhere, anytime. This level of accessibility ensures that facilitators and teams can make updates or refer to their plans on the go, increasing convenience and flexibility.

Facilitators and trainers can significantly improve the quality and impact of their workshops by leveraging SessionLab. The platform's intuitive design tools and resources help ensure that workshops are well-structured, engaging, and aligned with learning objectives. Additionally, the emphasis on collaboration and accessibility makes it easier for teams to contribute and stay aligned throughout the planning process.

Memogic - For Enhancing Engagement and Retention 

Memogic is a comprehensive online tool designed specifically to streamline and revolutionize the process of planning and organizing workshops and training sessions. It provides a range of functionalities to save time and enhance the overall quality and efficiency of workshop preparation.

Here’s an overview of how Memogic can significantly enhance the workshop planning process:

  • Efficient Planning Tools: With Memogic, users can quickly create and organize training and workshop content through an intuitive drag-and-drop interface. This functionality simplifies the planning process and allows for greater flexibility in organizing session flows.

  • Unlimited Knowledge Collection: The platform enables users to collect and store knowledge in cards, making it easy to accumulate and retrieve information and methodologies relevant to their workshops.

  • Access to a Rich Method Library: Users have access to a vast library of methods, a valuable resource for finding new inspirations and proven techniques to enhance their workshops.

  • Collaboration Features: Memogic facilitates user collaboration, especially for those opting for the Pro or Enterprise plans. This includes features like the ability to collaborate on creating and refining workshop plans and sharing a common library of resources within a team or organization.

  • Export Capabilities: Users can export their workflows as PDFs (in the Free plan) or as Excel files (in the Pro plan), enabling easy sharing and accessibility of workshop plans outside the platform.

Memogic stands out as a powerful ally for trainers, coaches, educators, and organizations looking to elevate the effectiveness and efficiency of their workshops and training sessions.

Its user-friendly design and productivity-enhancing features make it invaluable for individual facilitators and teams committed to delivering high-quality educational experiences.

Detailing Your Topics into a Workshop Plan

With your “big points” draft schedule and the right tools, you’re set to dive deeper. Both the metaFox Spreadsheet Schedule Template as well as Sessionlab and Memogic guide you to consider the following aspects: 

  • How to facilitate each Topic : Go through your previously defined Topics and consider facilitation methods to run them; these can range from PowerPoint presentations to different forms of group work to creative exercises like Lego Serious Play. The libraries of Sessionlab and Memogic are great resources for inspiration here.

  • Duration of every Topic : as mentioned, timing is crucial. Consider conservatively how much time is required for every Topic block and fill in the durations to see early on if you can tackle all Topics or if you need to prioritize.

  • Materials : Which materials do you need to facilitate each topic? You must prepare all required material, such as notes, flipcharts, or coaching cards.

  • Who : If you are working with a co-facilitator, roughly agree for every block of Topics who is the lead facilitator, speaking and guiding the group of participants, and who takes a step back and acts as “Logistics Support,” taking care of technology, writing on flipcharts, etc. This kind of coordination will make you a great team in front of participants.

Remember, the goal is to facilitate learning and engagement; your preparedness is key. 

Using the Volt Campaign Kick-Off Workshop as a benchmark, look at their careful and detailed approach to scheduling and the use of diverse tools. 

For example, our planner has a column for DURATION. 

This helped us determine how long each topic or session would last and kept things promptly. 

Check out how Tobi planned out the entire workshop with the metaFox Schedule Planner in the video below:

Make It Fun and Effective Using the Right Engagement Methods

Choosing the right method to engage and encourage your participants is about filling time and crafting moments that resonate, educate, and inspire.

The Volt Campaign Kick-Off Workshop exemplifies this principle by integrating various participatory techniques designed to spark interest and foster active involvement.

The takeaway? Tailored methods lead to heightened engagement, deeper learning, and more meaningful interactions.

Unleashing the Power of Icebreakers

Icebreakers are often seen as fun activities to ease into a workshop, but their value extends far beyond that. Effective icebreakers can dismantle barriers and create a foundation of trust, encouraging open dialogue and collaboration from the outset. They help to break down formalities, reduce social anxieties, and ensure everyone is on equal footing.

They serve as critical tools for establishing psychological safety within a group, ensuring participants feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas, regardless of how "stupid" they might initially seem. This level of psychological safety is crucial for fostering innovation and creativity throughout the session.

By engaging in these activities, participants are more likely to contribute their unique perspectives, knowing that the environment is supportive and judgment-free. 

Crowdsourcing Content with Innovative Formats

Two powerful formats for generating collaborative content are the World Café and Open Space Technology. 

Both encourage collective brainstorming and idea sharing in an organized yet flexible manner:

  • World Café:  This format involves participants rotating among small groups, each focused on discussing a specific aspect of the broader topic. It allows for cross-pollination of ideas and brings diverse perspectives to the forefront, enriching the conversation and outcomes.

  • Open Space Technology : Ideal for larger groups with varied interests, this participant-driven approach lets attendees propose topics they're passionate about, around which they then host breakout discussions. It empowers participants to take ownership of the content and direction of the workshop, leading to highly personalized and engaging experiences.

Our workshop example smartly incorporated elements akin to these formats, ensuring that every participant could contribute, learn, and engage in a manner that felt personal and impactful to them.

Beyond Planning

Planning and running a successful workshop, akin to the Volt Campaign Kick-Off Workshop, is an achievement that sets the stage for a broader, lasting impact. However, the true measure of a workshop's success extends far beyond the event itself. It lies in the sustained momentum, continuous learning, and community building that follow. 

Fostering Continued Engagement

The conclusion of your workshop doesn't signify the end of the participants' learning journey. Instead, view it as a springboard for ongoing engagement.

Following our workshop example, consider creating dedicated online forums or social media groups where attendees can continue discussions, share insights, and support each other’s progress.

Regularly posting relevant articles, resources, and follow-up questions can keep the conversation alive and vibrant.

Encouraging Application of Knowledge

The ultimate goal of any workshop is to equip participants with knowledge and skills they can apply in real-world scenarios.

Encourage attendees to set personal action plans or goals towards the end of the workshop, detailing how they intend to implement what they've learned.

Offering a platform for participants to report on their progress, challenges, and successes motivates application and fosters a sense of accountability and community.

Building a Community of Practice

Perhaps one of the most significant outcomes of a workshop is creating a community of practice—a group of individuals who share a common interest or goal and learn from each other.

Facilitating regular meet-ups, whether virtual or in-person, can help sustain this community.

Over time, this network can evolve into a powerful forum for sharing best practices, challenges, and innovations, amplifying the collective impact of your workshop participants.

Running the Workshop

When the day of your workshop finally dawns, all your preparation and planning are tested. This blueprint offers a concise blueprint on how to run your workshop seamlessly, ensuring a day filled with learning, engagement, and transformation.

Start Strong with a Warm Welcome

First impressions matter. Kick off your workshop with a warm welcome that sets a positive tone for the day.

As seen in our workshop example agenda, a brief introduction outlining the day’s objectives helps align expectations and energizes participants immediately.

Don’t forget to include a quick icebreaker to foster a sense of community among attendees.

For our workshop example, we had a visual session warm-up using picture cards. The premise of the icebreaker is simple. Participants choose a picture that represents how they are and then share how this card represents their current mood/situation. This allowed us to start the workshop in a fun and personal way while increasing engagement and fostering psychological safety. Check out how this session went on SessionLab .

You can get these picture cards from metaFox and a free methods e-book that teaches you how to use them. 

Foster an Interactive Environment and Keep Energy Levels High

Interactive sessions are invaluable for breaking down barriers and encouraging active participation. 

Icebreakers, group discussions, and collaborative problem-solving activities can create a welcoming atmosphere and stimulate engagement.

Using methodologies like World Café and Open Space Technology, as seen in the agenda for the Volt Campaign Kick-Off Workshop, can significantly enhance the collaborative spirit of your workshop.

It is crucial to maintain a lively atmosphere throughout the day. Schedule short breaks between sessions to allow participants to rest and recharge. 

Light physical activities or quick group games help re-energize the room and keep engagement levels high, mirroring the dynamic pacing observed in the Campaign Catalyst.

Facilitate as a Workshop Leader, Don’t Dictate

Your role as a facilitator is to guide the conversation and encourage participation. 

Use engaging questions to prompt discussion and allow participants to share their insights and experiences.

Techniques that promote active learning, similar to those employed in the example workshop, such as breakout groups or hands-on activities, can significantly enhance the workshop's effectiveness by allowing attendees to apply what they’re learning in real-time.

Leverage Technology Wisely for Both In-Person and Virtual Workshops

Whether you use online collaboration tools for virtual attendees, present through slides, or employ apps for live polling, technology can enhance the learning experience in a virtual workshop.

However, ensure all technical aspects are tested beforehand to avoid any glitches that could disrupt the flow of your workshop.

Plan for Flexibility

While a structured agenda is key to maintaining focus and covering all necessary topics, flexibility is equally important.

Be prepared to adjust your schedule based on participants' engagement levels and interests.

This adaptability allows for a deeper exploration of emerging topics and ensures the workshop remains relevant and stimulating for everyone involved.

Reflect and Gather Feedback

Every workshop presents an opportunity for growth and improvement. Following the example of the Volt Campaign Kick-Off Workshop, take the time to reflect on the event’s successes and areas for enhancement.

Gathering participant feedback through surveys or informal discussions can provide invaluable insights into the effectiveness of your content, facilitation style, and overall workshop structure.

The Wrap Up

Planning a workshop can be overwhelming, no matter the size. In this article, we’ve covered essential workshop planning tips, from clarifying workshop goals and participant needs to running the workshop to going beyond the planning phase.

To elevate your workshop planning skills to new heights, consider using SessionLab and Memogic with the downloadable spreadsheet. These tools will provide you with an arsenal of tools and strategies to design and deliver impactful workshops and guide you in creating those unforgettable moments that participants cherish.

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