General musings on my principles of running workshops

The kind of workshop I tend to invent for BiCon tends to be based around interesting questions. Usually I'm doing the workshop at least partly because I'm interested in the questions myself.

There's a workshop format I've used several times and really like. So I thought I would write a bit about that here and say how I arrived at it.

A recurring theme: Small group discussions

After one quick go-round in the big group, people get themselves into groups of three. Then most of the workshop is exploring questions within those groups, except that if there's time, we get back into the big circle at the end.

Obviously, for some kinds of workshop, this wouldn't be the right thing. If the point is to transfer lots of information from the leader's head to the participants' heads, then you'd want less of a workshop and more of a lecture. And sometimes you want to build consensus in a big group of people. But the kinds I do at BiCon are often for people to explore stuff for themselves, and I think it works well for that.

One of the reasons I like this format is that when I go to workshops, I'm often quite bubbling over with ideas that I want to talk about. And if you get stuck in a big group, then it's hardly ever your turn, and you have to be really careful not to hog the time (if you're like me). Also, for some people it's scary to talk in front of a big group.

So on the one hand, the fewer people, the more time each person has to talk, plus some people will feel more comfortable. On the other hand, I don't like to have people in pairs, because what if you end up with someone who really doesn't get what you're on about at all? And also it can get a bit uncomfortably intimate. So that's how come I say groups of three.

But I will have the last two or four people in pairs if the group doesn't divide exactly into three. (I say pairs rather than fours if the default is three, because of the taking turns to answer the question - in a four, someone wouldn't get a turn.)

Then one thing we do repeatedly is: I'll call out a question. I'll give the three people each a minute to talk about it, and call out the time when it's time to switch. Like "Next person now!" Sometimes they'll get two turns each on the same question.

Of course, this means that a lot of the value of the workshop stands or falls on the interestingness of the questions. But luckily I never seem to have any problem coming up with interesting questions :-)

I don't bother trying to organise who answers first of the three; typically, for any given question, one person will be more ready to answer straightaway than the others, so it might as well be them.

Opening question

I also don't bother telling people how to get into threes. Instead, I start the workshop with a short question, relevant to the workshop theme, that everyone answers. This gives people the chance to scope out who's there and spot people with whom they share ideas.

A good all-purpose starter question is "What made you want to come to this workshop?" But that question only works if the answers are shortish and the group is relatively small, otherwise it takes half the workshop just to get round the circle. In a big group, it can be better to have a question that only invites a few words in answer.

Then, when it's time to get into groups, I give people the chance to hook up with whomever they're already thinking they'd like to talk to (if anyone).

If people still aren't in a group a couple of minutes later, then I'll take a hand, but usually that's only the last few people. And sometimes even that isn't necessary.

I definitely think that this practice can make the workshop more valuable to people, because you may find there are two or three people who have a strong interest in a particular aspect of the workshop's theme, and this way they can get together. And if that doesn't happen, they still haven't lost anything by having the opportunity.


Something else I like to do at or near the beginning of the workshop is an overview of what'll happen.

One reason for doing this is that people relax when they know what to expect.

Also, there's a particular thing it's good to set up in advance. It turned out the first time I used this format that it can be quite frustrating for people when they only get a minute or two on each question - they're just getting somewhere when it's time for the next question. On the other hand, I don't want people getting bored, and I often have more questions to ask than would fit in the workshop if we went slowly.

What I've found works is that if you set people up from the start to expect that, they don't get stressed over it. So I generally say something like: "I want to warn you now that we're going to cover a lot of ground and you'll just be getting into a question when I give you another one. So treat the workshop as a catalyst and continue the interesting questions over lunch."

(Of course, there might be situations when that wouldn't be a good idea - for instance, in the last workshop of a one-day event, where people won't get a chance to hang out with their fellow participants later. In those cases I'd do less and make sure they had more time per question. But at BiCon it generally works well.)

Closing question

If we do get together in a big circle at the end, one question I've used a few times is "One thing that you'll still be thinking about after you leave the workshop". I like this for several reasons.

One is just that it's a nice way for people to have a moment of reflection on everything we've talked about. Also, sometimes someone's got inspired in the discussion, and they really really want to come out with their fab insight to the group before they leave.

But the other is that it gives me a chance to get the flavour of how it's been for people - and otherwise I might never know, because I don't eavesdrop on the small groups and at BiCon I wouldn't be asking people to fill in a feedback form either. (Though in fact I've also used the same question to close workshops where I was getting a feedback form.) So it's my fave closing exercise for this kind of workshop.

Including myself?

Sometimes I include myself into one of the small groups and sometimes I don't. It depends a bit on what else is happening. If the whole workshop is in the small-groups format, it's quite likely I will, whereas if I've planned other exercises, I might have to be getting stuff ready. If I am in a small group, I try to be with people I'm already friends with, partly because I know they'll cut me some slack if I have to go & sort something out, and partly because some people (though not others) would get a bit shy being in a group with "The Workshop Leader". I use a beeper on my watch to time the "one minute" shares, so I'm not looking at my watch all the time.

If I don't join in during the workshop, it doesn't mean I won't get a chance to be in the discussions - because they'll continue later.