My most recent collaboration project launched last week at New York Climate Week.
Sustainable Foundations is a workshop series and email course helping to unpack and demystify sustainability for modern business.
During its creation I took some time to think about things I’ve learnt putting together similar education experiences , and also go back to a Beginner’s Mind approach.
I returned to the feeling of my first few sessions as a facilitator. It wasn’t pleasant but it was important to go there again, especially as someone who long detested any kind of public speaking and the exposure that went with it.
There’s a gentle coast of nervous excitement a few days out — feels positive although a little disconcerting.
The night before the session this gives way to panic-ridden irrational and intermittent sleep.
Then the moment of truth — a swell of adrenaline adding to an already heady cocktail of discomfort and overwhelm as 20 pairs of eyes place their expectation firmly my way. Horribly exposed and nowhere to run.
Did I make sure my laptop is working?
These feelings can actually be positively powerful when you know how to direct them, but they can also be paralysing. This post is here to help ease the paralysis.
I’ve written in the past about the power of teachers and how they’ll become more influential in the future.
Part of this emerging thesis is that more people can and will become successful facilitators, teachers and guides, communicating their wisdom and knowledge with people across the world.
On that note, here a few tips to help facilitate  a workshop, especially with the first timer in mind.
Note: I’m far from an expert, but now I’ve notched up 30 or so sessions I’m getting a feel of some good practices to utilise. There are always more of course, and I hope to create a few follow ups to this post. Also if you have other tips of your own I’d love to hear them 🙂
I’d say 80% (or more) of running a successful session is in the design stage, but that’s a bigger topic for another post.
Here are a few tactics touching on some other areas to focus on before the day itself.
Do one thing well
What’s one thing you can hang your hat on? It’s really tempting to cover loads of ground, and different people will get different outcomes, but if in doubt point your session to one topic and one key outcome.
Have a co-pilot
Rather like founding a startup, dancing, and other more intimate things, facilitation is better with a partner.
Having two of you takes off the heat, and lets the audience hear more than one voice and perspective. It also allows for more flexibility in the way you deliver content, set up exercises and troubleshoot. Co-present whenever you can.
Take a temperature in advance
Yes, people are busy, and everyone is vying for their attention. That doesn’t excuse you from learning about your attendees in advance though. Sending a brief questionnaire with a handful of questions on their current understanding of the topic and what they’re looking to get from the session can be extremely helpful both in your preparation and how you handle the day itself.
Practice social cues with your co-presenter
This is something that comes with experience, but it’s worth establishing some sort of understanding of rhythm, presenting styles and social cues with your co-pilot. Just having one or two small ‘tells’ can drastically improve the flow of your delivery and also signal as a handy SOS message when one of you is lost or drowning. It may be as simple as looking across to them for a second or two, or a hand gesture that tells them they’re welcome to step in.
Check out the room in advance
This isn’t always possible, but visit the room in advance whenever you can — or at least get a tech spec and/or photos. Get a feeling for the space — the layout you want to use, whether the sun is going to blast through the windows or if the air conditioning doesn’t work properly. These small details are important. An average room can work well if you know about its limitations in advance, or it can completely ruin the experience if you don’t.
Sub-par spaces suffocate sessions.
Don’t be afraid out of handouts
Using technical data and trying to squish it onto a bunch of slides? Don’t be afraid to use handouts. People can’t read slides quickly, and you’ll lose the room if you wade through tons of technical information. A well-timed worksheet can do wonders for energy, anxiety and learning.
It’s amazing how important your first introduction is. As the saying goes, first impressions count. Those first couple of minutes where you introduce yourself to a group are an opportunity to build trust and display your authority and authenticity.
I don’t really plan my intro bit but I have a few rough versions of it depending on the audience — for example if it’s a more technical group I’ll mention my work in product management, or if the attendees are entrepreneurs I’ll touch on my adventures in that line of work.
Additionally I like to have a pretty good plan to get to the first hands-on exercise, whether that’s after 2 or 20 minutes. Once you get the group going on the hands-on you can do a brief check-in with your co-pilot to assess how things are going and how you’ll approach the next part of the day.
You can plan for longer if you like, but if you are working through a lot of content you’ll just feel under more pressure to remember everything.
My suggestion would be to do this wherever possible, but of course there’s a limit on where it’s practical. As a general rule of thumb, if you have less than 25 people in the room and the session is longer than a couple of hours, take that 15–20 minutes to get everyone to introduce themselves. An optional extra here is to write people’s names on a whiteboard or a flipchart so no one feels stupid for forgetting other people’s names.
Nervous = Excitement
I really like this simple re-frame I heard mentioned by Simon Sinek.
Whenever he feels nervous he tells himself he’s excited about what he’s about to.
This doesn’t always work for me, but I’ve found it helps calm me down and also focuses me towards ensuring the audience have a great experience rather than thinking about myself.
If you think you’re speaking too slowly…
You’re probably speaking at just the right pace. If you drone on really slowly then you’ll see attention wane, but it’s usually a lot worse to speak too quickly than too slowly. Remember — you know this content well and so you’ll be inclined to whizz through it, but the audience have probably never seen or heard any of it before. Give them digestion time.
Don’t strap yourself to the slide deck
This is a really easy trap to fall into. You’ll probably have some sort of slide deck you’re working from, and there will be two strong temptations; firstly to read out everything on each slide, and secondly to stick to the script. Both of these involve tethering yourself to the deck.
You must resist these urges — the deck is the skeleton but the unique features come from improvisation, letting the audience interpret content and opening things up to exploration and discussion.
Reflect back to the attendees
Facilitators don’t know everything — not even the most expert of subject matter experts. Reflecting comments and questions back to the audience helps them think through a topic in more depth, and opens a dialogue up to other members of the group.
A similar example of this is when someone says something that doesn’t completely make sense. Rather than making a gallant but ham-fisted attempt to answer eloquently, try simply asking them to say more. You may be surprised at what transpires when someone is encouraged to elaborate.
Another interesting device connected to reflection is commitment. Whatever you think of Tony Robbins he’s a hugely popular and influential figure who is able to elicit commitment from his audiences. Watch videos of his work and you’ll notice plenty of calls for commitment; ‘Yes?’, ‘Cool?’, ‘Are you with me? Say I’
Note; reflecting back can also be a good way to deal with dissenters or people who are deliberately asking obtuse questions. Asking them what their experience is of the matter at hand can often diffuse a tricky situation.
When asking if attendees have questions or something to share, try to wait for 30 seconds before moving on — even if there’s complete silence (yes this can feel like an age). You can also make a joke of the silence feeling uncomfortable to get everyone relaxed again.
When attendees are working on a hands-on activity, i.e. there’s a fair bit of noise, ask them to pause rather than stop. This prevents people getting frustrated that their creative work has been interrupted, and suggests there will be time to continue later. The same goes for managing (heated) Q&A sessions.
I’ve done quite a few sessions with Jeffrey Lancaster at Decoded over the past year and he employs both these tactics really nicely.
Once you’re coming to the end of the session, make sure you get everyone to share some sort of takeaway — something they’ve learnt, a tool they enjoyed using, or just a fact or idea that surprised or inspired them. Tie these back to the objectives of the session.
Feedback can be hard to handle but you should gobble it up whenever you can get it. It’s how you improve, and how you get alerted to things you’d never otherwise realise. Remember that your viewpoint at the front of the room is biased, narrow, and privileged. Get yourself away from those three places. A simple survey of 5–8 well-worded questions (like the one you sent out in advance) will do the trick.
Pro tip: Try and get feedback within the session before people leave. They’re more likely to do so, and the feedback is probably more accurate when the experience is still fresh.
You’ve got feedback from the attendees but you should absolutely get feedback from the rest of your team. Take at least 20 minutes to talk through what worked well and what could go better next time. Do this as soon after the session as you can. A simple framework for the debrief is asking what we can Stop/Start/Continue doing (there a bunch of others). Consider things like the room, the food, and any tech/operational issues too. Celebrate the little things that went really well — the aha moments or the off the cuff joke.
Thinking this feels like a waste of time? Check out Kobe Bryant’s podcast with Lewis Howes for an understanding of how the Black Mamba debriefs after each and every game, and why it’s such an important part of his process.
This will depend on you as an individual, but it’s probably worth building in some recovery time. Teaching and facilitation can be extremely tiring and draining (sometimes surprisingly so), and whilst I believe it’s well worth those downsides, the recovery time is crucial. You’ll figure out over time what works best for you, but as a start point I’d suggest keeping a couple of hours clear after the session to decompress — go for a walk, have a nap, meditate, take a shower.
And there’s one final tip, the most important of all.
Embrace the fact that you’re sharing knowledge and ideas in a creative way with fellow humans.
Recognise they are spending their valuable time in your company.
Focus on your audience’s experience, keep rolling with the inevitable ups and downs, and be yourself.
It’ll feel really difficult and scary to begin with, but my bet is you’ll be hooked and will never go back.
So there we go. A collection of tips to help you facilitate your first workshop, class or training session.
I’d love to hear what topics and ideas you’re looking to share with the world — don’t be shy to drop me a line.
 A ‘train the trainer’ session I co-led recently with Decoded also gave me some great fuel for this post
 I don’t always love the term ‘facilitator’ as it can be a bit loaded, stigmatised or corny depending on who you talk to, but I feel it’s important to use it to help create a distinction from other similar roles. I define it broadly as somewhere between coaching and teaching — less instructive than teaching, more subject-specific than coaching.