10 Survival Rules for Workshop Facilitators

Beta-start facilitationFor some years now I’ve been seeing my role of designer gain a new dimension: I’m facilitating workshops more and more where we co-design brands, products and services.

Bringing workshop facilitation into my design practice results in a number of changes. It changed how I design (tools and methods), what I design, and even who designs. I didn’t have specific training for this new role, but trying, failing and improving has given me self-knowledge and awareness, that I complemented with improv classes.

In this blog David from 100%Open has asked me to share some insights that I have found useful.

1) Build your workshop brand

Define and design your Workshop Brand, this will help you to have clear vision and be coherent with what you’re delivering and how you’re delivering it. Everything that you do communicates a message, do you wanna have control over that message? Design it! What is your differentiation? Are the materials and dynamics according to the Brand? What will your participants will remember after the workshop? What are your expectations? What are your client’s expectations? (maybe yours are different from your client’s).

2) Listen more, talk less

Participants might project the image of a schoolteacher onto you. Help them realise that it is more empowering, and that they will learn more if they work things out for themselves rather than expecting to be given answers. Part of the process is exploring and learning by themselves. It is useful to play with these four moments:

  • The talk: Where invited guests share knowledge
  • Guided process: Follow a structured process that you design for them (frameworks may help like this Ideas Jam Workshop plan from the 100%Open Tookit).
  • Exploration: Where participants learn from doing (for example when you ask participants to go out of the building to research, even if they don’t know how to do it). Here’s an example – the Service Safari, again from the 100%Open Toolkit.
  • Show and tell: Moments where participants share their knowledge and discoveries.

Of course you can always be creative and try different approaches: I remember when I participated in JamJam 2012 in Nürnberg (a Jam for Jam organizers we shared experiences in a non-linear way, instead of doing a presentation we created an exhibition with our insights that were updated during the weekend. Check out this video we made.

3) Timing – build some flexibility into your plan

Be realistic about what you can cover in the time you have. It is usually better to give people hands-on exercises and reinforcements properly, then rush them through loads of material that they will have forgotten before they have a chance to apply it.

4) Design your workshop narrative 

On his blog Work Play Experience, designer and actor Adam St.John Lawrence explains this in a very insightful way. He says great experiences, like great stories, go “Boomm Wow-Wow-Wow BOOM.” First grab attention with a powerful start, a Boom. Then, to build interest, selected some highlights that follow in ascending order (wow-Wow-WOW!). Prepare a final that overcome your opening spectacle: BOOM!!

5) Create a safe environment

We learn best when we feel safe. It means we are more able to take risks, and more willing to try out things and explore new ideas. One thing that I find useful if you have different hierarchical groups in the room, is to do some warm-up exercises where people fail, if a boss feels comfortable enough to fail, his employees will become more comfortable about their own performance.

JAM6) Closure is important – Break in convergent moments.

To continue on the theme of safety…your participants are going through a new process and the feelings of insecurity may overwhelm. Breaks and resting periods should convey the feeling of “task accomplished”. This will give them the feeling that they are controlling the process, and they will feel more relaxed and enjoy their breaks better.

7) Each workshop is an opportunity to learn and improve.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time you deliver a workshop (it is not efficient, hard to move forward and expensive). Productise your workshop (this doesn’t mean that you stop experimenting new models): have some models/ frameworks that can be applied and combined in different contexts, – test them on real users, get feedback, improve them in an iterative process. Favour experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition.

8) Learn how to protect yourself

Workshop facilitation is physically exhaustive, you have to learn to protect yourself and always have a fresh face.

  • Avoid having coffee, sugar and snacks that workshops are known to provide, it helps to feel much lighter during the workshops.
  • Always warm-up your voice before starting, and learn how to project your voice so that you don’t force it.
  • Know where the chairs are and don’t forget to take a seat, when you can.
  • Plan your shifts and breaks, ensure that you coordinate your team members that some leave early for lunch, or can take a break during the afternoon.

9) Take an improvisation class.

Improv is a form of live theatre in which the characters and dialogue of a play are made up in the moment. Improv classes will force you go out of your comfort zone. They help you overcome inhibitions and become more confident. So much I could say about this topic, but found a Improv group near you and try it. (London, Lisbon)

10) Last but not least, Smile

This one sounds like a cliché, but people just like to have a good time, and they will be more willing to learn. If you enter the room with stressed faced they will easily respond with same feeling. Just relax, enjoy and Smile.

Can I give one last tip?

At least once a year became a participant in a workshop that you choose, helps you to see the things in a user perspective.

Do you have any ideas or comments? Feel free to contact me.

Susana Branco, Co-Founder Busigners 


  1. Thanks for the mention!

    Here is the original post on Boom-wow-Wow-WOW-BOOOM from my old blog:

    A more evolved article on the subject: http://www.service-design-network.org/products-page/article/tp04-2p24/

    And an article which discusses Safe Space in the context of full-body prototyping tools:

    Thanks again,


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