So you want to run a workshop?

IssueSeptember - November 2004
Feature by Janet Kilburn

We all have something to share and sometimes the most effective way of imparting information, offering and combining this with opportunities for safe discussion and exploration, is via a workshop format. In my experience, workshop organisers often forget that participants are supposed to do some “work”! and session are often very loosely structured, with no clear and specific outcomes expected. This can be extremely frustrating: being precise about what's on offer, or pinning down what participants want from the process, is often overlooked. So, if you are planning on creating and facilitating a workshop, here are a few tips.


  • Consider whether the focus is on transmitting/sharing information, developing practical skills through a process of hands-on experience, or on using a process to develop something new (eg a campaign strategy).
  • Developing dynamic, participatory sessions can be a challenge--especially if the topic is weighty. So include tasks that oblige participants to get involved (e.g. games, tasks or challenges that make people move around).
  • Create sessions of a fixed length—more than 1.5 hours is usually too much. No one wants to go to something that could drag on for weeks!
  • If it is going to cost money (e.g. for avenue, materials, travel, etc) sort out your budget and work out any participant fees before you publicise!



  • Be clear what the workshop is about,how long it is, and who might be particularly keen to attend.
  • Try to ensure your venue is as accessible as possible and make this clear in any publicity.
  • Be prepared for people to want more details before they show up.



  • Develop a transparent structure and transmit this information clearly to participants.
  • Make sure you tell people the “house-keeping” arrangements at the venue.
  • If you are going to suggest “rules” for group interactions (eg, listen, hands-up, no alcohol, or whatever) makes sure these are clear, that there is time to discuss them and there is a space for participants to add/remove rules before the session gets going.
  • Give participants opportunities to seek clarification on process.
  • Be clear what the expected outcomes are at different stages.



  • Give participants time and opportunity to digest.
  • If participants agreed to “rules”, remind them (nicely!) when they are broken.
  • Try to stick to agreed timescales; it is your job to keep the process moving.
  • Make the session safe and inclusive,look out for people who are reluctant to participate and make it easy for them to do so if they wish (this can be a particular issue in mixed workshops, when outwardly confident men take up a lot of space).
  • Be prepared for critical evaluation of you and your workshop.
  • Listen to participants and learn from your experience.


When it all goes wrong

Developing and facilitating workshops that work well and result in positive,happy and empowered activists, is hard work. And it can all go a bit wrong (be prepared for this experience!). For example: I was invited to do an “introduction to NVDA” session with a group of people involved in a London anti-war coalition last year, and while not an unmitigated disaster, the audience's obsession with strike action as the only valid means made them difficult to work with. I came away feeling tired and dispirited and they probably left feeling as though they had wasted an hour or so and had failed to convince me of the singular value of striking. While the event organisers and I knew, participants had not been told exactly what was on offer until the session opened, and this made a huge impact.

Try again!

But like most things, the more you organise and try things, the better you get at doing them. I certainly learnt from my experience and it has empowered me to be stricter in future about what I offer and to whom.

There are loads of workshop plans already out there and available for re-use. You can learn many more tips and tricks from them and the experience their creators have had. So if you are planning a workshop, try and spend some time taking a look at what other people have done and what worked worked for them.

And finally, remember: workshops can be great, but to make them really great they have to be approached by all parties with “work” in mind!

Topics: Activism