How to plan and run an online workshop

What I’ve learnt about running successful online workshops

This week I should have been running two training workshops. I wanted to make a great atmosphere where everyone would feel comfortable and ready to learn. So I booked a venue: a beautiful barge with loads of space and natural light. I arranged delicious coffee and food. I planned a refreshing walk by the sea as a break. I set the agenda, wrote the deck, and created the handouts.

And then everything changed.

I scrambled to move things online and ran them this week as planned, but online instead. It went pretty well. I’m sure I’m not the only one in this situation, so I wrote about what I learnt.

What I learnt

1. Choose the right tools

I knew I’d need a couple of tools: one for the call, and a digital space where we could do some work together.

After being on a few Hangouts and Zooms where people experienced issues getting in, and after hearing that Zoom was creaking under the strain of being the world’s favourite new app, I decided to use something else.

I chose Whereby because you don’t need to download anything or log in. The interface is simple and the functionality is limited. No, you can’t change your background so you look like you’re in space, but I could live with that. The call quality (for the first session anyway — more on that later) was great, and the layout meant I could see everyone’s face perfectly at the same time. Being able to record the session was also a big bonus.

I chose Mural as a place to do exercises. We used the sticky note functionality to capture then refine ideas — just as I would have done in a real-life session with Post-its and a flip chart or whiteboard. I couldn’t have run the session without it. Mural provided a focal point and an extra level of interactivity that kept people engaged. It was also great to export a PDF to share with everyone afterwards.

Having said all that, there are some usability issues. Some people found it struggled with scrolling, zooming, and adding notes. For the second session, I asked people to have a play around beforehand and sent some links with tips.

2. Test, test, test

I did a lot of testing before the workshops. I forced my friends to use Whereby for our group hangouts. I got a few people to log in to Mural so I could get a feel for the facilitator tools and what it was like with lots of people using it at once. I worked out the best spot for wifi in my flat.

I also tried having the deck, Whereby, Mural, and my notes open at once. I realised I couldn’t facilitate without a second screen. I connected my iPad, which made a huge difference. I also realised that I need to shut down everything else to stop my laptop making weird overloaded noises.

3. Have a backup (and backup for the backup)

For the second workshop, Whereby completely failed. The call quality was terrible and people kept dropping off. I went from thinking it was the best thing ever to cursing its name.

We switched to the backup — Hangouts. This failed too.

Slightly overwrought by this point, I panic-bought Zoom membership. It worked for the most part, but still dropped out twice. The interface was nowhere near as clean for me as facilitator, or for the participants.

I now feel like it doesn’t matter much what you use for the call, as long as you’ve got a back-up and everyone knows what it is.

4. Convert and trim your session plan

Converting all my workshop assets into digital ones was a big task. I recreated all the exercises and handouts in Mural, and edited them as I went to make them work better online.

The sticky note functionality in Mural meant that a lot of the exercises didn’t have to change that much — I just needed to think about how to explain and facilitate them.

I also trimmed back the agenda — I had an inkling things might take longer. I also knew an all-day online session might feel longer than an all-day face-to-face one. I was right, and in retrospect I wish I’d cut the agenda back even more. Short is sweet.

5. Be open and flexible

I got in touch with all the participants before the workshop to explain how I was planning on running things and to ask for their input. I put my phone number on screen in the breaks so that people could call with any issues or feedback.

At the start of the session, we discussed ideas to help the session run smoothly. (I do this at the start of face-to-face ones too.) This gave us a set of shared guidelines to stick to, which I found made facilitating much easier.

I also tried to be as flexible as possible. I gave different options for how we could run the exercises, offered extra breaks, and asked people if they wanted to keep or skip some elements of the agenda. I hope all of this made the session more welcoming and kept it engaging.

6. Keep it small

I’d say four to eight participants is optimal, so that everyone gets a chance to speak and facilitation doesn’t become a daunting task.

I originally considered using Zoom so I could break the call into separate ‘rooms’ for small group exercises. I’d try this if I had multiple facilitators, but on my own it was too complex.

7. Keep your cameras on

Keeping cameras on is essential. It’s so important for everyone to see each other’s faces. Because we were looking at each other and raised our hands when we wanted to speak, the discussion flowed and talking over one another wasn’t a big issue.

It also meant we still used non-verbal communication, like nodding, smiling, or giving a thumbs up. This helped to create a welcoming, supportive atmosphere.

8. Use chat to annotate

We used the chat function in Whereby to capture questions when we were in the flow of the presentation. This was great for helping to keep things on track. We added links to articles, examples, etc that came to mind as we went through. It provided a great reading list at the end of the session. We also used chat for things like reminders of what time to come back after lunch, or to explain if we had to dip out.

So that’s what I learnt. I hope some of these ideas are useful and you can put them to work.

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