How to Design a Workshop

Designing workshops is a creative activity, which means that every trainer has their own way of doing it. Here is one method from one experienced trainer.

A Method for Designing Workshops:

1. Learn about the group. I ask leaders in the group about its history, actions they have taken, actions planned in the future, experience with workshops, and their expectations and hopes. If this workshop is to make decisions, I want to learn as much as I can about how the group usually makes decisions (do they use a formal process, do they often defer to certain leaders, etc.), especially if there is conflict in the group. I often ask a contact person “Who else should I interview? Anyone with a different or unusual perspective?”

2. Formulate goals. I want goals that are realistic, that respond to the needs/wants of the sponsors of the workshop and/or the participants, and that motivate me. I want goals that are clear, so I can use them to evaluate the workshop as it is happening and after it ends. Perhaps most importantly, I don’t want more goals than I can remember, because my goals control many of my decisions as I facilitate the workshop. For example, for a 2-day workshop, five goals is my maximum.

3. Brainstorm activities/tools. Goal-setting often requires making hard choices, so I’m ready for some fun. Brainstorming lightens me up. Sometimes I start by brainstorming “my favorite activities and exercises” and make a list of different tools that might help people learn the content and skills they need.

4. Sort the list. I sort for which activities best lend themselves to the the workshop and its goals, and for the kind of group I’m working with. Sometimes I make another phone call at this time, to fine-tune ideas about the group. I think about the political context they work in (are people in unacknowledged despair over climate change, what’s the current security situation, have they had recent wins that need to be celebrated or losses that need to be mourned). I also sort for a range of abilities: for this group are there too many activities depending on hearing, or seeing, or running around? Am I considering how people will participate with invisible disabilities?

5. Develop sequence and select. As I develop a sequence, I select the activities likely to move the group forward in its learning process. Which activities are building blocks that prepare for the next step? I let my expectation of energy flow influence the sequence: when to place mental work? Are there high energy activities after meals? What are the emotional dynamics – do the activities allow for the highs and lows?

For example, to make decisions: I know that good decision-making is a group habit. So in my design I give multiple opportunities for the group to make easier decisions early on, so they get used to making decisions together. Then by the end of the workshop they are used to making decisions, and even harder decisions get made more easily.

A couple of additional criteria for sequencing:

  • Have I established early that I’m interested in what people already know? Many workshops suffer because trainers treat people like empty vessels to be filled up by the expertise of the outsider. Have I included tools, especially early on, that start by asking people what they already know?
  • Many climate change campaigners could do with celebrating achievements along the way. Have I designed some ways and moments for people to cheer each other on?
  • Additionally, have I thought about how despair—or other emotional influences—may need to be expressed in this group?
  • Have I created some tools in the beginning that create safety in the group? enough for the bigger risks that people need to take to learn?

6. Check for variety of formats. Does the design use large group, pairs, threes, fours, etc? Does whole group time come when most needed (for example, at the end of the day)? Is there some individual time for the introverts?

7. Check for learning styles/channels. Is there a mix of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic (whole body) activities? What does the whole design show that I need to say during Agenda Review to anticipate individual needs?


See “How to Facilitate Meetings: the No-Magic Method” for facilitation tips.