Image with text of how to create a workshop

How to create a workshop

Last Updated:
January 18, 2021
by
Hunter Varnum

Want to know how to create a workshop? Yay! I am SO glad to hear it, because it means this +5,000 word monstrosity of a blog post was not for nothing.

All jokes aside, the main purpose of this article is to demonstrate a way of thinking about workshops, how to structure them & the elements of transformative group experiences. Hopefully, this way of thinking will enable you to create standout workshops, long after this webpage has withered & died.

We are going to dive into some theory & I’m going to share with you the exact thought processes & mind maps that I use when creating any offer, not just workshops.

So I hope that this article brings insight, inspiration & assistance on your quest to create memorable & transformative experiences for your audience.This one’s going to be a tad on the long side. And I highly suggest you read it from top to bottom, as I’ll be building off of preceding concepts as we scroll down the page…

Here’s an outline of what we’ll be covering to help you navigate:

Now, let’s dive in…

3 Elements of a Great Workshop

Anyone can create a good workshop. But if you want to know how to create a great workshop, you need to understand the fundamental elements of transformative group experiences.

This is perhaps the most important part of the article, so pay attention here. Because once you understand how to craft, prioritize & balance a group experience between these 3 elements, your workshops will practically create themselves and be far more impactful for your participants.

Study & understand the 3 Elements of Transformative Group Experiences:

1. Personal Transformation

To achieve some personal transformation is the #1 reason why each & every participant would sign up, pay for, and attend your workshop. This seems obvious on its face, but many workshop leaders neglect this fact.

Workshops almost always are collaborative group experiences. Where facilitators go wrong is forgetting that each participant is in their own world. If you focus the structure & activities of the workshop too much on the collective benefit, rather than the benefit to the individual, you are missing the point entirely. 

Ultimately, each one of your participants is there for themselves. Each action or activity engaged in during your workshop needs to facilitate some sort of personal transformation, insight or positive feeling for the individual.

Personal transformation can be achieved through guided meditation, writing, sharing, listening and other activities that require the individual to explore, discover, and/or expand their concept or understanding of self, their feelings and/ or their emotions.

Keep this top of mind later on when you get to creating your own workshop outline. As you come up with ideas for each activity, ask yourself: “What benefit or outcome does this activity bring to the individual?”

If the answer is: “Well, I don’t know… But I think it would be fun!”, then scrap it.

Great workshops prioritize personal, individual transformation above all else.

2. Interpersonal Interaction

The 2nd most important element of a workshop is interpersonal interaction. People attend workshops to feel a sense of belonging and to soak in the shared purpose of the collective experience.

That said, too much interpersonal interaction can be detrimental to the enjoyment & effectiveness of a workshop, because it neglects the 1st & most important element, personal transformation. So, when it comes to incorporating person-to-person interaction, you should do so sparingly & with caution.

Interpersonal connection, or the lack thereof, is both our greatest source of joy & our greatest source of pain, so it’s important to understand what sort of interactions I am referring to here. In the context of a workshop, time is of the essence and positive individual transformation is the priority, therefore, only certain models of socialization will fit the mold.

Here are some tips to help you use the powerful element of interpersonal interaction effectively:

1. Have participants connect with one another in small subgroups

Whether you ask your participants to get to know one another, share something or engage in a collaborative activity, I recommend you have them do so in subgroups of the larger group. This would of course depend upon the size of your group, but if you can segment your participants into groups of 2 or 3, for any activity during which they will be socializing, it will produce far greater personal benefit.

Because in groups of 2 or 3, your participants will be far less self-conscious & more willing to engage meaningfully in active listening & developing a real connection (rather than wondering if their armpit sweat was noticeable after they waved & stuttered their name & “intention for being here” to the group of 30 people).

Additionally, forming & connecting with a subgroup will tap into the positive aspects of our tribal nature. When executed correctly, activities in subgroups will form bonds between the individuals in their group that will foster a sense of belonging. Though at first it may seem counterintuitive, these mini-tribes will actually serve to unite each individual to the collective experience, as each person will feel more heard, appreciated & accepted than would otherwise be possible.

2. Set clear guidelines for appropriate behavior

Though interpersonal interaction can be a powerful mechanism for personal transformation, it can also be a disastrous source of awkwardness, disruption & disorder, if proper structure and etiquette is not established at the outset by you, the facilitator.

Be sure that you have clearly defined for your participants the exact manner in which any interpersonal interaction is to be conducted. Your participants should know what they should be expected to say or do, for how long, and what the boundaries are.

Especially, if your social activity includes physical touch, in any capacity, your participants should know exactly how they are to ask permission & comport themselves so as not to jeopardize the transformative benefit of the activity for the receiving party.

3. Don’t over-allocate time or over-emphasize interpersonal interaction

Interpersonal interaction should be used sparingly. No one likes going around the circle, half-listening to each successive person declare their name & “something we don’t know about them”, subtly sweating with anticipation for the privilege of spouting some frivolous fact about themselves.

When you incorporate social activities into your workshop, do so only when the activity has a clear benefit to the individual engaging in them.

Additionally, specify the maximum amount of time for each interpersonal interaction; and for each individual share. The core purpose of this element is to facilitate a sense of belonging. Unless the activity is of great benefit to each individual’s personal transformation (or the reason why they signed up for the workshop in the first place), allocate less time to group activities & more time to the action items that will lead to the most positive individual outcomes.

3. Synchronizing Experiences

The third & final element of a great workshop is something called “synchronizing experiences.” Synchronizing experiences are collective experiences that facilitate harmony of thought, focus, feeling, emotion, sensation or understanding between individuals of a group. Synchronizing experiences can act to form an almost instantaneous, subconscious bond between both friends & complete strangers. Integrating them into your workshops will bring equilibrium to a community of opposing personalities.

We share many thousands of subtle synchronizing experiences with others over the course of our lives. Just think about the feeling you get when you find out a relative stranger is as crazy about that “undiscovered” band that you love as you are, the sense of connection you feel with your friends at a concert & after it, the subtle harmony of excitement while running into the ocean or diving into a cold body of water with a friend, or the camaraderie built between those with whom you have just experienced triumph or averted tragedy.

Ultimately, synchronizing experiences are the result of shared time, space, sensation, purpose, and meaning between individuals. As the old adage goes, sharing is caring. We cannot help but feel some measure of connectedness to those with whom we share perspective. The more meaningful & memorable our shared experiences are, the stronger our bonds.

In the setting of a workshop, you can use synchronizing experiences, to the benefit of the collective & the individual, to form a subconscious bond through coincident group participation in an activity that tunes the attention networks of each individual’s mind to the same frequency.

Examples of good synchronizing experiences in a workshop would be:

1. Leading a guided meditation

Knowing how to lead a guided meditation is a great tool to use in a workshop. It serves as a synchronizing experience by regulating the collective physiology of the group, flooding each individual’s brains with similar chemicals & increasing Heart Rate Variability. If your group is in-person, the change in “the vibe” of the room after a meditation is not just because you turned down the lights & lit too many candles. The magnetic field from our heart rhythms can be detected over 6 feet away, and we have the ability to intuitively pick up on the “energy” of other individuals, due in part to the subconscious measurement of the magnetic flux in an individual’s “force field,” but I digress.

Guided meditation can also be used to focus the attention of the group on a specific topic or question, fostering an unspoken fellowship between participants in their internal quest to rekindle the relationship with that part of themselves they’ve relegated to only the most occasional of visits.

2. Collectively doing something that’s individually embarrassing or ridiculous

Doing something collectively embarrassing or ridiculous (emphasis on collectively) is another strong catalyzer of synchronization between group participants. Whether you having everyone dance to some music, force out a big absurd laugh, wear something stupid or funny, or even scream at the top of their lungs, the important thing about this strategy is that it makes everyone in the group laugh at one other together, in good gest of course.

The idea here is to humorously stretch each individual in the group out of their “familiar zone”, while simultaneously bonding the group through the synchronizing experience of being united in an act of childlike playfulness. The underlying purpose being to help each individual let their guard down, creating an atmosphere of acceptance that opens the door to more honest participation in group or individual activities.

It’s easy to go overboard with this & end up offending or mortifying your participants, so I wouldn’t try this sort of synchronizing experience unless you know exactly what you’re doing.

3. Immersing your group in nature

There is nothing more grounding than being immersed in the wonder of the natural world. The outdoors is perhaps the most universally synchronizing environment, because it reminds us all of the simple beauty of life free from the necessary, but often burdensome, economic constructs of modern life.

Taking your workshop participants on a silent walk through the forest or a barefoot stroll on the beach sand, for example, can facilitate personal transformation by creating sacred space for introspection while synchronizing both the physiology & psychology of the group through the grounding properties of the earth.

I recommend that you try this in your workshops, and that you emphasize two things: silence & sensation. Being silent while experiencing nature through the senses is incredibly powerful. Simply listening to the sound of flowing water, feeling the earth with bare feet, swimming in chilled waters, or observing a sunset in collective silence & appreciation will produce a synchronizing experience worthy of remembrance.

Incorporating the proper balance of these 3 elements in your workshops will ensure that you facilitate a well-rounded experience that fosters belonging & connection, without sacrificing effectiveness.

When it comes time to craft your event structure, ask yourself:

  • What synchronizing experience(s) can I incorporate to promote mental and/or physiological harmony between my workshop participants?
  • How can I use interpersonal interaction between my audience members to foster a sense of belonging, honest connection & mutual appreciation in each individual?
  • Above all else, how can I remain steadfast in my commitment to ensure that every activity I plan for my workshop participants has a purposeful benefit to the personal transformation promised by my workshop?

It’s important to note that the 3 Elements of Transformative Group Experiences are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the best workshop activities always incorporate at least 2, if not all 3, at the same time. And masterful workshop creators blend & shift each activity’s focus between these 3 elements, with the goal of promoting clarity, community & congruence within and between individuals.

Now that you have the 3 core elements you need to know how to create a great workshop, let’s talk about how to outline your event.

How to Create a Workshop Outline in 3 Steps

Now that you have the foundational theory of workshop facilitation under your belt, it’s time to learn how to create a workshop outline. Outlining your workshop, in purposeful detail, is essential to creating group experiences that deliver on their promise of personal growth & transformation for each individual participant.

As a workshop facilitator, your job is to clearly articulate the objective of your event, provide the simplest path towards the achievement of that objective, and ensure that every participant has both the time & resources they need to take each successive step along that path from beginning to end.

Here are the 3 steps you can follow to create an effective workshop outline:

1. Define a Niche & Desired Outcome for the experience

This is the first & most important step in creating any workshop, and not surprisingly, it is the step at which most workshop facilitators fail. Coaches, therapists, thought leaders & other personal development industry professionals have the highest propensity to neglect the importance of choosing a niche to target their offerings to. 

Often when asked who they serve their offerings to, the response is something like: “I help everybody.”

This tendency is to the great detriment of many coaches’ ability to create effective offers and craft messages that resonate with enough potential clients to sell their offerings at a profit.

In a prior article on how to create an online meditation business, I went into detail on how & why to choose a niche, so I leave the more nuanced explanation out of this article, for fear you might be too old to host a workshop by the time you’ve finished reading it.

In short, a niche is simply a specific demographic that desires to change or progress from some initial, intolerable state to a desired state. All successful products, in any industry, work by facilitating a transformation from some initial state (Point A) to some final state (Point B). Your workshop should be no different.

The desired outcome of your offer is the articulated promise to your niche of reaching Point B. And the purpose of each activity of your workshop is to facilitate the journey from Point A to Point B.

Once you have clearly defined your niche’s problem (i.e. their current situation [Point A] & desired situation [Point B]), you can begin the work of crafting your offer or workshop (i.e. the bridge between Point A & Point B).

This promise of personal transformation from Point A to Point B is the only reason a stranger will buy anything from you. The desired outcome will also act as your guiding principle for the structuring of your workshop. And the articulation of the pain felt by your niche at Point A & the relief felt by your niche at Point B will be the message that communicates the value of your offering in a way that motivates people to purchase from you.

The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to create your workshop & the more desirable your offer will be, so don’t overlook this step, as too many do.

But, be careful not to overpromise. Workshops typically cannot facilitate the same major, lasting personal transformation as a 6-week 1-on-1 coaching package, for example. Therefore, the promise of your desired outcome must be right-sized to the honest capabilities of your offer’s format.

2. Create the Structure for Your Workshop

Once you have Point A & Point B clearly defined, it’s time to build the bridge between those two points. This “bridge” is the structure or outline of your workshop. It’s vitally important that each activity contributes to the overarching objective fulfilling the promise of personal transformation, for which each person signed up.

How to Mind Map Your Workshop Outline:

The most efficient way to create an effective, high-level structure for any offer is through the use of mind maps. Mind maps allow the brain to see the “big picture” at one time, engaging the subconscious mind to make connections & create solutions to problems. Additionally, personal development industry professionals tend to be kinesthetic & visual learners, so mind maps can be a great aid to organize & focus the creative mind.

A mind map is essentially a more visually formatted bulleted list that is much more useful for visualizing a process, in both its entirety & component parts. 

When mapping out a workshop, seminar, online course, or any offer that promises a result, this is the hierarchical framework you should follow:

1. List the Personal Transformation Promised by Your Offer (The Desired Outcome)

This is the “north star” of your entire offer. Everything that comes after this should be part of the process of achieving this main individual transformation.

2. Break the Main Transformation Out Into 3 to 5 Sub-Transformations

Sub-transformations breakdown the main transformation into its highest level categories or component parts. They represent their own unique transformations, or sub-workshops, that must be addressed in some sequence to facilitate the main personal transformation.

3. Break Each Sub-Transformation into 3 to 5 Mini-Transformations

Mini-transformations are ideas, concepts or insights that must be understood or inspired in order to facilitate a sub-transformation. 

4. Break Each Mini-Transformation into 1 to 5 Actions, Activities or Lessons

Finally, the actions, activities or lessons are the ground-level steps that must be followed, information that must be integrated or experiences that must be had in order to facilitate each mini-transformation.

Here’s a templated example of this hierarchy I created on a mind mapping software called Ayoa:

Diagram of how to create a workshop mind map

Using a framework like this will give you the perspective you need to clearly structure your workshop outline down the individual activities, while maintaining a logical order that ultimately facilitates the desired transformation from Point A to Point B.

To give you a demonstration of what this mind map looks like in practice, I created an example workshop outline for you to check out below. 

I created this in about 20 minutes just to demonstrate how to apply this mind mapping hierarchy, not as an example of an excellent workshop. However, it should give you a clear idea of how to break down your main transformation into sub-transformations, mini-transformations & activities.

Here’s an example of what it looks like:

Diagram of how to create a workshop outline

So, once you’ve created your workshop outline, be sure to audit each activity & the overall structure as a whole. Remove unnecessary activities that don’t directly contribute to the main objective of the workshop. And mix in regular synchronizing experiences & opportunities for interpersonal interaction to create a cohesive atmosphere.

Once you’re happy with the structure, it’s time to create your workshop agenda.

3. Create the Agenda for the Workshop Event

Having an agenda for your workshop event is vital. If you have little to no experience leading workshops or are adding activities you have never utilized before, the only way to truly learn the time each activity will take is by trial & error.

That said, here are some tips for creating your workshop schedule:

Time yourself going through the activities

If you have worksheets that your participants will be filling out, meditations you will be guiding, group sharing activities, etc. for which you don’t know the exact time it takes to complete, time yourself completing the activities as if you were a participant. This will give you a much more realistic estimate of how much time must truly be devoted to each task, and enable you to create a much more accurate agenda timeline.

Schedule a 10-15 minute break every 90 minutes

After about 90 minutes, your participants will need a break in order to recharge, move their bodies & return ready to fully engage in the next activity. If you go longer than 90 minutes without a break, you’ll be entering the zone of diminishing returns. Your participants will get exponentially less & less value from the subsequent activities as they lose focus & become mentally fatigued, so consider each break a vital activity that contributes significantly to the main transformation promised by your workshop.

Let the necessities of the main transformation dictate the length of the workshop

Though it’s not always possible, especially if you are holding your workshop inside of a fixed schedule (e.g. you’re holding a workshop at a yoga or meditation studio), it’s best to let the main transformation dictate the overall length of your workshop. Each main transformation will require a unique amount of sub/mini-transformations & activities in order to be achieved, so don’t box your workshop into a less than optimal time frame to deliver on your promise to your participants. Essentialism should always be your guiding principle when choosing the necessary activities to facilitate your transformation, but some workshops may need to be executed over a number of days, while others will only need a few hours, in order to deliver the desired results for your participants.

Created a bulleted list of agenda items with time lengths & timestamps

While you are facilitating the workshop, you should have with you a bulleted list of your agenda items that contain both the total time delegated to each activity and the expected start & end times, based on the start time of your event. This will help you marshal your participants through each agenda item in a timely manner, helping to ensure your workshop delivers on its promise.

Always allow more time than is necessary

Nothing ever turns out exactly as planned when dealing with a room full of people. Always allocate at least a few minutes of buffer time between each activity to prevent a chain reaction of time scarcity down the line of subsequent workshop activities.

Once you’ve selected your niche & desired outcome, completed your workshop outline, and created the agenda for your event, the only thing left to do is run the thing!

What Makes a Great Workshop Facilitator

Being a great workshop facilitator takes more than just a great workshop outline or engaging activities. Leading a workshop is an exercise in leadership, essentialism & the honest expression of who you are as the facilitator.

Here are some guidelines to help demonstrate proficiency in all 3 of those categories:

Set Expectations, Structure & Boundaries

As the workshop facilitator, your participants are relying on you to lead them. It’s on you to set the stage, write the script & direct the play, while ensuring none of your actors take a left turn into an unexpected, improvisational monologue in the critical moments of the 3rd act.

So, be sure to set clear expectations. Your participants need to know exactly what to bring with them, how long they should expect to be there, how much time they have for each activity, etc. Consider their physical comfort & set those expectations with answers to questions like: Will they need a jacket or blanket? Should they bring something to sit on? Will there be food provided?

Additionally, you need to set boundaries & guidelines, especially for moments of interpersonal interaction. Clearly define what it means to be a good listener when others are sharing. If you’re going to incorporate physical touch into your workshop, make sure to ask the group at the beginning if anyone would object to the specific sort of physical interaction you are proposing they engage in. 

Simplicity & transparency in your delineation of what is expected throughout the workshop will communicate confidence to your participants and foster trust in the process you have outlined for them.

Doing More, With Less

The most common mistake workshop facilitators make is trying to do too much. This is especially true when workshop facilitators have been trained in a multitude of modalities. 

As a rule for virtually everything in existence, simpler is always better. The value of your workshop is not defined by the number of worksheets or exercises. In fact with any offer, it is always best to use the least amount of steps necessary to deliver a result. In the words of Leonardo Da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

So, audit your workshop outlines in an interactive process, asking each time: “What can I get rid of?”

And remember, the most impactful moments of any workshop occur in moments of silent introspection, NOT when you are talking. Make sure your workshop is filled with ample opportunities for contemplative self-reflection, and ensure that both you & your participants only speak when it furthers the main personal transformation your workshop is designed to deliver.

Being Approachable

To be a great workshop facilitator, you need to do more than just bark directions at your group to gain their trust & admiration; you need to be approachable.

In this context, being approachable means demonstrating a combination of character traits: relatability, vulnerability & honesty. The best way to create an approachable atmosphere is to weave in your story & personal examples of your own struggles in overcoming the obstacles they are striving to overcome by attending your workshop.

Don’t take this advice as a license to talk incessantly, but offer your participants the occasional anecdote from your own as a contextual touchstone for why they are engaging in an activity & what they can hope to gain from it.

Be open, truthful & humorous. Be mildly self-deprecating. Show them your unique personality and express yourself from your heart, and you will develop a loyal following.

3 Tips to Facilitate an Online Workshop

Being able to facilitate a workshop virtually is a necessary skill set these days. Though it doesn’t afford the same level of interpersonal interaction as being in-person, online workshops can be just as effective if executed correctly.

Here are some tips to create an online workshop like a pro:

Hold Your Workshop on Zoom

Zoom is by far the best video conferencing software for online workshops. The combination reliability, functionality & video resolution is second to none, it’s free to try out, and the paid options don’t break the bank either.

One of the best features, that I use frequently for large group calls, is the breakout room feature. This feature is perfect to create small subgroups within your group to incorporate the core workshop element of interpersonal interaction, which we discussed previously.

With a paid account, you can turn on the “Enable Stereo Sound” feature in the Zoom Website Settings (not the desktop application settings), so you can share hi-fidelity music, directly from your music app, with all your participants at one time. If you don’t turn this feature on & you try to play music, it will sound distorted (like the music you hear when your internet provider puts you on hold for 3 hours just to tell you to unplug the router for 30 seconds).

When holding an online workshop, make sure that you take exceptional measures to explain to your participants what they will need to do to attend & how they should behave on the video call. Zoom workshops require their own set of operation instructions to go smoothly. I could list them here, but this article is already absurdly long, so I’ll spare you.

Invest in a Microphone & Web-Cam

If you want to increase the quality & professionalism of your online workshops, you should improve the quality of both your audio & video.

To keep things simple, what I recommend to our students of our meditation facilitator training is to purchase a Yeti USB Microphone by Blue Designs. The Yeti is a USB microphone, meaning it plugs directly into your computer without any additional equipment or cabling necessary. It’s affordable, easy to set up and will definitely increase the clarity of your audio & professionalism of your presentation.

As far as video goes, the onboard camera on your laptop or computer won’t cut it. If you have a USB-C port on your computer, what I recommend is the Logitech StreamCam. If your computer is a little older and has regular USB 2.0 ports, then I recommend the Logitech C922 Pro. The StreamCam is the better option of the two, as its picture quality is good enough to shoot video content with, but either option will work just fine. They are usually sold out on the Logitech website, but if they are eBay typically has them at or just above MSRP.

Additionally, if you’re going to invest in a camera & mic, you should take the time to set up an aesthetically & acoustically pleasing place to lead your workshop from. If your home or office doesn’t afford you a set that conveys professionalism, then purchase a cheap backdrop off of amazon. I won’t dive into the acoustic setup on this article, but luckily, Zoom has great built-in background noise & echo cancellation.

Practice, Practice & Practice Again

Even if you’re fairly savvy with technology, practice is going to be essential for you to run an online workshop. There are a lot of balls to keep in the air while running a workshop, and facilitating it virtually only adds to the potential for something to go wrong.

Make sure that you know Zoom, or whatever video conferencing platform you choose to use, like the back of your hand. It’s important that you truly understand the software you use thoroughly, so you can answer any questions & troubleshoot with those people who will inevitably sign on with no idea how to turn on their camera or audio.

Luckily, Zoom has tons of training videos on their website that clearly answer every single question imaginable. I would bookmark a few of these pages on your web browser & save them in a bookmark folder. That way, you can easily access troubleshooting information in a few clicks during a workshop to send to a participant who needs help with a specific issue, leaving you free to tend to the needs of other people in your group.

IN CONCLUSION:

I hope you found this article interesting & insightful. Ultimately, I hope it’s enabled you to think more systematically through the process of creating a personal development or self-care workshop.

I wish you the best in 2021 & beyond, and that you lead many successful workshops that make a serious positive impact in the lives of your audience.

And by the way, if you liked this blog post & would like to drastically increase your effectiveness as a workshop facilitator, you may want to check out The Guided Meditation Framework™ Professional Training, Group Coaching & Mentorship Program.

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