Saturday, April 11, 2009

Learning in Workshops

I spent two days in a workshop this past week. I wasn't a participant and I wasn't the main facilitator / organizer. I was there as support staff but mostly acting as an observer. I collected and typed up all the feedback forms so the participant feedback is fresh in my head. Overall, the workshop went very well. As I was reflecting upon the feedback, I occurred to me that there was a great deal of consistency across the feedback forms in terms of the type of feedback provided. They didn't necessarily agree on the best and least effective elements of the workshop but there was consistency in terms of what mattered to them.

Some lessons learned about things that matter to participants:
  • Things they expect and don't see matter
    Participants' expectations are important. Simple things such as name tags and handouts are expected. If you don't have them, for some reason, you should at least explain why they're not made available.

  • The physical environment matters
    Just make them comfortable enough so they're not distracted by the environment. There is always someone who will be too cold and someone who will be too hot.

  • The status and level of enthusiasm of the speakers matter
    You can get away with not being a top level leader if you demonstrate that 1) you know what you're talking about and 2) you're passionate about your work.

    You can get away with not being the most dynamic speaker if 1) you're the boss and the participants respect the fact that you took the time to show up; and 2) you're able to answer impromptu questions rather than speak from slides.

    Speakers who are honest and candid are appreciated as long as the picture being painted isn't too bleak. Always end on a positive note.

  • The manner in which a particular topic is presented matters
    You could almost talk to them about anything as long as you're able to make it interesting. The best way to make it interesting is to give specific examples or tell a story. I used to think that the content of the presentations (in terms of topic focus and scope) was the most important thing. I still think it's obviously important for speakers to address something that's within the scope of the workshop but it's really the whole package that makes the difference. The perfect content delivered poorly by someone who has limited legitimacy won't be as well received as an open conversation with top leaders that drifts from one topic to another based on questions coming from participants.
It could very well be that what I'm interpreting as "what mattered" to the participants simply reflected the way we phrased the feedback questions. The questions were essentially meant to get a sense of the participants' satisfaction levels rather than to assess the extent to which any learning is happening.
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