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The definitive, end-of-all discussion advice on running online workshops

Like me, I’m sure you’ve seen more of your colleagues’ messy bedrooms and semi-naked partners than any employer should ask of you. My eyes! Is there danger money for such things?

In ordinary times I run tons of workshops and group meeting with whiteboards, Post-It Notes, felt pens and enough arm-waving I could be an Italian. But lockdown is forcing us to sit down, sit still and focus on the pixels on the screen. How are we supposed to run effective workshops doing that?

Well, at Hype&Dexter we’ve cracked it. Or at least we’re getting close. After much trial and error, testing different software tools and developing techniques to keep energy levels high and the ideas flowing, we have identified the top 10 tips for running online workshops.

  1. Choose your weapons

Whether its Zoom, Teams, Google Meet or another platform, the key consideration is that everyone can use this software. Go with the one your client prefers. Send out an email with the link and test it and be open to alternatives.

We have thoughts on the most popular programmes:

  • Google Meet: No software installation is required (if you are using Chrome), pretty it’s secure, easy to use, supported by Mac, Windows, Linux and anything that runs Chrome – but it’s blocked by some corporates and there are regularly random issues with connecting with audio. And you can only record if you have the paid version (boo!).
  • Zoom. You can use this without software installation, but it’s not that clear when joining and recent media around security should give us pause for thought. One bonus, it can integrate with HubSpot and, generally, we have the least overall issues with Zoom meetings.
  • Microsoft Teams. This works really well for Microsoft users but can be pretty bloody awful and buggy for everyone else. It does not work on Linux, and bugs with other non-Windows devices.
  • Get everyone sorted days before

Not everyone is technically competent. So help them. If you are doing a hands-on software-based training session, ensure that all of your attendees have at least two screens. At a pinch, that could be a phone and laptop, but it’s better to have two full-sized screens.

Ask if they have good Internet connections. If not, advise them to turn off their webcams and stream your presentation. They can always just talk.

And post the dial-in number and alternative tools in the invitation. It’s amazing how many people fail in this basic curtesy!

  • Start early

Just like a normal workshop set yourself up 15 minutes early. Who knows what gremlins you’ll find? In that precious 15 minutes you can:

  • Re-send the link to the workshop and the alternative phone number just in case there are last minute issues
  • Adjust that headset and volume levels – and test, test, test that it’s working. Did I say test?
  • Turn-off any other noisy applications that could be sending you notifications during the meeting, e.g. Slack, Email
  • Make sure there are no incriminating pictures, books or compromising items behind you. Don’t be the person with the nude spouse on display.
  • Set the rules

Kick-off the session with a clear purpose, agenda and ground rules. Include an icebreaker at the beginning. If you are doing a drawing exercise, ensure that everyone is prepped to have something they can draw on and have their webcams on so they can present their drawings. Or consider a verbal ice breaker. A goodie is to simply ask what’s one big change they’ve experienced in lockdown. Kids are a great source of stories, but remember, not everyone has children.

Use your screens well: your main presentation screen should be directly in front of you; your meeting tool with attendees should be on your other screen. And remember to look into the camera!

If possible have a support person to take notes, otherwise have your favourite notes tool open and on your other screen for quick reference.

  • Give it a break

Online meetings require a lot more attention from your participants and can be quite tiring. So set breaks and keep to them. For a full day workshop I recommend 10 minutes every 1.5 hours and a full one hour break midway if you are running all day.

Encourage your attendees to get up, move around and if possible go outside and keep away from screens during breaks.

  • Find an alternative whiteboard

Whiteboards and flip charts are critical in workshops. So what can you use instead? I like to have blank or prompt slides in the presentation. I update this on the fly. This has the added bonus that I can do some quick clean-up and send out the presentation at the end.

But there are other tools. For process mapping and general drawing, I really like LucidChart – it’s s a cheap and simple to use tool that is easy to share and collaborate on.

Whatever tool you use, make sure you have your starting point prepped and have practice. Doing live process-mapping or diagramming is an incredibly powerful tool to align your participants and rapidly define new ideas – but it takes practice!

  • Choose a collaboration tool

Collaboration is key to any workshop. There are great tools out there to help with online collaboration. Options include:

  • GroupMap
  • Stormz
  • Powernoodle
  • Google Presentations for Drag & Drop (set to a large size)
  • LucidChart
  • Google Docs or Sheets
  • IdeaBoardz
  • BoardThing
  • Mural.ly
  • iObeya)

Whatever you choose, try them before and then give everyone clear instructions and the links to download the app if necessary. Hot tip! Test the tools with colleagues in a mock workshop. There’s nothing like doing the real thing to know. Here are an example I prepared earlier: Google Presentation for a Sticky Note Collaboration

  • Breakout!

Breakouts are another standard part of any good meeting toolkit, but again can be quite complicated to do virtually. So use multiple meetings or rooms to achieve virtual breakouts. Here’s how it works:

  • Pre-select the teams and a team leader for each team
  • Have a separate meeting that is set up for each team
  • Ensure that you run through the process (again, instructions for the breakout and any tools used within the breakout with the team leader prior to the session)
  • Paste the teams and links to the breakout meetings in your main chat
  • Ensure that you are connected but muted in each other meeting so you can hear and answer any questions (note this will be challenging as you will hear all of the conversations – if you can find a tool where you can turn down the volume of individual meetings it is preferred)
  • Regularly check-in with each team to ensure they understand what they are doing
  • Provide regular countdowns to when they need to come back to the main meeting
  • End well

Research shows that how we remember the last few minutes of any experience can dictate how we feel about the whole session. So, end on a high. Select a few people to summarise what they learned and pick out any insights and highlights. Say thank you!

  1. Follow up

What happens next is critical. Follow up within 24 hours with a clear summary of notes, action items and a way forward. Even if there’s nothing been concluded, your participants need to know their time wasn’t wasted.

So there you have it. The ten commandments for online workshops. Good luck out there.

Romi Dexter is the co-founder of Hype&Dexter.

Vincent won many awards as a journalist with Metro magazine and The Independent Business Weekly and was twice named Editor of the Year by the Magazine Publishers’ Association for his role in founding Unlimited magazine. In 2004 he co-founded HB Media, which was later to become Tangible Media, and is a publisher at AUT Media, the publishing division of AUT University.

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