In both my private coaching practice and in my role as an Instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, I think of myself as an experiential educator. And whether I'm working with clients or students, I know that people learn best when certain conditions are met. Initial conditions matter, as I learned from Mary Ann Huckabay and Carole Robin at Stanford, so it's important to get every workshop, talk, class and seminar off to a good start. Here's how I try to make that happen--and note that while I discuss each step in this process at length, in practice it takes just a few minutes.
1. It Starts Before It Starts
A workshop or talk doesn't start when you begin talking to the audience. It starts when you walk in the door. Everything you do, every interaction you have from that point forward has an impact on the experience.
Connect and build a relationship with every staff member you meet at the venue, even if you only have a few seconds to do so. Say, "Thank you," early and often. Learn their names and use them. This is particularly important with any AV/IT staff who will be helping you. And it's critical to do all this authentically, with heartfelt appreciation and gratitude.
Have everything set up and ready to go early enough that you can greet people as they arrive. This can be harder than it sounds--my natural tendency is to stay focused on reviewing my materials and my plans for the event. But this is a mistake, because the audience's experience doesn't begin when I start speaking; it begins when they walk in the door.
I've learned that an event's success depends much more on my connection with the audience than it does on perfecting my mastery of the content. And interacting with people gives me a chance to begin learning some critically important information--their names and why they're attending.
Ultimately the message you're sending to both staff and audience members is We're all in this together. (This is important when things go as planned, and it's absolutely essential when they don't.)
2. Be Credible and Safe
If I'm working with this group for the first time, once the workshop (or talk or class or seminar--I'll use the former for simplicity) begins, I start by introducing myself. I'm careful to note my expertise and credentials, tailoring them to fit the circumstances.
The purpose here isn't to be self-aggrandizing--it's to create safety. At the outset of any group experience, the group wants to know if those of us in differentiated roles can be trusted. We eventually earn that trust fully through our actions, but it can start by discussing our credentials. That's an important step in the process of lowering anxiety and creating an atmosphere that supports learning.
That said, it's easy to overdo it. There's a fine line between discussing your credentials and sounding like you're boasting (or lacking confidence), and it's important not to cross it. Stick to the facts and keep it short. (The deck above includes a slide that I often use to introduce myself.)
The message you're sending here is It's OK to trust me; I know what I'm doing.
3. Make It Personal
Once you've introduced yourself, the next step is conveying your personal investment in the topic at hand. Establishing credibility often involves invoking authority, which can create some distance between yourself and the audience. A little distance is useful, but too much is counter-productive.
You can regulate that distance and close the gap by talking about your experience (as opposed to your expertise.) Discuss why this topic matters to you. This allows you to identify with the audience and their interest in the topic, which both creates an empathic bond and legitimizes their own interest and enthusiasm. (The deck above includes a slide that I use to discuss my personal interest in executive coaching, a frequent topic in my workshops.)
The message you're sending here is It's OK to care about this; I do, too.
4. Get to Know Them
Having introduced yourself and discussed your personal investment in the topic, it's important to continue to bridge the gap between yourself and the audience by ensuring that they feel known. Obviously, once a group reaches a certain size--roughly 30 people, in my opinion--this step isn't feasible. (And in this case it's even more important to spend time talking with participants before you begin presenting.)
But if at all possible have the participants introduce themselves. In larger groups, simply having people say their names will suffice. In smaller groups, ask for more detail: Where are you from? What's your role? Why are you here today? The smaller the group, the more time you can spend on introductions, but note that it may be useful to ask specific questions, rather than leaving it open-ended. This creates a structure that keeps the process going and avoids getting bogged in one person's response.
The goal here is to give everyone a chance to talk and to feel known, both by you and by their fellow participants, and the message you're sending is I'm interested in you.
If you know who'll be attending in advance and have their picture, you can take this process to the next level by learning everyone's name in advance and greeting them personally as they walk in. I try to do this the first time I meet a class at Stanford, and I know from student evaluations that it has a very positive impact. The message this sends is I'm really interested in you.
5. Make A Deal
The next step is setting some norms and expectations for the workshop. I liken this to making a deal because these guidelines are a sort of "interpersonal contract" between you and the participants. You're making a commitment to them, you're asking them to make a commitment to you, and these commitments create a set of working agreements for the group.
I typically start by emphasizing that I'll strive to do my best, and I may talk further about why this topic matters to me or why I want them to have a meaningful learning experience, which further increases the connection between me and the audience. I also usually commit to taking one or more breaks and to ending on time, which helps lessen any anxiety and minimize distraction. I'll conclude by asking them if there's anything else that would be helpful to them; people rarely have a suggestion, but when they do, it's extremely important that that we have an opportunity to discuss it.
Now it's my turn to make some requests. I start by asking people to challenge themselves, noting that at many points in the workshop they'll face a metaphorical fork in the road--one path is the easy road, and the other path is the hard road, and I'd like them to be aware of these choice points and opt for the hard road whenever possible. I don't want people to feel too much pressure, but I do want them to feel just a little pressure to take some risks, try some experiments and be vulnerable, because ultimately that will yield more learning.
I also ask them to respect confidentiality. Most of the workshops I run involve having people conduct exercises in pairs or small groups, and in order to challenge themselves and take some risks, they also need to trust that what they say in those conversations will stay private. Confidentiality can't be guaranteed, of course, but setting the expectation makes it more likely.
While I acknowledge that people may need to be reachable--for example, if they have a sick child or a project in crisis--I'd like them to minimize distractions by turning off their phones or at least keeping them in their pockets. They'll get the most out of the workshop if they can keep their attention focused on the people here in the room. (In my experience people actually welcome this.)
And because almost all of my workshops involve interactive exercises and relatively brief lectures, I ask people to stick to the schedule by waiting for breaks and returning on time. That ensures that their partners won't be stuck waiting for them and miss out.
I conclude by asking if everyone can commit to these agreements, and ask for a verbal assent and a nod. Again, we can't guarantee that people will abide by these norms, but making their agreement explicit makes it more likely. (The deck above includes the sequence of slides that I typically use for this purpose.)
The message you're sending here is This is how we'll work together.
6. Orient Them
The next step in the process is to help the audience understand more clearly to expect, and I typically break this down into three separate components. I start with a brief, high-level overview of the workshop's purpose, which answers the question Where are we going?
Then I move on to a similarly brief discussion of the process and methods we'll use, which answers the question How will we get there? Only then do I provide a detailed agenda, with the sequence of activities and the time allotted for each. (The deck above includes the slides I typically use for the first two components in this stage of the process, as well as a sample agenda.)
The message you're sending here is I'll help you prepare and manage your energy.
7. Shake Things Up (Gently)
Finally, after the preliminaries above are completed, if at all possible I like to open the workshop with a stimulating exercise. These can vary substantially depending on the size and composition of the group, as well as the physical space in the venue. One theme I use frequently is having the group stand in a circle and go through a number of "sorts" in which the participants re-arrange themselves around the circle in accordance with a series of criteria: By height, non-verbally. By date of birth, with talking allowed. By everyone's relative degree of "blueness," which I deliberately leave undefined. The possible variations are endless.
An exercise like this serves several purposes: First, it gets people up and moving again after they've spent a few minutes listening to me talk, and some light physical activity will help them be more attentive and engaged (especially after lunch or in the evening.)
It also gets audience members interacting with each other, and this both creates interpersonal connections between participants and helps to knit the group together as a whole. Both of these dynamics help ensure a successful event.
And by introducing a concept that requires people to think in different ways (such as determining how “blue” they are), it sparks creative thinking and opens them up to new ideas.
As I mentioned at the outset, I discuss this process in detail in order to fully explain the purpose served by each step along the way, but note that this entire sequence can be completed in less than 15 minutes. The goal is to quickly create the conditions that will best support learning and then jump into the content of your workshop or talk.