A Beginner’s Guide to Running Amazing Online Workshops

So, you want to run an amazing online workshop? You've come to the right place! Discover our top 6 tips for success in facilitating online meetings.

So, you want to run an amazing online workshop? Great, you’ve come to the right place to get started. 

Remote meetings, virtual workshops and online courses have since become the norm as we maneuver ourselves through a post-COVID, “new normal” professional workplace and environment. 

But there is more to running them than meets the eye. Remote meetings and workshops, like in-person ones, require a few key tips and tricks to keep participants switched-on. And in order to make them successful, there are some best practice approaches to keep them engaging, entertaining and educational, not just for you if you're the facilitator, but for those participating in their seats behind the scenes (and computer screens). 

Tip #1: Have clear organization and solid structure 

There’s a lot of nuance to the virtual room. With remote meetings and virtual workshops, there is much more going on technically than when you collaborate in-person. 

When your colleagues or guests aren’t physically present with you, it can become difficult for them to not only join the call, tweak their home-seating arrangement and make sure they can be seen and heard clearly, but to stay focused and be productive, too. 

By having a clear game plan from the get-go and making sure that there are widely understood goals and desired outcomes, you’ll be able to better facilitate your participants' comfortability, productivity and knowledge intake. This can be in the form of setting expectations for the workshop or other ground rules that will keep everyone on the same page right from the start.

Another important aspect is to structure the material being shared and make room for questions and active form of engagement from the other side, especially given the communal nature of workshopping. 

And how can you get this tip done?

  • Don’t fall into the trap of the neverending Zoom meeting. Instead create a clear, timeboxed structure and communicate this with your team beforehand 
  • Take the role of facilitator and set some ground rules for the session at the very beginning 
  • Insist that cameras remain on and mics on mute (unless it’s to to speak, share or ask) 
  • Build-in breaks and pauses, and tell people up-front when they can expect them to happen 
  • Explain how to use any tools that need to be utilized before moving forward

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Tip #2: Embrace the difficulties and challenges

You thought you had the digital world covered, didn’t you? Well, desperate times call for desperate measures and the power of Zoom, and remote collaboration tools like Miro, have taken the world by storm. 

With these new ways of collaborating, come differences, and some difficulties, that should not be seen as a detriment, instead as an advantage to the online workshop and meeting space. 

Some of these difficulties begin in the first five minutes of a session, sometimes moments before, of which include the uncontrollable, like faulty WiFi connections or defective microphones that disrupt audio. 

Other times, they involve a lack of structure (see Tip #1), unclear communication or internalized frustration over productivity and decision-making within yourself, if you’re the facilitator, but also within the group. 

At the end of the day, this is all a part of the process. What’s important is that there is always someone who takes responsibility within these sessions and sees the challenges as a means to drive the process forward in some capacity. And in the online workshop space, that means having a facilitator. There are tons of free trainings that can teach anyone how to build a successful career in facilitation to smoothe over the online transition. 

Facilitators are crucial in their role as workshop leads when it comes to embracing these nuances, as they are able to reframe the problems as standardised challenges and make them manageable and ultimately, solvable. Things will go off-track, but a good facilitator knows how to manage this and bring the team back to focus whenever something happens. 

And how can you get this tip done?

  • Prepare, prepare, and prepare some more! Test your workshop tech/setup multiple times before the real-deal
  • Plan ‘if this, then that’ scenarios, for example, “if the Zoom call crashes, I’ll email my participants a fun activity they can do to give me a few moments to get things back up and running again.”
  • Set expectations from the start. If your team are new to remote collaboration, then let them know that it may feel uncomfortable to begin with, and there may be technical challenges, but that you’ll there to guide them through it

Tip #3: Keep it simple! 

When it comes to online workshops, it’s better to keep the content, conversation and process as simple and straightforward as possible, especially if you’re facilitating a group that is new to (remote) workshopping. 

If you’re anything like us, when you’re planning a workshop you’ll get excited and want to cram in lots of exercises and fill up all the time you have. Take our advice: don’t do this and just keep it as simple as you can. 

And how can you get this tip done?

  • Fighting the urge to use jargon or complicated words - the simpler, the better! 
  • Starting the remote class or online workshop right away
  • Including LOTS of buffer time 
  • Pinpointing your own thoughts with the correct terms
  • Leaving important questions or comments for the end, unless it’s a workshop that requires constant feedback and input
  • Getting everyone to write their ideas or thoughts down
  • Allocating time for breaks, drinks + snacks, self-care 
  • Having the right equipment, tools and templates remote-proofed ahead of time

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Tip #4: Be experimental  

Reading this tip, you’re probably thinking,: ‘wasn’t I just advised to keep it simple?’ Sure, we did say that, but that doesn’t mean you should lack creativity to switch things up once in a while. While the basic three principles of lecture, exercise and discussion are crucial in the online workshop experience, mode switching is great in that it helps keep people engaged and pushes teammates to get out of their comfort zones… or away from the comfort behind their computer screen. 

The great thing about mode switching is that it can be relatively simple. Whether that is breaking the larger group apart to form smaller groups to keep the workshop flow dynamic, integrating activities and exercises that are 2-on-2, or utilizing features like ‘Breakout’ rooms, screen sharing, Miro and Mural, among others, this practice allows for collaboration and fuels even more engagement than the typical meeting. 

Pro-tip: Think Q&A activities, interactive games that circle back to the main objective, ideation & brainstorm moments, colored sticky note exercises, whiteboards, among others that can be reworked and reinvented at any point of the meeting. 

Note: It might be a good idea to tell guests what they’ll be getting into beforehand, so as to not make anyone uncomfortable with non-traditional meeting practices

Tangible, actionable points are all well and good, but without movement, discussion, active participation and a little bit of fuel to fire things up, the online workshop can get tiresome quite quickly. 

And how can you get this tip done?

  • Get comfortable with experimentation and creative tactics that you have used before and others that you haven’t 
  • Over communicate, so long as there isn’t so much oversharing -- which at most times, should be avoided -- the more understood you’ll be
  • Continue to remind yourself of your workshop’s end goals and overall team agenda 

Tip #5: Leverage different exercises or workshop techniques 

This tip is a bit similar to #4, but the reason it’s in its own category is because, by leveraging different (and experimental) exercises or workshop techniques, circular and unproductive discussion can be much more seamlessly combated. 

In the offline and online workshop space, it can become tiresome or unproductive quickly; you even might find yourself going on and on about the same thing, repeating something already said, or going off into a discussion with no resolution. And then your workshop has no end. Best to avoid that by being as experimental as you can with your exercises. Also, online workshops can often feel draining if your team or participants are not energized or switched on. Making sure the group is fully engaged and has the energy to tackle sessions (and challenges) by leveraging energizing practices. 

And how can you get this tip done?

  • Show, don’t tell
  • Utilize effective exercises, whether that’s preparing a 10-minute brainstorming session, or a very AJ&Smart 15 minute workshop, called Note & Vote, these tricks can ultimately help workshop teammates collaborate
  • Ask questions, prioritize challenges and ideate solutions 
  • Look at AJ&Smart’s Problem Framer. As a facilitator, with this you can remove any back-and-forth discussions taking place where there are no outcomes 
  • Be open to new collaborative tools, which are great in allowing different exercises to be leveraged, so that nothing gets lost in conversation 
  • Practice workshop energizers like taking a 10-minute walk, clapping, high-fiving, among others 

Tip #6: Keep them coming back for more

If you’re the person leading the performance, it’s the job of a facilitator to keep the guests engaged, entertained and informed, but also curious. What best way to do that then to offer something that will assure participants come back for more. And by ‘offer,’ we don’t always mean something physical like a voucher or discount code. 

Maybe it’s your confidence in communication that fuels participant trust. Perhaps it’s a signature framework of yours that really motivated someone. What if it’s your positive, upbeat energy when it comes to activating strategies that help deal with the workshop skeptics, chatterboxes or troublemakers

It’s important to lead the orchestra, where everyone can work together in harmony, but also allowing a space where every participant shares a common goal and wants to take part in cultivating a successful workshop experience from beginning to end. 

And how can you get this tip done?

The list goes on. As long as you keep connected and remember that even though everyone (and everything) is online for the time being, the setting you offer as a facilitator, and the feedback you receive from participants, is a decisive way to solidify many more solid workshops to come. And that’s why we offer tons of free training to be able to make this work for you, and for the betterment of the whole team.

And there you have it - our tips on how to run an amazing online workshop! Now, remember, they don’t all need to be implemented every time or all at once. More often than not, activating these tricks really depends on who's sitting in front of you. But understanding these tidbits (and when to best use them) is crucial in keeping the virtual space productive, advantageous (for all parties) and a recurring, positive experience.

AJ&Smart Team

A team of pro workshop facilitators with 9+ years of experience.