Even the most confident, experienced, and accomplished facilitators get nervous before a workshop. It’s totally normal—and it doesn’t have to get in the way of your success.
In this post, we share nine proven strategies for keeping facilitation nerves at bay. By the end, we promise you’ll feel equipped to tackle your nerves head-on and deliver an awesome workshop.
To get started, watch this video where Jonathan Courtney, expert facilitator and AJ&Smart founder, shares his personal advice for beating facilitation nerves. Then keep scrolling for more tried-and-tested tips.
Ready to take control of your pre-workshop nerves? Here goes.
1. Recognize anxiety for what it is: A natural part of being human!
Any kind of nervousness or anxiety is uncomfortable. And, besides the physical symptoms, it often comes with a heavy dose of shame.
What on earth is wrong with me? Why am I getting so worked up about this? Everyone else is so cool, calm, and collected…Why am I such a nervous wreck?
If that sounds familiar, then I’ve got some news for you.
1) There’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, fear, nerves, and anxiety are part of our human biology. Feeling afraid is a survival instinct—a mechanism we developed back in the day to keep us alert and safe from danger. Your nervy stomach, inability to sleep, and slightly trembling hands in the lead-up to facilitating a workshop? Totally normal.
2) As it turns out, everyone else is not as “cool, calm, and collected” as you might think. Fear of public speaking affects about 77% of the population, making it the most common social phobia. You’re not unique with your facilitation nerves, and you’re certainly not alone.
As you start to get nervous about facilitating a workshop, remember that it’s totally normal to feel this way. Recognize it for what it is, and try not to pile shame and self-reproach on top. Give yourself permission to be nervous. There’s nothing wrong with you—and, with all the tips in this post, you’re going to take control.
2. Externalize your fears and turn them into “How Might We?” statements
Ok, so we’ve established that facilitation fear is 100% normal, and that getting nervous before a workshop does not undermine your ability and worth as a facilitator.
Good. Now let’s tackle your fears head-on.
For this exercise, grab a pen and paper (or your Notes app—wherever you’re most comfortable). You’re going to externalize your fears and break them down.
Start with this question: What exactly am I afraid of? Write down all the things you’re worried about in relation to your upcoming workshop. Another way to reframe this is: What could go wrong?
For example: I forget what I want to say and completely lose my thread and go really red and everyone thinks I’m an idiot.
Or: The participants aren’t engaged and there are lots of awkward silences. Everyone hates my workshop and we don’t come away with any valuable outcomes.
Then, for each scenario you come up with, jot down how likely it is to happen. You can give it a score out of 10, or simply write “Very likely”, “Not likely at all”, and so on.
For each fear you’ve identified, come up with one or two actions you could take to remedy the situation *IF* it should occur. For example: If I forget what I want to say, I can refer back to my notes. Or: In the case of awkward silences, I’ll do an ice-breaker activity to put the group at ease.
Last but not least, ask yourself this (and write your answer down): What is the absolute worst that can happen if any of these fears come true?
Maybe you do forget what you want to say and have to fumble around to check your notes. Maybe you get a bit flushed and flustered in the process.
Maybe there’s an awkward silence and you have to venture into small-talk territory and it all feels a bit uncomfortable.
Ultimately, your fears are the worst possible outcome. Even if those things do happen, they’re temporary blips. They don’t determine the success of your workshop, and they don’t make you a bad facilitator. Beyond the discomfort in that very moment, there won’t be any severe or long-lasting impact. In other words: even the worst case scenario isn’t that bad.
Writing your fears down helps to get them out of your head (where they can quickly blow out of proportion!) and externalize them. This encourages you to visualize them as manageable chunks with possible solutions. You know how, in a design sprint, you turn user pain-points and insights into “How might we?” statements? This is similar. You’re pinning your fears down and making sure you have a practical fix to hand.
Of course, not all fears and anxieties can be rationalized in this way. But, in pulling out those that can be, you’ll alleviate at least some of your pre-workshop stress.
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3. Create an “MVP checklist” for your workshop
Your “MVP checklist” sets out the minimum criteria you need to meet before you can mentally declare yourself as ready.
There are lots of things you can’t control—like what kind of mood your workshop participants will be in, or what the weather will be like that day. Other factors are very much in your hands. Those are the ones that will go into your MVP checklist.
This is basically the same as “preparing and getting organized”, but we’re turning it into a list because, well, lists are great: they provide structure, they focus the mind on purpose and action, and the simple act of writing a list can be a stress-reliever in itself.
So: What do you want to have in place by the time your workshop rolls around? What are the minimum steps you need to take in order to prepare?
- Slide deck ready
- 2 ice-breaker activities prepared
- Flashcards with notes to help jog my memory
- Slide deck reviewed by 1 other person ahead of workshop
- Ideation playlist ready (at least 5 songs)
- Practice intro speech once in front of the mirror
As you accomplish each item, tick it off your list. Every time you find yourself worrying about your workshop, refer back to the list and view it as a reminder that everything’s under control.
The MVP checklist technique is a great way to get organized and to resist the temptation to over-prepare (and over-stress). In writing the list, you make a deal with yourself: Once I’ve done everything on my list, I can officially accept that I’m ready to facilitate this workshop.
4. Master the art of improvisation
It’s important to be prepared for your workshop. Equally, it’s important to be prepared to be unprepared.
Facilitating a workshop is a lot like being a performer. You’re like a host on a live TV show; as much as you can prepare your lines and follow an agenda, there’s a high chance you’ll also need to improvise.
This is especially true of a workshop. You can’t plan exactly what your participants are going to say or how they’re going to respond. As a facilitator, it’s your job to read the room and adapt accordingly.
For many facilitators, it’s this unpredictable, unknown element that causes the most anxiety.
So: if you can work on getting comfortable with improvisation, I’m almost certain you’ll notice your pre-workshop nerves decreasing.
But how do you do that?
- Hone your craft as a workshop facilitator. Being a great facilitator isn’t just about planning solid agendas and being a good public speaker. You also need some techniques for on-the-spot problem-solving and adapting when things don’t quite go to plan. If this isn’t an area you’re super confident in, pick up some tried-and-tested facilitation techniques in the AJ&Smart Facilitation Guidebook (it’s free).
- Practice and gain confidence through real-world experience. Seek out public-speaking opportunities and throw yourself in at the deep end. Go in with just a fraction of the preparation you’d do for a professional workshop, purely to give your improv muscles a workout. Of course, we only recommend doing this in less formal, low-stakes settings. Try searching “public speaking groups” on platforms like Meetup (for example, this public speaking & improv. practice group in New York or Toastmasters groups all over the world).
The more you practice, the more confident you’ll become. Once you’ve proven to yourself (and a crowd) that you can adapt and improvise without any major disasters, going into a workshop where you’re actually prepared will feel way less daunting.
As a workshop facilitator, don’t rely exclusively on your ability to plan and prepare. Master the art of improvisation, too. With a bit of experience, you can learn to think on your feet and feel comfortable doing so. Over time, you’ll find that you have much less fear of the unknown when facilitating workshops.
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5. Move, breathe, and be mindful
As the workshop draws closer and your nerves intensify, incorporate one or two stress-relieving practices into your daily routine.
Here are some proven techniques you can try to keep anxiety at bay:
- Box breathing: When you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. This message is then passed on to your body, helping to lower your heart rate and reduce physical tension. Box breathing is a simple way to gain control of your nerves: exhale for the count of four, hold empty lungs for the count of four, inhale for the count of four, hold it in for the count of four, and repeat. We love this technique because you can do it anywhere, at any time.
- Take a walk, go for a run, or dance around your living room: Physical activity releases endorphins (aka feel-good hormones), improves alertness and concentration, helps you sleep better, and generally enhances overall cognitive function. And the good news? You don’t need to run marathons to reap the benefits. Research has found that as little as 5 minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects. So, in the lead-up to your workshop, schedule in some physical activity to keep your nerves in check.
- Meditation, yoga, and mindfulness: In addition to aerobic exercise, you can give your mind a workout, too. Mindfulness and meditation help you to train your attention in order to achieve a mental state of calm concentration. There are countless proven benefits of mindfulness and meditation—including stress and anxiety relief. Whether it’s ten minutes a day in your bedroom or a full-on yoga class, taking this time out to center your mind will help to alleviate facilitation-induced nerves.
Make self-care a core part of your workshop preparation. Build aerobic exercise, mindfulness practices, and deep breathing techniques into your weekly or daily routine in order to manage both long-term stress and pre-workshop nerves.
6. Have your cheerleading squad on standby
If you’re feeling stressed or nervous and not-quite-good-enough, you might not be in a position to (convincingly) tell yourself that you’re good at what you do, nothing bad is going to happen, and come on, you’ve got this.
This is where your cheerleading squad comes in. The night before the workshop, or the hour before, or ten minutes before—whenever you anticipate your nerves will be at their peak—enlist a good friend, family member, or colleague to give you a pep talk.
It’s incredibly empowering to voice your fears and have someone else—someone whose opinion you trust and respect—challenge them.
You love Robyn; they’re a great friend/colleague/cousin, and they know what’s what. You can always rely on them to tell you the truth. They wouldn’t tell you you’re great and that everything’s going to be ok unless they really meant it.
So: Text Robyn. Let them know about your upcoming workshop and how nervous you’re feeling. Ask them if they can be on standby for a call on the day, or if they can send you a no-nonsense, straight-talking, confidence-boosting email.
They say a problem shared is a problem halved, and it’s often true. Sharing your fears with a trusted friend helps to diminish them and take away some of their power. And, if you’re unable to be your own cheerleader, get someone else to step in.
7. Step into your workshop participants’ shoes
If you’re feeling nervous about facilitating a workshop, take a moment to envision yourself not as the workshop facilitator, but as someone participating in the workshop.
As a workshop participant, do you notice every single mistake the facilitator makes? Do you judge them mercilessly if they stumble over their words or lose their thread? Do you write them off as a terrible, useless facilitator if there’s an awkward silence?
What do you remember most from the workshop? Is it that one little blip at the beginning when the facilitator’s slides wouldn’t load, or is it the funny icebreaker game you played and the interesting things you learned?
The truth is, no one is judging you as harshly as you’re judging yourself. Your workshop participants aren’t sitting there waiting for you to mess up. They’re not fixating on your mistakes or committing every blip to memory.
Treat yourself with the same compassion and empathy you would have if the tables were turned.
Step into your participants’ shoes and remember that they’re on your side. You might feel nervous, but your audience won’t even notice it. And if they do? I can guarantee they’re not judging you for it. Channel the empathy and respect you’d have for anyone else facilitating a workshop, and give it to yourself.
8. Expect, accept, and embrace your nerves
This post is all about managing your nerves—but there’s power in accepting them, too.
This piece of advice comes from Jonathan Courtney, expert workshop facilitator and CEO of AJ&Smart. Jonathan says:
“One of the best things I’ve learned about feeling nervous before or during a workshop is to just expect and accept that you are going to be nervous, and that that is actually ok. I used to fight it; I used to overcompensate for feeling nervous and come across a little cocky, or I’d get so annoyed with myself for not being able to sleep the night before. Now, when I have a workshop coming up, I already know in advance: I’m not going to sleep well, and I’m going to be nervous. Rather than fighting against it, I try to accept it, and that actually helps me feel better.”
Remember at the beginning of this post when we talked about where nerves and anxiety come from, and how they’re a natural part of being human? Keep that in mind.
It’s useful to apply nerve-reducing techniques and practices, but it’s also helpful to accept that your nerves will be there. Expect them and embrace them as part of being a successful person who does great things and frequently steps out of their comfort zone.
Don’t get so caught up in trying to control and manage your nerves that you lose sight of what’s actually important. Expect them and accept them, be prepared for the discomfort they bring, and don’t waste too much energy trying to fight them.
9. Celebrate your success
In the height of your nerves, remember that this workshop is not the be-all and end-all. Yes, it’s your job and you want to do it well. You absolutely should plan for it and do everything in your power to make sure it’s a success.
But what happens afterwards?
What will you do when you leave the workshop, buzzing with energy and feeling invincible?
After all the adrenaline and weeks of preparation, it’s important to celebrate your success. Plan for your reward, whether it’s grabbing dinner at your favorite restaurant, watching a movie, or going for a swim—anything you’ll look forward to after the workshop.
By scheduling something in directly after the workshop, you’ll be able to visualize yourself in that moment. If you feel the nerves getting the better of you, picture yourself thirty minutes after the workshop is over: you’re eating your favorite food, you’re laughing with friends or enjoying a nice swim. You already feel better, right?
Give yourself something positive to focus on directly after the workshop. This will help to put the workshop in perspective: it’s one event in your diary that day, followed by another (fun) event. Your facilitation nerves won’t last forever. In a matter of minutes or hours, you’ll be onto the next thing.
We hope you find these tips and techniques helpful for reducing facilitation anxiety. For more advice on becoming a more confident facilitator, check out this guide on how to run an effective workshop.
Photos by Christina Morillo