Preparing and moderating workshops: a few (hard-learned) tips

For my first field study, I have been conducting workshops at the Uppsala University Hospital with nurses and assistant nurses. My experience with workshops prior to starting my PhD studies was very limited, and so this has mostly been a “learning by doing” kind of process for me, where I have tried to get a little bit better every time. In this post, I would like to share with you a few tips that I have personally found very effective in helping me in my role as workshop moderator.

  • Writing a script: once I have defined the concept of the workshop, I write a detailed script covering each of its “moments”. For example, I write down how I will greet participants and introduce the study to them, and I list the different questions I am going to ask them. This forces me to really think through my workshop design, enables me to identify weaknesses in the set-up and helps me formulate better prompts as well as foresee follow-up questions (and how to answer them in the best possible way). As it requires me to visualize the whole event from beginning to end, writing a script also enables me to feel more relaxed during the real-life workshop – just because it makes me feel prepared and in control of the situation.
  • Rehearsing: as for an interview, where you learn your interview schedule by heart in order to allow for a more fluid discussion, rehearsing before a workshop aims at making it easier to moderate the discussion in diminishing the need to fully improvise. If you are well prepared and have been experimenting how to answer to different questions and situations that could arise, it is easier to adapt to unexpected events, because you have a bigger “pool” of prepared reactions that you know are appropriate. Rehearsing is also another great way to counter initial nervousness when getting started in a new content.
  • Making a checklist: a workshop typically requires a diversity of material: you need recording devices (always at least two, to be on the safe side), pens and paper for the participants, information sheets and consent forms, possibly name tags, a notepad, a clock etc. In my experience, this makes it difficult not to forget anything. Making a checklist of everything I need to bring with me to the workshop – both for the participants and for myself as moderator, has been very effective in preventing me from forgetting important elements in my office and omitting to get items out of my bag when preparing for the workshop on site (I generally always forget the notepad!).
  • Using cue cards: reading a long text during a presentation is not a good idea, and so is reading from a script during a workshop. However, cue cards work great for me. I generally write one (one-sided) cue card for every workshop moment. Something that I can recommend is to include the exact timestamp at which you expect each moment to start and end (instead of having, for example, the expected duration of each moment in minutes). This makes it easier to check whether you are on track during the workshop, without requiring you to switch focus from the conversation.
  • Learning participants’ names: I find it extremely hard to moderate a discussion if I do not know the participants’ names. It often happens that you want to ask a follow-up question to a participant, or invite a participant to speak. Another frequent need is to refer to what a person has said when summarizing what you have understood from a discussed topic, in which case knowing that person’s name is a must (I personally find using “you” and pointing very awkward when I have to do it). I also think that using your participant’s names creates a more sympathetic atmosphere. However, using names also means that the recording from the discussion is not anonymous, which can be a problem in some situations.

What do you think of those tricks? Do you have other tips when it comes to preparing and conducting workshops?