If you’ve ever wondered how to make online workshops more engaging, dry meeting material come to life, or prepare like a pro for a successful presentation, here’s a collection of top questions and answers for making your next workshop, meeting, or work session more memorable, engaging, and productive.

The following Q&A session was transcribed from XPLANE’s “The Key Ingredients of Successful Facilitation: Principles, Purpose, and People” webinar. To learn more about improving your facilitation skills, check out our Design Your Facilitation Strategy course.

As a pro facilitator, I’m regularly asked how I prepare for meetings, engage my audience, use visuals in a presentation, or make “boring” material more interesting. Recently, I shared a smattering of curated presentation tips and best practices—collected over 30 years of learning—during my webinar “The Key Ingredients of Successful Facilitation: Principles, Purpose, and People.”

Throughout the webinar, I shared how skilled facilitators prepare for meetings and workshops, characteristics of a “great” workshop, and three guiding principles for designing a next-level workshop: visual thinking, co-creation, and people-centered design.

At the end of the session, attendees asked a number of wonderful questions about developing their facilitation skills. Here, we’ve transcribed select questions—some of which you may struggle with—and suggestions for addressing some of the toughest challenges around designing and leading a meeting or workshop. 

Q: How long do you spend designing, say, a 60-minute meeting?

Malarie Juricev: That’s a great question. In preparing any meeting, I spend at least as long as the session itself, if not longer. I like to think of the iceberg analogy where the tip of the iceberg is the session itself and the bulk of the iceberg—what’s unseen, under the water—is everything that goes into preparing for the session.

Naturally, if I’m leading a meeting I’ve led before, it takes less time to prepare. But if it’s a meeting I’ve never led—with a new group of participants and new objectives—and I’m designing it essentially from scratch, that takes much more time. In this situation, I may take two to three hours to prepare for an hour-long meeting.

Q: Can you talk about co-creation as it relates to designing a meeting or workshop?

Malarie Juricev: There’s so much to share about co-creation. For workshops in particular, I want to design activities everyone will be comfortable participating in. This goes to inclusivity—designing activities where everyone will be able to (and here’s the co-creation part) share their voice and their point of view. How do you design activities where everyone will be able to share their voice and their point of view in a way that’s comfortable for them?

The key is to design the right balance of activities that are approachable for all types of people and learning styles. You’ll want a balance of individual activities, small group activities, group discussions, and share-outs to ensure you hear from everybody you’ve intentionally invited to the experience.

In addition, outside of the session itself, I consider who else I want to make sure I’m hearing from. Sometimes it might not be right to invite a certain person or people to a session. It might make more sense to gather information from them in a different way.

Q: Do you have recommendations for practicing facilitating a meeting?

Malarie Juricev: Oh gosh, yes! Different people have different ways of practicing facilitation. For me, practicing involves a lot of advance repetition. Even just practicing for this webinar—and this is content I’ve presented before—I update material and refine what I’m going to say every time just to make the material more current and more me.

Typically, once I know my agenda design and the activity or activities I’ll share, I then think about points in the session during which I’ll be talking—and what I want to share. I usually start by writing out this content in a Word document in a detailed fashion, word-for-word.

Next, I print out this copy and mark it up like crazy as I rehearse it out loud. Practicing out loud is critical because hearing yourself say something helps embed the material in your brain.

As I repeat the material to myself, I get to a place where I move from detailed notes to bullets, then I move from bullet to post-it notes with just key points. Keeping the post-its in front of me, I’ll do another run through using keywords only. My goal is to get to a place where I don’t really have to look at my notes.

Success for me is when I have the material so embedded in my mind that I no longer have to use notes or I can just glance down from time to time to make sure I haven’t missed anything important. This level of confidence allows me to be more natural, more in the moment, and more flexible during my presentation. I’m also better able to allow space to invite other people to share their insights and experiences.

Q: How can I introduce more visual thinking to my presentations, especially when my audience is accustomed to text only?

Malarie Juricev: Being mindful and intentional about bringing visuals into your content can make sessions much more engaging and fun. At XPLANE, we work with clients in various sectors—academia, science, healthcare, and so on—and not everyone is accustomed to visual thinking techniques.

For groups like this, I suggest you experiment by trying visual thinking on your first slide. Take something very text-heavy you might normally present and create a version of it that introduces a visual. Use restraint. Don’t remove all the words and leave only pictures. Try to strike a balance between text and pictures.

  • Pro tip: When using visuals in a presentation for the first time, plan ahead to solicit feedback from key people about how the balance between text and visuals worked. Then use this information to tweak your presentation and make it even better.

If you believe introducing visuals will be a tough sell with your audience, you might also want to get a few people in your corner in advance. Let them know ahead of time you’ll be sharing visuals during your presentation because research indicates visuals help people remember information better. Letting people know what’s in it for them—a more meaningful, memorable experience—is key.

Q: Participants in online workshops seem to be easily distracted. How do you keep them engaged?

Malarie Juricev: That’s a tough one, and we’re learning as we go. My first piece of advice: If possible, avoid all-day online sessions. It’s hard to keep people engaged for that long. If you have flexibility, I recommend distributing content over a couple of days or more—perhaps a couple two- or three-hour sessions—depending on the amount of content you’re trying to cover.

Thinking through your workshop activities is also important. A combination of larger group activities and smaller breakout activities tends to work well. At XPLANE, we like to leverage Zoom breakout rooms to give people the opportunity to engage in a more comfortable, intimate environment. The facilitator can float around the rooms to check in on people and see how they’re doing.

  • Pro tip: Before your workshop or session, set the expectation upfront that all participants have a voice and you wish to hear from them. They’ve been invited to the workshop for a reason, and their participation will help the team move forward and achieve its objectives.

A final suggestion: Think ahead about pre-work or readings you can share with participants prior to (or between) sessions. This will not only make your session more efficient; it will help pique interest and get people invested even before the session begins.

Q: Do you have any specific suggestions for managing hybrid meetings? I’m struggling!

Malarie Juricev: The best advice I can share is to always start with a digital-first mindset. From a design perspective, that means you should assume everyone is a virtual/remote participant and design the session around that experience first. This ensures you are as inclusive as possible. In a separate blog post, we share a number of tips for leading effective hybrid meetings.

Q: Any thoughts on making dry information more exciting?

Malarie Juricev: I suggest visual thinking as a starting point to bring content to life. People understand new ideas more rapidly and clearly when they are communicated visually—and there’s a bonus: Visual thinking can help you accomplish your objectives more efficiently and effectively.

Leveraging people is another way to make dry information (and so-called “boring” meetings) more engaging. Remember, it’s not enough to just invite people to a meeting. Think about what they can add. One thing that’s helped me with this idea over the years is getting out of the mindset that everything must come from me. Find ways to get other people to share information, stories, or experiences.

  • Pro tip: Giving people a clear understanding of a tangible outcome to a “boring” meeting can help them see where they’re going—and what they can contribute to get there. Be creative and think out of the box when it comes to getting people involved.

Q: If I’m in a workshop that’s not facilitated well, how can I try to get a clear direction out of it, without taking over?

Malarie Juricev: There are so many ways to approach this. How I tailor my approach often depends on the person facilitating and my relationship to them. Generally, I will usually ask the facilitator something like “Can you restate/clarify the objective, so we can help reach the outcome together?” I try to find a polite way to understand the goals of the session and then I might add a follow-up question like “When I’ve been in meetings with a similar goal, we tried this approach (give example) and it worked really well. Would you be open to trying it?”

Q: Do you have any suggestions for how to quickly compose a run of show?

Malarie Juricev: At XPLANE, we use a template that starts with the basic agenda and layers on additional details such as key speaking points, co-facilitation support direction, technology support direction, and supplies needed. The facilitator then schedules a meeting with all support people and they review the “run of show” together, doing a mental and visual walkthrough of the session. We often catch small things that were missed and update our “run of show” document accordingly. This is a critical part of any session preparation, even if you have no support people and are doing this exercise alone.

Embrace the Learning Process

A final piece of advice for facilitators: Even though I’ve been a professional facilitator for 30 years now, I maintain a growth mindset, which helps me learn something new at every session I lead.

Over the years, this mindset has enabled me to refine my approach to designing and leading successful, positive workshops and meetings—for myself and for the people who attend them.

When you’re open to experimenting a bit, involving others, mindfully planning and practicing, and continually tweaking your approach, you’ll be well on your way to becoming facilitation-confident.

Want to learn more?

We’re excited to offer our Design Your Facilitation Strategy course.

This course will present valuable tools and tips to help facilitators become “workshop confident”—to be able to walk into any session with a solid structure in mind and the conviction participants will learn something along the way.

The course will consist of a combination of short videos that you will watch before each live session. There will be three live sessions, each about two hours long.

Learn more about our course here.