Event Management

How To Ensure Your Workshops Are Interactive and Increase Participation

Skift Take

So you cut down the number of speakers and replaced them with workshops but you’re still worried about participation. Calling something a workshop isn’t enough. You need to incorporate these ideas to get your attendees engaged.

There’s something about the human voice that is naturally soothing. Just listen to a bedtime story, or a boring speaker for that matter, and you’re blissfully lulled into sleep. But while that may be ideal for bedtime, it isn’t for an attendee. You don’t want attendees drifting to nap time when they could be actively participating in sessions.

Most calls for speakers these days include notes about preferential treatment for speakers who plan an interactive session. Some speaker applications require the speaker to explain how they will engage the audience. But more often than not, it comes down to the same old presentation but instead of having questions at the end, they’re interspersed. Maybe the speaker even goes so far as to break people up into teams, but ultimately it’s still speaker-led interaction.

What if you want something more?



5 Simple Rules to Increase Event Workshop Participation

  1. Make sure it’s what your audience wants.
  2. Select a dynamic leader or team lead.
  3. Arrange the seating for maximum interaction.
  4. Make it actionable and applicable.
  5. Accommodate different learning styles and preferences.

Before you go out and rework your entire event from speaker-based to workshops, there are a few things you should know about how to make the most of the workshops. Just because you switch to an interactive format, doesn’t mean everyone will immediately begin participating. You need to set up the optimum environment first.

  1. You Need Audience Interest

It’s essential to make sure you have the type of audience that wants to get involved. While it doesn’t always come down to generations, it’s important to understand those who were educated in the U.S. over the past 25 years, were most likely part of team learning. They broke into groups, discussed findings, gave presentations, and often experienced a very democratic way of learning. Students took presenter roles and faced conversation-type and small-group discussion as part of the learning process.

Before this group even went to school their cartoons were asking their opinions on things and asking for help. For instance, how many times does Dora the Explorer ask her audience to help her find something on screen?

On the other hand, if they were educated 30-40 years ago,  they grew up as part of the Sesame Street generation that was the first to introduce brief learning snippets. Experts at the time were concerned those who grew up watching the show would have shortened attention spans, which is humorous now.

For these two groups, interaction is probably welcome. However, if your audience is comprised of early Boomers or members of the Silent Generation, they believe in the knowledge of the leader. If you don’t have an expert, they may wonder why they’re in attendance. If they came to learn, they’ll expect someone to lead the discourse.

  1. The Leader Matters. Select Accordingly.

There are some people who can bring out interaction and discourse in a room full of shy people and then there are others that make people uninterested in sharing. The facilitator you choose in this role is essential. And yes, there has to be one. Even if you have your attendees come into a room, find their seats, and watch video directions (or read them from a screen), you need someone who can diffuse arguments, encourage interaction, and other in the moment emotional draws.

In the article “Ten Simple Rules for Running Interactive Workshops” authors Katrina Pavelin, Sangya Pundir, and Jennifer A. Cham suggest the following tips for finding the ideal facilitator:

  • Carefully brief them to ensure they know how to moderate according to your interactive goals for the session (or select them for their ability to do so).
  • Facilitators need to be impartial coordinators: “neither contributing ideas, nor evaluating them, but rather encouraging input from participants in their group. They keep discussions on time and remind participants to note down all their points, sometimes actually doing this for them whilst they are speaking. Facilitators may also note further ideas onto the artifacts as they arise during the presenting-back phase and subsequent discussion with everyone in the room.”
  • Facilitators needn’t have substantial subject expertise, but it is helpful for them to have a basic understanding of the concepts being explored.
  • The facilitators should monitor the groups and, if there is time, “they may consider reshuffling them during the breaks, as this can boost creativity.”

If you switch to a workshop format, this also opens up the sessions to a different crop of leaders. Subject matter expert speakers are not the same as workshop facilitators. Speakers must be presenting new thoughts and learning, while facilitators are focussed on cultivating the community knowledge and sharing.

  1. Arrange the Seating for Maximum Interaction

This sounds like such a basic thing but it has big implications on your attendee’s ability to communicate with one another. Ever attend a class of a new teacher? They have brilliant, creative ideas about how the desks should be arranged for maximum interaction among students. A few weeks in, the desks are back to the way they’ve always been because the new flow did increase interaction…a little too much.

Most interactive sessions at events use the go-to round, banquet tables that seat 8-10. That’s good for small group interaction, right?


It’s good for small group professional sharing. It keeps everyone at a professional distance. If you’re across the table from a member of your team, you’re a respectable six feet or so away. This arrangement can also be quite loud as team members may need to talk above others to be heard.

Plus, people naturally gravitate to where they feel most comfortable. If you allow attendees to sit at their own tables, they are likely to be with people they know well. Those who prefer not to participate will sit towards the back, while those who thrive on participation will sit in the front. This makes the tables lopsided based on location. All the non-participants will be together and all the eager beavers will be as well.

This location bias may cause non-participants to treat the projects in a joking manner and the eager beavers may be shouting to be heard over one another since participation is what they thrive on.

Instead, try something creative like lounge furniture or seats in a chevron pattern. Lounge seating allows people to be comfortable and creates an intimacy that makes it easy for even reticent people to share. The chevron pattern also removes distances.

If the event allows, look to place your interactive sessions in non-traditional spaces. When people are in an ordinary learning environment, like a traditional hotel seminar setting, they will act accordingly. Get them into a creative setting or at the very minimum creative seating, and they’ll have a more meaningful exchange.

  1. Make It Actionable and Applicable

While it might be nice to spend your interactive time talking about fanciful what-ifs, it will be much more beneficial for your attendees if the interaction is applicable to their current roles and what they learn or take away is actionable to them as well. For instance, if you’re hosting a medical society event and your workshop is about addressing office HR issues, instead of hammering away at debates over the government’s role in equal pay, your attendees will get a lot more out of workshopping topics that they could go home and implement that day.

What’s Wrong with the Larger Issues?

There’s a time and a place for addressing the larger issues at events. This is likely a valuable discussion in a speaker-led session or a panel. For a workshop, you want a topic that people will have experience with and feel comfortable sharing. Larger, politically-fueled questions often shut people down, not facilitate exchange.

By selecting topics that are of interest and importance in their lives, you will find those with answers will share them and those who don’t have them will be very interested in the exchange. They will also contribute by posing additional questions that will fuel the discussion.

However, in order to make your workshops actionable and applicable, you need to understand your attendee very well. For instance, hosting a workshop on best practices in the medical office with a large group of medical professionals on the verge of retirement is likely not the best topic.

Find out what they are interested in and more importantly, discover their challenges. People often want to discuss challenges because those are the things that keep them from success. Topics for workshops should be looked at differently than topics for keynotes or subject matter expert-led sessions. Workshops are active learning experiences and the topics should reflect that.

  1. Accommodate Different Learning Styles and Preferences

Here’s the tricky one – personalize the learning experience for everyone in the room. Sound difficult? Perhaps, a little.

Subject matter experts can’t agree on the different learning styles. There’s something like 71 on the books but there are seven that are most commonly talked about. These include:

  • Visual
  • Aural
  • Verbal
  • Physical

And the three more recently added:

  • Solitary
  • Social
  • Logical

If you are lucky enough to know which of these your group falls into, you’ve saved yourself some time. For instance, if you’re hosting a workshop for engineers or mathematicians, you may be able to safely guess that they are logical learners. They’re going to aim to understand the logic and the reasoning behind what is discussed in the workshop. They are less likely to grab an idea and run with it without first examining it and testing it with logic.

However, since most of us don’t have the convenience of knowing how our attendees learn best, you’ll need to employ all aspects of learning – visual idea presentations, aural and written directions, social interaction, solitary processing time, and the ability to write out or sketch conclusions.

These different learning styles can be used throughout. They shouldn’t be steps or directions that must be followed. For instance, a physical learner may need to doodle the concept to fully grasp it. In an interactive workshop allow people to present in ways that work for them, not as an order to “doodle” the final result. For instance, an aural learner will need to talk out their ideas with the group.

Make sure different kinds of learners are represented in each group but this can also be frustrating for some. Another option is to allow them to self-select which type of learner they are and break them into groups accordingly. However, know that the group of solitary learners will most likely come up with ideas on their own and (might) share them just before time is called. That doesn’t mean they won’t have a cohesive group and a good learning experience. It just means they need to go within their own heads without interruption before interacting with others on the topic.

In Conclusion

If your goal is to create a more interactive forum at your event, switching out speakers for workshops is not enough. Workshops don’t equate to instant participation. Often people feel standoffish and hesitant to share in front of unfamiliar groups. Instead, you need to use facilitators who can help people with a meaningful exchange, place furniture in positions that encourage discussion, understand and incorporate learning styles, and select topics that are of interest and ones in which discussed solutions can be implemented immediately.

But before you do all of this to ensure your workshops are bastions of interactivity, it’s important to assess whether it’s a format your attendees will enjoy. While most do, there are the rare groups that would rather have subject matter experts present the most recent findings. Perhaps, some of them have trouble sleeping.

Additional Reading on Making Events More Interactive

The Power of Group Interaction in Winning Events
5 Interactive Ways to Get Real-Time Event Feedback
5 Steps to Make Your Event More Interactive
The 15 Foundations of Interactive Meetings
6 Simple Ways to Turbo-charge Learning and Retention at Meetings
12 Ways to Add Fun to Serious Events
An Event Planner’s Guide to Engaging Room Layouts
7 Effective Ways to Increase Participation at Your Events
4 Criteria to Select an Amazing Event Moderator
18 More Fun Seating Ideas