18 Secrets of Powerful Workshop Design

The Secrets of Enlightened Leadership

At the end of the workshop with John, we took a few minutes to stop and reflect on things he had done during the session that had helped deepen our learning:

1. He started with a story his unfolding Maasai Development project, which links leadership development with putting wells in the ground around the world made him more human right away, gave us an idea of the way he thinks, and the breadth of his work.

2. Immediate Pairing and SharingWhy is this the perfect time for you to be doing this workshop?’ Getting people to talk with someone early on gave participants a chance to verbally ‘present themselves’ (as in bring themselves present), helped ground us in the room, and opened our hearts and minds to learning.

3. Total Group Sharing Inviting several people to share into the whole room what they had been talking about in their pairs ‘deepened the room’ and subtly demonstrated that it was safe to be here and to speak.

4. He explained his style to us.I’ll be giving some input, showing a few overheads, then inviting you to share in pairs, and then we’ll listen to a few people and talk about it together.’ This gave us a conceptual handle on what was going to happen during the day.

5. He used stories a lot.
• The warrior and the spiritual teacher: ‘Have you never met a man who was not afraid to die?’ 
• The Robert Bly story about a man walking his dog in the forest: ‘This must be the place.’ 
• The Stutterer and the Phantom. 
• He explained the roots of important words: humble, discussion, dialogue, etc.
• In fact, he used a story to illustrate virtually every principle he taught us. His rationale is that long after we have forgotten the principle, we are likely to remember the story—and then recall the principle. 

6. Switching partners—and tables—several times. The best designs facilitate what people are moved to do when they need to do it. This allows participants to meet each other, energetically ‘networking’ below the waterline as the workshop goes along at the content level above the waterline. Switching tables gave people a different point of view (literally), keeping the energy and attention alive during a long intense day.

7. Paraphrasing what people say from the front of the room. This did several things: a) it showed the person speaking that they were truly heard—and heard accurately, b) it modeled deep listening (110%), and c) it made sure everyone heard what was said, even twice.

8. Personal sharing from his own life. In telling us things like his alcoholic father, growing up in the parsonage, etc, and allowing his emotions to show when talking about Emma and Asa, he became even more ‘real’ to us, more approachable, more ‘like us,’ and therefore more believable and credible. The paradox he has mastered so naturally: his willingness to be vulnerable makes him a more powerful presenter.

9. He acknowledged the sources of the models and theories he presented. Barry Johnson, Ted Buffington, Herb Shepard, Jack Sherwood, Ron Lippitt, Bob Crosby, etc. This modeled integrity and also connected us subtly to our ‘ancestors’ in the field.

10. He moved around, rather than standing behind a podium. This made him more ‘available’ and easier to connect with energetically. As he said, ‘I am not a sage on the stage, but a guide by your side.’

11. His overheads were simple and clear, not fancy and over-animated. This put the focus on the concepts, not the graphics.

12. He has a big ‘bag of tricks’ and pulls out what is needed, not just following his design blindly. Like his friend the General who said, ‘Planning is priceless; the plan itself is useless,’ he was willing to leave his design from time to time and seize the moment, bringing out something he didn’t plan on to address a ‘hot’ opportunity for learning emerging in the room.

13. He invites going deep, rather than demanding—or manipulating—it. By making it absolutely OK not to go somewhere, he allowed people to choose to go there, increasing their ownership of the decision and their sense of safety.

14. His simple, provocative questions cut to the heart of things, yet leave people feeling safe. 

15. His mastery of the material allows him to ‘play within the play.’ Since he knows what he’s doing so deeply, he can play variations on the theme, like a jazz musician, rather than having to play the same old music as it is written.

16. He invites questions and interruptions. This helped people relax since they know they can stop him anytime they don’t get something—or have an ‘A-Ha!’ they feel moved to share.

17. His material is solid, to the point, not ‘fluffy.’ There is ‘meat’ there, not just clever stuff. 

18. He moves as if he is truly anchored in his material, walks his talk, and is deeply respectful of us as human beings. He is not judgmental of wherever we are in our own journey. ‘It’s not a bad thing; it’s a human thing.’ ‘We’re all just trying to get to the Post Office.’

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