Welcome to our June 2015 newsletter: Workshops – what makes a great one?We have run more than 2000 workshops to help scientists be better communicators. We help them to plan communication, present research, talk to the media and use social media strategically.

Every single workshop is rewarding for us as facilitators. But what’s more important is how rewarding it is for the participants.This month we share our thoughts on how to run a great workshop.

Room for everyone to be equal

By Toss Gascoigne

Participants in Econnect workshops want practical; they want involvement; they want to practise the lessons of the workshop. They don’t want to be thought of as an ‘audience’, passively soaking up knowledge.

The secret of a good workshop begins with the room set-up.

We arrive at a new venue an hour in advance to check the chairs and tables. For our usual 10–20 participants, the table layout forms a hollow square.

See the hollow square? In 2014 we trained 80 researchers from the Volkswagen Foundation in Uganda how to communicate their work.

Why? Hollow squares encourage discussion, put everyone on an equal footing, allow presenters to manage the discussions – and often mean we can get away without microphones.

And we usually need a bigger room than organisers think. We need space for guest speakers; space for movement; and a place for video cameras, whiteboards, projectors and screens.

Want to kill your workshop off at the start? Use a long, narrow boardroom with 28 seats, immovable tables and obligatory microphones. And then add a lectern.

The hollow-square table layout. Image: Econnect Communication

‘Late last year, you did a training workshop at the Cape Research Centre in South Africa National Parks, teaching us scientists how to communicate effectively with the media. I was the guinea pig who did the mock radio interview with you regarding prescribed burning and burning animals, if you can recall?I just wanted to say thank you so much for my ‘baptism of fire’, as I had that exact situation in the past two weeks with the fires that burnt Table Mountain National Park. If it wasn’t for you and your training, I would have not been able to cope and be prepared. You have my utmost gratitude.’Carly Cowell, Regional Ecologist, Cape Cluster, Cape Research Centre, South African National Parks



Two heads are better than one

By Robbie Mitchell

Small-group activities are a great way to break up a workshop. Here are three reasons we get participants working together in our workshops:

It provides an opportunity for participants to introduce themselves.

Participants in our social media workshops are often strangers to each other. Getting them to introduce themselves at the start of the day, one by one, eats into the learning time. So that’s why we get participants doing small-group activities – they introduce themselves to each other. Throughout the day, we actively change the small-group dynamics to get people to partner with different participants. The workshop then doubles as a great space to network with other researchers.

It helps quieter participants get involved.

Open discussions are not for everyone, so having people work in groups of two or three allows for quieter people to voice their ideas.

It encourages critical thinking.

Giving a small group three to five minutes to consider the answer to a question can generate alternative ideas and different points of view that may not have been developed during a class discussion.

Know your participants

By Tom Dixon

We give workshops around the world to academics, industry professionals, students and CEOs alike.

We prepare our workshops based on our audience – the participants – and we teach participants to do the same.

As a scientist, you’re the expert in your field. But, the chances are, not everyone in an audience knows what you’re talking about if you use the technical language of your discipline.

It’s exactly the same when we are talking about our area of expertise – communication.

It sounds very obvious to say ‘know your audience’, but it’s amazing how many times you’ll sit through a talk where the presenter says, ‘it’s complex’, or, ‘I’ll just whiz through this bit because it’s very technical’.

A good tip we often remind ourselves of when running workshops is to ask if our grandma/neighbour/partner/child could understand what we’re explaining.

If people understand you, they feel empowered with the new knowledge they’ve received.

We say it loud, and we say it often – the best presenters, even of a workshop, are those who know their audience.

Participants ‘work’ in our workshops

By Sarah Cole

Having people work by actively taking part in a workshop is important for 3 reasons:

  1. Participants think more about how the activities apply to their own work.
  2. They engage and learn more.
  3. They’re less distracted.

We don’t just encourage interaction in our workshops; we actively plan it. Every section of the day has something for our participants to do.

Here’s how you can make it happen. Are you:

  • talking about the day’s plan? Ask participants to tell you what they need and want.
  • having a guest speaker? Open the floor to questions from the beginning, not just at the end.
  • doing individual practice presentations? Have them come to the breakout room in twos instead of one by one, so they can learn from hearing each other’s feedback.
  • teaching social media tips? Get them to write tweets and posts about their own research as you go.
  • discussing tricky media interviews? Have others participants tell their own experiences.
  • watching a video? Give people tasks related to the concept you want to get across (e.g. timing a news segment).
Feedback from participants who have done our Talking media with the scientists workshopOne of the best one-day courses I’ve attended.’The facilitators were very suited to the workshop, and very experienced. They made it very enjoyable and worthwhile.”I enjoyed the course very much and feel much more confident with dealing with media. It was great to hear from radio, TV and print journalists as to what their motivation is. They handled some tough, pointed questions from the audience.’

‘[I enjoyed] the interactive style, how well the presenters engaged the attendees and how well the presenters managed and responded (honestly!!) to our questions.’