In August, I traveled to Baltimore to give a workshop at the fourth Money for Our Movements conference sponsored by GIFT, the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training. The conference brought together 650 organizers and activists from across North America who work for social, racial, and economic justice.
My session was in a hot, windowless basement room in an old campus building. It’s the kind of room where countless college students have fallen asleep during early morning English class.
I pushed the chairs, the kind with a mini-desk bolted to one side, into half-circles facing the front of the room. Lacking an easel, I taped some flip chart paper on the blackboard.
Within ten minutes, all the chairs were filled and at least twenty people were sitting on the floor. A few enterprising participants found a bench in the hallway and carried it into the classroom, convincing everyone else to slide over to make room. People were spilling out into the hall.
Worst Training Room, Best Workshop
By every objective measure – temperature, space, comfort, lack of natural light, etc. – it was the worst possible training room.
But it was also the most satisfying workshop I have facilitated this year.
Why? Because everyone in the room (did I say it was a miserable room?) really, really wanted to be there. So they jumped in and did the work.
Three Important Strategies for Engaging Your Audience
Here’s why the workshop was a success despite the conditions. They worked for me and they’ll work for you too.
1. Start with a great hook.
I began the session with this question: “Who has ever attended bad class, a bad seminar, or any bad learning experience?” Of course, everyone laughed, because who hasn’t? Each of us is an expert on “bad.”
I gave them a few minutes to talk with a partner, and then captured their wisdom on a piece of flip chart paper. This simple strategy does a great job of getting everyone talking and reinforcing their innate wisdom about how to teach and how to learn.
Using a flip chart to collect participant feedback is MUCH more engaging than asking people for their thoughts and then showing them your pre-written PowerPoint list!
2. Empower the group to meet its own needs.
Once the tide of humanity came rolling in the door, I pretty much stood back and let group figure out how to fit everyone in. Somehow, it worked.
After the introductory hook, I introduced an exercise called “Features and Benefits.” It begins by distributing common objects – in this case, plastic spoons – to small groups.
I had ten spoons and about 75 people. Rather than having everyone count off, I improvised the following instructions: “I need ten people to come up and each take one spoon. Everybody else, find someone with a spoon and gather around. Working in small groups – one group per spoon, one spoon per group – your job is to brainstorm all the features and benefits of the spoon.”
(If you want to know more about how and why this exercise works, you can download it here: Features and Benefits – What Are We Selling.)
The class organized itself beautifully. Several small groups stayed in the room; others gathered in the hallway where they had more space. Within two minutes, they were all deep into the exercise. If I had tried to organize things myself, it would have taken five times as long and they would have been less involved.
3. Give them work to do.
During the 90-minute class, I spent less than 30 minutes talking at the front of the room. My work consisted of setting up three exercises – one contest, one brainstorm, one role-play – and then debriefing the exercises when they were completed.
The rest of time, the class was working in pairs or small groups, coming up with ideas and trying out new skills. Because they were fully engaged, they were also directing their own learning, mastering the things they needed to know.
Double Down on Engagement
We learn best when we are active. Even when the space is cramped, hot, and ugly, we will forgive and forget a lot of physical discomfort – but only if we are engaged in the work and having fun.
Regardless of your training environment, remember this: double down on engagement.