Client Collaboration: 10 Tips For A Successful Workshop

I’ve had great success holding workshops with clients to develop brand plans, build digital strategies, kick off projects, and plan campaigns.

Workshops can eliminate our two most common barriers: inefficiency and misalignment.

Think about how long it typically takes to get planning and strategy off the ground. One week’s worth of feedback easily stretches into two. Revisions eat up a third, just in time for that crucial client to go on vacation for a fourth. A well-planned workshop can accomplish more in one day than constant rounds of emails would in a month.

Alignment on the client’s side is another common pain point. Nobody wants to go back to the drawing board when the head of operations finally gets looped in and vetoes the whole direction. Holding a workshop ensures that all the relevant voices are heard in a way that enables dialogue, well before the wheels are put into motion. When everyone feels they’ve had a say in the output of the workshop, they stay invested in the plan they made together.

So, what does a successful workshop look like? Here are ten rules I employ to ensure my sessions with clients are fruitful.

1. Get the right people in the room

A workshop is an amazing opportunity to pull knowledge from other people aside from your immediate clients or the marketing team. Sales, technology and operations will have insights into the company and its customers that will help round out discussion in the room, and will expedite alignment later on.

2. Have a plan  

A workshop isn’t an open-ended brainstorm. A successful workshop has an objective, a desired output, and a plan for how to get there.

Each component of the workshop should have a purpose, and you should know what the output is going to be from it. Even introductory/”ice-breaker” activities should directly relate to the goal.

I typically provide attendees an agenda of the workshop beforehand, but only with the names of the different components and approximate timings. I keep a printout of my fully detailed plan in front of me during the session, with my notes on the exact process/directions I want to follow for each component.

3. Get rid of technology

A workshop is a chance for a group of people to interact with each other without distractions. I often insist on a “no laptops or phones” rule, but let the room know they’ll be able to check email and put out fires during the breaks. And for the most part, people actually enjoy the rare luxury of being away from their devices.

Likewise, I rarely use more than two or three slides at the start of the workshop to set the scene. I keep time on a wristwatch, make my notes in a notebook, and consult the detailed agenda I’ve printed out.

4. Everyone does homework

Giving your workshop attendees a homework assignment puts them in the right frame of mind to tackle the workshop objective. It’s also a chance for them to do some thinking in advance.

The homework doesn’t have to be complicated. Some things that work for me are to have them bring in a object that they feel represents their company (currently or in the future), write a description of who they think the most important audience/customer is, or make a list of five adjectives describing how they see their company.

I do the homework too, which also includes having a very good understanding of my clients’ business, the problems they face, and their customers. Ideally, I have time for at least a few weeks of discovery that includes customer research and stakeholder interviews.

5. Throw out the plan

Not entirely, of course; but be flexible. When a great discussion unfolds, don’t halt the progress. Feel free to keep it going regardless of your original time estimate. When I build my workshop agenda, I allocate 15% of the total time to contingency. This gives me the flexibility to let certain components run long. It’s also not a big deal if we don’t use it - no one ever complains about ending a bit early or having a bit of extra time in their day.  

By the same token, if one of the components you’ve planned isn’t quite working, don’t force it - just move on to what’s next (and maybe have an alternate activity in your back pocket, just in case).

6. Have a point of view

The workshop is about pulling out information and getting opinions from the participants – and that includes you. You’re walking into the room with your own hypothesis, and your point of view has value. There’s no need to force your thinking on the clients, but attendees are more likely to elaborate on their own opinions when you can follow or steer their line of thinking.

7. Don’t solve everything in the room

A workshop is only the first step, and it can be easy to get bogged down in specifics during the session. Don’t let this happen, and remind the room regularly that you don’t need to solve everything today. Your job as the moderator is to make sure that the strategies are captured. The finer points will be finessed in your post-workshop recap.

8. Take Breaks

Big discussions can be taxing on everyone. Breaks give people time to relax a bit, absorb what’s been said, think about what else they want to add to the talks, and of course check their phones.

During these breaks, push coffee and water on the participants to help keep energy levels up. If I’m working with a food/beverage client, I’ll try to order food from both them and their competitors. Beer and wine is a great idea for the last break of the session, or when wrapping up.

9.  Wind it down

I aim to build in 30 minutes at the end of the workshop for a wrap up. It’s a chance for the attendees to sit back and reflect on what they’ve discussed while I give them an overview of my notes. This is a good opportunity to read some body language to gauge what parts excited them or were less useful.

I thank them for their time and give them timelines for next steps, and as they’re packing up, I like to close my notebook and have a more casual chat with them. What did they like? What are they expecting to see next? Since the workshop is effectively over, they’re more likely to be candid about their feelings. I find this step to be one of the most valuable.

10. Follow Up

I present my refined notes from the workshop within a week of the session. This ensures everything is still fresh in the minds of the attendees, and keeps forward momentum on the project. The follow-up is a recap of what was agreed on, or the most important points of the workshop. It’s not simply typing up the minutes of a meeting, and it often requires quite a bit of wordsmithing to solve all those problems that you promised you wouldn’t solve in the room.

A well-run workshop gets you to a better place of strategic output in less time than you would with an endless email back-and-forth. If you want more information about how a workshop can bring more efficiency and alignment to your company’s strategic solutions, drop me an email.

Parker Mason

I’m @ParkerNow on Twitter and Instagram.