This month’s article is by Osbert Lancaster. Here he shares an invaluable technique for engaging participants in a workshop setting.

‘I’d already sidled out of the previous workshop. If I left this one too, I’d be wasting more of my time and money. So instead of walking out, I decided to step up.

“Unconferences” – where participants offer, and then lead, workshop sessions on topics they choose, are a great concept. But if that person, whatever their other qualities, doesn’t have some basic presentation and facilitation skills…

The speaker talked aimlessly about their chosen topic. Once the participants realised this wasn’t what they’d expected, they became restless and then resigned, checking their phones or staring out of the window.

I’d had enough. “Excuse me James,” I interrupted. Everyone looked up. “I’m not sure we’re all following you. Could we turn this around and ask you some questions about topic X?” A bit brutal, but the best I could come up with. James actually looked a bit relieved.

I turned to the others, “Can I suggest we spend a few moments talking with our neighbour about the things we most want to know about topic X? Does anyone have any objections? It that OK James?”

No one hesitated. The room was soon buzzing. After a short while I invited everyone to tell us all what came up in their paired discussion. A few themes quickly emerged and James was able to share his very real expertise – this time addressing the specific issues the participants wanted to know about.

“Turn and talk” is a really effective and simple activity – not just for workshops, but also for meetings. Used near the start it gets everyone in the room talking, so they are all confident to join in later, preventing a few people dominating discussion. It’s a great way to take the temperature: to hear people’s issues and concerns which can then be addressed or otherwise taken forward. It can also help with difficult decisions as people are more comfortable talking one on one than to the whole group, and more people’s views and ideas are heard.’

Osbert Lancaster is a facilitator of sustainability-related events and a specialist in green behaviour change based in Edinburgh. He believes in the power of conversation. Read his 11 suggestions to make conferences a space for great conversations.