3 Strategies for Impactful Online Workshops

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Our team at HEI is forever hungry to deepen our skill sets in organizational and collective learning. Nothing gets us more excited than a meaningful exchange with colleagues and clients that results in a fresh “aha moment” or an insight that leads to new strategies, stronger decision-making, and more effective action. This is truly the common denominator to all of the research and evaluation work we do with foundations, community-based organizations, and institutions of higher education.

As much of our collective learning endeavors have moved online since the COVID-19 pandemic—and as we foresee many staying virtual—our team of researchers and facilitators have honed several strategies and tactics for ensuring an online workshop is engaging, dynamic, and impactful. We share three of our favorites below and would love to hear your thoughts!

Strategy #1: Set the stage.

Help your participants feel psychologically safe, clear on expectations, and focused on intended outcomes by setting the stage for your workshop appropriately. Without clear ground rules, participants are less likely to end up feeling successful at the end of your workshop.

You can accomplish this in a handful of ways. Three of our favorites are: 

  • Assigning pre-work, such as a brief reading, a video to watch, or a reflection/brainstorming exercise. This helps to prime your participant for the ideas and concepts you’ll engage, plus it engenders investment in your workshop before you’ve even opened your Zoom room. 
  • Setting expectations in pre-event communications that the event will be interactive and that cameras should be on to allow for purposeful engagement.
  • Opening your workshop with an exercise that helps participants connect to both one another and to the core reason they are attending. Put another way, connect them to the who (the human or communal facet of your convening) and the why (the motivator). This could be as simple as giving them a few minutes to individually reflect on why they’re attending or what is important to them about the workshop topic and then dividing them into groups of two or three to share their “whys” with fellow participants. Again, this helps increase investment in the workshop’s outcomes—plus it helps participants feel more connected to one another and the space you’re co-creating together.

Strategy #2: Create space for active learning.

Help your participants to identify what they want to learn, facilitate that learning, and create space for them to reflect on that learning further. The days of the passive (and rather boring) “webinar 1.0” are over, where an expert or panel of experts speak at a group of online participants and then answer some questions at the end. Instead, we now know it is possible—and exponentially more effective—to facilitate an active online learning experience in which participants can absorb, reflect on, even create, and actively engage new ideas with partners, workshop leaders, and the group as a whole. This can be accomplished through a wide range of activities, such as 1:1 and small group breakout rooms with a structured learning prompt or activity; large group connection exercises designed to cull the wisdom of the group and elevate the input of all attendees (not just a few leaders or the loudest voices); and individual reflection time, guided and shaped by questions that invite creative thinking and introspection.

Strategy #3: Maximize your planning time.

It can be tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that all the magic happens at “go-time”—that it’s all about your performance during an actual event. And while your ability to be present, engaged, and adaptive during your workshop is essential, the real magic lies in your preparation. Have you spent time to design, choreograph, and even script each minute of your workshop for maximum impact, clarity, and flow? Have you worked with your event partners and colleagues to run through everyone’s roles, transitions from one activity to the next, instructions to your participants, and all the tech needed to make the experience smooth? If you maximize your planning time by scheduling several sessions to prepare—each with strategic objectives and agendas—your participants will be all the better served.


What other strategies have you found effective? Where have you encountered challenges or obstacles? Please reach out to us with any learnings or questions—we’d always love to connect and help you solve your online event conundrums!