How to Plan a Workshop

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

I’ve put together ten tips for planning a workshop based on my experiences planning workshops since 2005 when I was originally trained as an IFMSA trainer. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and realised the hard way you can’t please everyone – but here’s a rough guide to the questions I ask myself when I’m putting together a workshop in any context, clinical or otherwise.

1. Know your context

Before you start to plan the workshop there is some basic information event organisers should have passed to you (but you might need to ask for): the number of participants and who they are (eg background, skill level, where this fits in a wider education programme etc). Planning an event is a massive undertaking. Before you get too far into it, think about why you want to host it. It’s the least glamorous part of the whole shebang, but you’ve got to figure out how you’re paying for all the fun stuff (food, speakers, swag, confetti canons, chairs, tables, find out table liners cheap providers). Events can, after all, get pretty pricey. The needs of a group of medical students in Rwanda are very different from some higher EM trainees in Oxford, who have different needs and expectations from a collection of multidisciplinary professionals interested in paediatric critical care at an unnamed (!) international conference in Berlin.

2. What are you trying to achieve?

Organisers may have their own objectives but you should really ensure that you understand and own your intended outcomes. It’s worth thinking about an over-arching theme: for the smaccDUB paeds workshop smaccMINI this was the idea that anyone can deliver good paediatric critical care: the objectives were to build confidence among attendees to use their existing adult practice skillset and to actively build on this by outlining some key aspects of paediatric practice they could think about differently.

3. Know your audience

You might have access to a list of the attendees in advance – if you are able to contact them with a brief questionnaire about their thoughts and expectations from the session, this can be really helpful. This is something which worked well prior to the social media workshops at smaccGOLD and smaccUS: we were able to ascertain that a large number of participants wanted specific information about website hosting and podcasting in Chicago whereas in Gold Coast we’d had more complete social media newbies looking for an introduction to twitter.

4. Time management

Start with a clear idea of the time constraints on your session: allow flexibility and most importantly, breaks! As a rule I think around 30mins per 4hr workshop is needed; you might have this as a single longer break or a couple of shorter breaks – and you might plan for more than this (particularly if the workshop is intense!)

5. Consider your resources

To plan an effective workshop you need to consider the space and resources available to you. Some things you may be able to change or adapt – some things you won’t.


  • The physical space, including chairs, tables, other objects, projectors, screens, lighting, walls (are they fixed? Moveable? Can you stick things on them?), access to toilets and food (will this mean you have to plan long breaks for the distances involved?). How do you want the room to be set up – participants in rows, small groups, tables or no tables? All of these things will shape how your workshop will actually work in practice.
  • The participants, especially number: how will they be able to move around in the space you have?
  • Audiovisual setup: can you connect your laptop/macbook, do you need a special adaptor? Can you play sound through speakers or will you need to bring one? I always take one of these and one of these
  • The expendibles: paper, pens, post-it notes, blu-tack. Will these provided or do you need to buy them in advance?

I’d suggest starting a document with a list of the resource stuff you need under these headings when you start your planning, and adding to it as you go along. It’ll provide a handy checklist.

6. Plan interactivity

I find it is helpful to start to think about content by first figuring out the elements of interactivity. Remember, a workshop is NOT a small group lecture and you are probably short-changing your learners by treating it as such. Be inventive – how can you bring your topic to life? Allow time for a brief and debrief for each interactive exercise: if you are planning a workshop on a medical education topic I’d wholeheartedly recommend planning some metacognitive debrief time on the exercise itself; asking four key questions

  • What happened during the exercise? (the facts, a narrative from brief to conclusion)
  • What did this mean? (an interpretation of the exercise – what you learned from it)
  • Why did we choose this particular exercise – did it work well?
  • How could you adapt the exercise for a different educational topic?

This will make more sense when you read “the Horror Movie” exercise example on the examples of interactivity post (separate).

The point of this is that when you plan a meded workshop you are educating people on education – so it’s essential to also break down your educational activity so they can learn from not only the lesson but the way it was taught. It’s a bit meta… sorry!

7. Facilitation: use your participants

It’s very unusual to find yourself running a workshop on a topic on which not one participant knows anything, so you might want to think about ways you can harness the group’s existing knowledge. Funnily enough, this is in line with medical education theory for adult learners – in particular Lewin’s change cycle and Constructivist theory.

Ways you might do that include brainstorming, sharing in pairs and feeding back to the group, dividing the topic into different areas and having small groups work on each one, then sharing… And this is particularly great not just because it makes your participants feel invested in your topic but it also reduces the amount of work you have to do yourself.

8. Plan an intro/scene setting

Decide how you are going to start the session. Do you want to provide some context about what you plan to cover, or why it is important? Just like traditional lectures, better buy-in is achieved with a “James Bond” intro (as Vic Brazil calls it) – the car chase first, the backstory afterwards.

9. Plan an ending/conclusion

Again, your workshop will have better lasting impact if you finish on something memorable. What that is depends on the workshop; for ZenMed at dasTTC in Copenhagen we finished with a critical care dance (a good way to wake up our participants for the next session!); for the feedback workshop we shared learning points and facilitated a shared list which we typed straight into a googledoc and shared with participants.

10. Get ready, get set, go! Then reflect, adjust, repeat

So you’ve planned everything, you’ve got a workshop structure and all your resources – off you go! And while you’re going, have a trusted (well-versed in meaningful feedback) colleague sit in to provide you with honest reflections on what worked and what didn’t. Try some structured reflection on the workshop to learn from your mistakes and successes; I like the five-finger method:

  • What was good? (thumbs up)
  • What did you learn? (index finger)
  • What didn’t work? (middle finger)
  • What did you enjoy? (ring finger)
  • What was there too little/too much of? (little finger)

If you can take yourself through the reflection you’ll be able to adjust your workshop so the next time it’s even better than before 🙂



Before you go please don’t forget to…

Cite this article as: Natalie May, "How to Plan a Workshop," in St.Emlyn's, June 23, 2017,

4 thoughts on “How to Plan a Workshop”

  1. Pingback: How to Plan a Workshop – Global Intensive Care

  2. Thanks Nat. Love the idea of a car chase intro. Do you do this before setting objectives etc or welcome+objectives then bang?

  3. Pingback: Interactive Ideas for Workshops - St.Emlyn's

  4. Pingback: #dasTTC in Copenhagen. Day 3. - St.Emlyn's

Thanks so much for following. Viva la #FOAMed

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