Lately, more and more of our clients have been asking us to run content workshops for them.
These workshops focus on getting the people who are involved in creating content for websites to reflect on what they currently do, why they do it and how. The idea is to bring in new techniques and processes, and also to share the expertise of our Editorial team.
We’ve learned a lot along the way, and although each workshop we’ve done has been unique, there are some common exercises and principles we’ve found ourselves returning to again and again.
We’re sharing them here because we had real trouble ourselves finding any good online resources for workshop exercises, and so thought outlining our approach might be useful to others.
What’s a content workshop?
We’d define a content workshop as a series of exercises and talks, usually facilitated and led by an external agency over the of course a day.
The aim is to improve how an organisation governs and writes the content that it produces.
Who are content workshops for?
Just writers, right? Wrong. Everyone involved in the content creation process - from designers to senior stakeholders to photographers - will benefit from attending a content workshop, as you’ll be exploring how to improve the content production process for everyone.
In fact, the more people you can have there the better as it’s often the easiest way to get everyone on the same page.
Preparing for a content workshop
It’s important to spend plenty of time figuring out who the workshop is for and what they most need from it - we advise you take at least three days to plan and prepare with the whole facilitation team.
Get a list of the attendees and their job titles so you know exactly who’s going to be in the room and can ensure the workshop’s pitched right for that particular mix of people. The more you can find out about the attendees beforehand, the better. It’s also useful to know what space you’ll be in, and what equipment they’ll provide.
Make sure you do at least one ‘run through’ to ensure the day’s going to flow nicely, that you’ve covered all the details when it comes to how the exercises are actually going to be explained and undertaken, and that you’re not going to run out of time (or finish ridiculously early because you’ve run out of things to say!)
- Flipchart paper
- A3/A4 paper
- Sharpies (or similar pens)
- Blue Tack
- Sweets / refreshments
- A projector if using one
- Feedback forms
- Post-its of various colours.
Part 1: The INTRO rule
We always start by orientating attendees to the day using the INTRO method (taken from the Armed Forces leadership course). It’s based on the principle that people have natural barriers to learning which will stop them from taking anything in unless those barriers are addressed first.
These barriers are expressed as questions which INTRO attempts to answer.
Answers: ‘Who are you and what do you know?’
We introduce ourselves here and talk about our relevant expertise and experience. Bigging yourself up can feel a touch cringey, but this is still important to do as any intelligent audience member will quite rightly want to know what qualifies you to train them in something.
Answers: ‘Why do I need to be here?’
Give a compelling reason for why they need to give up their time to listen to you. This is obviously going to be different for every organisation and it can take some time to identify (especially given that sometimes what clients think they need may be different to what we believe they actually need) - that’s why thorough preparation is so important.
Answers: ‘How long is this going to take?’
Give them approximate timings of the day, breaks and lunch breaks - because people like to know when they’re getting fed, plus knowing when they next break’s coming helps them focus.
Answers: the question ‘Can I…?’
Give them a few ground rules of how you want your workshop to be run. Not only does this answer specific questions they may have (‘Can I ask questions?’, ‘Should I take notes?’, ‘Can I take phone calls?’ etc.) it also reinforces you as someone in charge of the day.
A good rule to have here is the ‘car park’ rule, where you mark out an area in the room where any great ideas or valuable but off-topic conversations can be captured. This enables you to quickly move on from anything that isn’t strictly relevant, but also ensures these important insights and queries aren’t forgotten about entirely.
Answers: ‘What will I be able to do by the end of this?’
Tell the attendees what they should be able to do at the end of the day that they couldn’t do before. This gives people a strong reason to be giving up their day.
Getting this part right should get the whole day off to a great start, and help you get more out of the workshop participants.
Part 2: Establishing the context
We generally start the workshop proper with a bit of a talk around the theory behind what we’re ultimately trying to achieve.
If the workshop is about writing digital copy, for example, then maybe we remind the attendees about some basic principles or research. If it’s about editorial governance, then we could talk through other organisations' editorial processes.
This background information is vital, but we don’t like to ‘talk at’ participants too much - we find getting them to actually try out stuff for themselves is far more effective - so always aim to keep this part to 20 minutes or less.
Part 3: Getting everything out on the table
We follow this with an exercise that will allow attendees to share how they currently feel and think in a structured and contained way.
This essentially means we want people to tell us where they want to get to and what’s stopping them.
Once people have got this out in the open, they’re far less likely to carry any fears and reservations through the day with them and so will be far more open to learning.
What you learn about your participants here might also influence how you pitch the rest of the exercises, and enable you to make them even more useful.
Here are the exercises we regularly do to help ‘get it all out on the table’. You only need to do one of them - which one you choose will depend on what you’re looking to uncover.
Hopes & Fears
Focussing on a particular topic (like the workshop itself, the current project, or future content), teams or individuals spend five minutes writing down their hopes on Post-it notes, and then do the same with their fears.
The teams or individuals then share their hopes and fears with the rest of the workshop. If people have duplicate hopes and fears, they group them together so that we can easily identify themes and particular areas of focus.
Red Ant Man
We love a metaphor, and find them particularly useful in workshops as they can help to liven things up a little.
For this one, attendees are asked to imagine a cowboy in a desert.
The cowboy is the content team. There are red ants crawling over him - these are the annoying things that they want to get away from. There’s an oasis in the distance - the oasis is where they would like to get to. The problem is that there is a lasso around the cowboy - the lasso is the things that are holding him back from getting to the oasis.
Get the teams to write down their red ants, lassos and oasis on Post-it notes (sense a theme here?) and share after they’re done. Teams can rotate around all three or work on individual ones and, as always, reflect back to the rest of the workshop at the end.
This is similar to Red Ant Man. Instead of the oasis, though, the island is the place you want to get to, the anchor replaces the lasso, and rather than annoying ants, the rocks represent the risks you want to avoid. Oh and there are winds in this metaphor too - these are the things that are pushing you onwards towards your goal.
With all of these exercises, it can be helpful to provide participants with a visual stimulus and/or a dedicated space in the room for them to stick up what they think of.
Part 4: Understanding the user
The next step in a content workshop is to get the attendees to really put themselves in the shoes of the user and think carefully about what they need. (This is something that most people think they do every day; actually, more often than not, they end up prioritising the needs of the organisation instead.)
We try to use research that we’ve carried out for a project or existing research that the client has, and then do something very practical off the back of that.
A great exercise to get to understand the user is to get teams to make an empathy map together and then talk through the empathy map with the other teams when done.
The empathy map is divided into four sections. You can project the template below onto a wall and get teams to add Post-its to the relevant sections (5 minutes per section is generally okay), print the maps off or get teams to draw one themselves. As always, teams present their work back to the other teams after they’ve finished.
Other ways to show attendees how they can better understand the user are to collaboratively write a proto-persona for your key user, including basic details like name, age etc and moving onto likes/dislikes, hopes,fears, things they say, feel and do. Alternatively have one member of the team who’s read the research act out the part of the user in an interview and the other team members interview them.
Writing user needs for specifc pages is a good follow up exercise here.
Part 5: Applying the research
Now the attendees are thinking about the audience, there are a whole load of things that you can do to apply that knowledge to the page, strategy or process.
Which exercises you do really depend on what problem you’re trying to crack here. If it’s about applying a new tone to content, for instance, then the exercises will be very different to coming up with content themes for the year or prioritising information on the page.
Two exercises that can be used across all content writing workshops are:
Teams come up with as many questions as possible that they think the user persona would have about a particular page or section of the site.
Teams then put the questions into priority order and think about how they might best answer them (through video, bullet point copy, etc). What you end up with is a rough priority guide.
This exercise gets the teams working collaboratively and used to the idea that they need to think about the user first and foremost when making content decisions.
Teams race each other to generate as many headlines, themes, calls To action, or Benefits for the page they are working on.
This exercise gets the teams used to generating lots of ideas for even small bits of copy which allows them to diverge before they converge.
With this exercise, you’re trying to help participants feel less ‘precious’ about their work and more able to share any and all ideas with others without feeling judged.
Content workshops generally follow a diverge > converge pattern, and so after teams have understood the audience they move on to mind-mapping, crazy 8s and T-bars.
Attendees are encouraged to empty their minds onto a mind map. Mind maps start with a central idea like “travel”, and from that idea, participants draw primary branches to key thoughts, e.g. “safety, family, destinations” from which secondary thoughts lead off, e.g. “Europe, America” etc
The idea is to get people to open up to different angles and away from the often rigid preconceived ideas they may have come in with.
This follows on from the mind-mapping exercise and helps participants start to shape a few ideas for content.
The attendees divide a piece of paper into eight segments and are given a couple of minutes to put a content idea down into each.
The time constraint means that ideas don’t need to be fully-formed and thought through, which is actually a bonus at this stage. (In fact, a good tip to make sure that people feel free to go wild is to make the tile of one of the segments ‘the idea that would get you sacked’.)
When people share their ideas at the end, it isn’t a case of people arguing for their precious thing to get through but naturally shifts to talking a little more in the abstract which other people should be encouraged to build upon.
A good facilitator will encourage diverse thinking, theme ideas together and marry together seemingly opposing ideas and concepts.
T-bars are basically worked up crazy 8’s. After selecting which crazy 8 ideas have potential through dot-voting or similar, teams go alone or in pairs to work those ideas up.
A page is divided into three with a rectangle along the top and two equal-sized panels beneath. The headline of the idea goes along the top, a picture of it into the left panel and then the description, features and benefits into the right.
The T-bar crystallises the whole process into a few tangible ideas that can then be taken away and worked up.
Part 6: Outline the editorial process
We find that the biggest barrier to an effective content production process is too many or too few meetings, a complicated sign-off process and lack of clarity about what you’re trying to achieve. The ‘Sticky Steps’ exercise helps identify where improvements can be made.
We ask teams to work backwards, usually with Post-it notes, from the perfect piece of content to the very start of the idea for that content, filling in each step as you go. There are often a surprising number of steps with numerous people, sign-off and procedures involved.
When the whole process is laid out like this, it's often the first time that everyone involved in content creation has an idea of the scale of the process from start to finish.
The idea isn't to fix things there and then, rather having this shared view exposed means that the process can be taken away and improved upon as a separate workstream.
Part 7: Angels & Devils
After what can be a pretty exhausting day, we often end on this because it’s a bit of fun; a positive way to end that puts the power to make a change in the hands of attendees.
Angels & Devils asks one team to be the devils who want to derail any good that’s come out of that day’s workshop, and one team to be the angels who want to make it work.
The respective teams go away and think about what thoughts, feelings and actions will have a negative or positive impact. They then write those things down individually on Post-its (obvs).
Teams then line up against each other with the devils putting up the first Post-it of a negative, and the angels countering it with a relevant positive.
So for example, the devils may say ‘I’m going to carry on doing what I was doing before’ and the angels could counter with ‘I’m going to try some of the things I learnt today’.
This exercise leaves participants with the feeling that no obstacles are insurmountable.
Part 8: Round it up
We generally round off any digital content workshop by revisiting the objectives, and quickly reviewing what we did in each exercise and what we learned. We then reflect on the day, summarise any observations we made, and encourage the teams to reflect too.
Top tips for running digital content workshops
… and share them with the whole team afterwards as these help everyone remember lessons learnt and any exercises they may want to continue to do in their day-to-day work.
Write it up
We always do a full write-up of the day and send it on to all participants - again so they have a handy reference guide for the future.
Even though we’ve now run loads of workshops together, we always find the time to practice and walkthrough how the day is going to go at least three times it. Being prepared makes all the difference. (But surprises do happen, so be prepared to think on your feet on the day!)
These are a good morale boost for when people’s energy starts to flag.
Curb your enthusiasm
Not many people want a grinning lunatic beaming out at them at 9am on a Monday telling them how amazing their day is going to be. But, on the other hand, you don’t want someone to bore you to tears for eight hours. Finding the right balance is an art, and one you’ll get better at the more workshops you do...
Here are ten more excellent workshop tips from GDS to get you started.