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What makes an extraordinary workshop?

We’ll be putting a call out soon for workshop presenters for NCDD Seattle (October 12-14), and I’d love to get some NCDDers’ help thinking about what makes a great workshop.  Your comments and ideas will help the conference team with the selection process, and will help session leaders start thinking about how best to frame and organize their workshops.

Below are examples of just a few of the workshops we offered at the 2008 NCDD conference in Austin (our last national conference, since we hold them biennially and we ran 5 regional events in 2010 rather than a national event).  I selected these because I recall them as all being well attended and highly rated.

Please take a look at them.  If you’ve attended an NCDD conference before, hopefully they’ll remind you about the types of workshops you appreciated most at the event, and why — and what might not have worked so well at some.  And if you haven’t attended an NCDD conference before, this will give you an idea of the quality of sessions, calibur of presenters, and variety of formats you’ll see at NCDD workshops.

Once you look over the sessions described below, add a comment or two about what you think makes a great workshop (especially on D&D-related topics!).  Feel free to also share ideas about the kinds of workshops you’d love to see at the conference.

– Sandy

A Few of the Workshops Offered at NCDD Austin in 2008…

How Can WE Revitalize Democracy with D&D? – Part 1

DeAnna Martin, Executive Director of the Center for Wise Democracy and Adin Rogovin, Board Member of the Co-Intelligence Institute

NCDD draws together amazing practitioners using many methodologies to improve and transform democracy. We will be exploring how we can collaborate to enable a thriving democracy. This two-part session seeks to begin the conversation among leaders of various methods, those with the passion to transform democracy, and those with resources to discover how we can collaborate to enable a democracy that is truly of, by, and for the people. In 2 sessions over the course of the conference, method and organization leaders from groups like the Co-Intelligence Institute, the Jefferson Center, and the Forum Foundation will be dynamically facilitated in a creative, fishbowl conversation about what might be possible if we were to work together and may achieve concrete next steps for moving forward. Participants are invited to join in the fishbowl if they feel moved to contribute to the conversation and can attend part 1, 2 or both. The session aims to charter an ongoing conversation and collaborative relationships to extend beyond the conference. Strategies will be explored that may lead to local, regional, and national partnerships that will produce results and demonstrate D&D effectiveness on the issues we face.

Raising Revenue, Raising Awareness, Raising Expectations: Supporting Growth Through Business Development, Branding, and Stakeholder Engagement

Cherry Muse, President of the Public Conversations Project; Dr. Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Founder and President of AmericaSpeaks; and Amy Malick, Communication Director at Everyday Democracy

Organizational sustainability, always a concern in the non-profit world, takes on added urgency during challenging economic times. This three-person panel will address sustainability in the context of business development, marketing and communications, and thoughtful planning that involves many stakeholders. This workshop is a panel of representatives from three organizations: AmericaSpeaks (Carolyn Lukensmeyer), Everyday Democracy (Amy Malick) and Public Conversations Project (Cherry Muse). Carolyn will talk about the relationship between strategic planning, social entrepreneurship and business development for a non-profit organization. Amy will share the work that went into the evolution of Everyday Democracy from Study Circles Resource Center. Cherry will outline an initiative of the Public Conversations Project that involved every stakeholder, including board members, staff and practitioners, in charting the organization’s course over the next 20 years. After the panelists have spoken, there will be fifteen minutes for Q&A. The final 30 minutes will be open for attendees to share best (or worst!) practices around fundraising, communications and strategic planning in groups of 2-3. Staff members who are responsible for raising funds, communicating their organization’s mission or strategic planning will be able to speak with, listen to, and gain support from colleagues who face similar challenges.

Exploring How our Work in D&D Contributes to Social Change

Philip Thomas and Bettye Pruitt, Co-Coordinators of the Generative Change Community

This interactive workshop will explore and extend the question raised by the NCDD Streams of Engagement framework: when we facilitate D&D, what are we using the tools for? Recognizing that all we may do with D&D is necessary but not sufficient to bring about the larger social change goals we hold, we will uncover and reflect on some of the assumptions we hold about how change happens and how D&D can contribute. As a group, we will map strategies for change and draw distinctions among different approaches, considering their differences, similarities, and complementarities. We will work on more effective ways to articulate and talk about what we are doing, and what we hope to achieve when we employ different D&D methodologies. The session hosts, from the Generative Change Community, will share ideas and insights that have emerged from similar sessions in other parts of the world (e.g., Canada, Australia, the Philippines).

Fireside Chat on Embedding Citizen’s Voices in Our Governing Systems

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, President of AmericaSpeaks

Now is a unique time in history with a surge of citizen involvement and increased voter turnout. If we care about dialogue and deliberation we need to embed new procedures, processes and practices in all levels of governance: local, state, regional and national. As we design new approaches on one level how can we be mindful of the impacts on other levels of governance? We must be strategic on the initiatives we design and support. Come chat with Carolyn Lukensmeyer about her latest thoughts on institutionalizing new government mechanisms that will sustain citizen engagement long past the 2008 election.

Attracting Conservative Citizens to Dialogue Events: Liberal-Conservative Campus Dialogue & Mormon-Evangelical Interfaith Initiatives

Jacob Hess, Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Illinois and Rev. Greg Johnson, Pastor and Director of Standing Together 

Although dialogue events may be arguably beneficial to citizens from any background, many communities still face unique barriers to participation. With a growing attention to the limited participation of conservative-leaning individuals in such events, there has been much speculation and theorizing as to “why conservatives don’t like dialogue?!” As conservative practitioners of dialogue ourselves, we offer insights from our own work in two dialogue initiatives across Liberal-Conservative and Mormon-Evangelical lines. After describing each project and sharing a brief video illustration, we will share stories and results (both positive and negative) that reflect a full picture of their impact. Next, we will discuss together unique lessons learned about structuring and framing dialogue events to be attractive to a broad range of citizens – including in their socio-political diversity. Finally, we will facilitate an open discussion with participants to explore questions and wisdom from experiences other people bring.

And since this is getting a bit longer than I anticipated, here are just the titles and presenters of a few more to serve as a reminder (you can also see all the NCDD Austin workshops here)…

  • Transforming Tensions: Enhancing Dialogue and Deliberation Practice through Practical Communication Theory, Barnett Pearce, Kimberly Pearce, and Linda Blong
  • How to Teach a Course on Deliberation, John Gastil, University of Washington and William Keith, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  • Vets4Vets: Iraq-Era Vets Show How They Use “Deep Democracy 2″, Jim Driscoll, Coordinator of Vets4Vets, and several Iraq-era vets who are V4V leaders
  • Beyond the Tools: Applying D&D Principles to Online Engagement, Brian Sullivan, Founder of Practical Evolution, LLC and Janette Hartz-Karp, Professor at Curtin University in Western Australia
  • Speaking Truth to Power: Authentic Voices, Responsive Ears, Robert Stains and Dave Joseph, Public Conversations Project
  • Café U, Donald Proffit, The World Café and Eric Haltmeier, performing musician and educator
  • University and College Centers as Platforms for Deliberative Democracy, John Stephens, UNC at Chapel Hill; Martin Carcasson, Colorado State University; and Windy Lawrence, University of Houston-Downtown


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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Ken Homer says:

    Great question Sandy!

    For me what makes n extraordinary workshop comes down to a few simple design principles:

    ~ My body is included in the design – too much sitting still numbs both brain n butt!

    ~ Both sides of my brain are engaged

    ~ The limits of my thinking are stretched but not broken

    ~ The boundaries of my empathy and compassion become enlarged and more permeable

    ~ New information is presented in ways that are as entertaining as they are enriching

    ~ The opportunity is built in to the design for me to meet and connect to several people, ideally people who think differently about the world than I do

    ~ The conditions are in place to support serendipity and the possibility of friendship

    Ken Homer
    Contributor to the 2004, 2006 & 2008 NCDD conferences

    • Thank you so much for posting, Ken! I hope you’re going to be able to join us in Seattle.

      What you describe is a tall order for a workshop… but then I did ask about “extraordinary workshops”!

      I really agree with these two design principles in particular:

      – My body is included in the design (incorporating any kind of movement or getting-up-and-moving-around helps a lot!)
      – The opportunity is built in to the design for me to meet and connect to several people, ideally people who think differently about the world than I do (the first part is especially important; it’s not all about the workshop presenter) (the second part can be tricky in a small workshop at a professional conference, but great if you can do it)

  2. John Backman says:

    I love Ken’s points on the “extraordinary workshop.” In addition…when I choose which workshops to attend, I look for:

    1. The caliber of the speaker. Is this person–because of her credentials, organization, experience, etc.–a must-see? Is her wisdom something I can’t do without? (Great speaking ability is a plus, but if I have to choose one over the other, I’d go with substance over style.)

    2. The “intrigue” of the topic. Have I heard this before? Is it something I think is important? What’s the likelihood that the speaker will present a fresh perspective?

    3. The chance to interact with the topic in some way. Extended Q&A after a presentation is a good thing; even better is some way to discuss the presentation with other audience members (breakout sessions, etc.).

    4. A connection with reality. I love hearing about big ideas–for instance, I’d be very interested in a workshop on John Spady’s current thinking–but I do want the sense that the idea may be doable in some way.

    I’m sure there’s more, but that’s what comes to mind immediately. Thanks for asking about this, Sandy; it’s bound to make a great conference even better!

    • These are great points, John! I think a lot of people look at these specific factors when choosing which workshop to attend.

      One thing that comes to mind for me is that for many high-calibur people in our field and any field, the conferences they’ve attended have been pretty standard talking head-type conferences. Their first idea of a workshop is always a panel at the front of a room (participants in theatre style chairs facing them), and when you suggest to them that audience participation and interaction is a vital part of workshops at NCDD conferences, they might think “oh sure — we’ll have Q&A after the panel.” Do you have any suggestions about how we can tell presenters just what we DO mean by “participatory sessions,” without overly constraining them?

      • John Spady says:

        One fun way to build in feedback during a presentation is to turn everyone’s basic or smart cell phone, iPad, or laptop, into a feedback “clicker”.

        I demonstrated http://polleverywhere.com during my presentations at NCDD 2010 in Portland, Oregon. It is able to give the audience an opportunity to ask their questions without having to step up to a mic… or to answer simple poll questions of the audience. It works best if someone is acting as moderator to review questions and push interesting one out to a public viewing screen.

  3. Amanda Itliong says:

    I love when a workshop brings at least one practical tool or sample to share that I can use in my own work or translate to fit my work. Over the years that’s how I’ve learned about the NIF issue books, where I’ve heard some of the best framing questions, and it’s what challenges me to become a better visual recorder. Bring stuff to share at NCDD Seattle and it could end up making positive impact everywhere!

  4. I agree with both Ken and John. Facilitation of knowledge and peer sharing is important. body and mind engaged is great too. I don’t like presenters that act like “experts” and lecture as if knowledge is not a two way street. And the presentation is done in a way that is inclusive of the audience, which takes a good facilitator to assess. that means using common language, speaking slowly, opportunity for conversation and sharing, etc. Not using a lot of academic or industry specific language.

    • GREAT tips, Polly! In your experience coordinating the logistics at 4 of our national conferences, have you observed any patterns about what types of workshops seem to resonate the most with our attendees?

  5. David Kahane says:

    Great thread. I’d add that a great D&D workshop:

    * Pushes at the boundaries of the field, and enables us to advance the field together. (It shouldn’t feel like a session that could have happened the same way five or ten years ago.)

    * Pulls out all the stops to *model* the methods and practices being presented. (Hearing about it is potentially interesting; experiencing it is potentially transformative.)

    * Shows awareness of the tropes of participatory workshops — Post its! Buzz groups! Plenary report back! — and pushes beyond these (or at least uses them aptly.)

    * Situates particular methods in astute, power-sensitive analyses of political and social systems. (Show us how the approach you’re sharing makes a real difference. Consider providing evidence of sustained impact….)

  6. David mentioned a few things workshop presenters can use to make their sessions more active and participatory — buzz groups, post-its, plenary report back. I’m wondering if some of you would reply to this comment and suggest some other simple participation tactics that are especially suited for workshops?

    • Sticky dots come to mind, to allow people to get up and vote on, for example, what ideas resonate most for them that are written out on flip chart paper. (Dotmocracy)

  7. sandy,
    the neuroscience folks say folks come to conferences for ideas and networking so I would emphasize those as you usually do.
    the other tidbit is to put the key ideas first. Think of it as a feast- big things with most time first and after that digestion time. shorter times as conference goes on as people just don’t have brain power to absorb.

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