Top Tips: Facilitating participatory workshops, events and street work

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Facilitating workshops
Get people involved
Establish a participatory ethos from the very start of your workshop by asking any early arrivals to help you sort out the room. Sounds obvious but participation means getting involved and engaging with people from the word go and can include asking for help to:

  • Move and stack chairs and tables
  • Stick up flip-charts
  • Put up signs for directions to the workshop
  • Sort out lighting, and
  • Position chairs in a circle – the layout I almost always use

Facilitating workshops
Zone in
To get things going use a very open ‘zoning in‘ question for participants to think about and respond to on post-it notes as they arrive and before the meeting actually starts. This will help to set the scene for the participatory style of the meetings, encourage people to engage from the very start as well as beginning to help them focus on the issues that will be explored. Questions that work well include:

  • ‘What are the Key local food issues?’
  • Pick a local food issue and ask ‘What do you think?’
  • Put up signs for directions to the workshop
  • Put up the name of the group and ask ‘What has been the highlight for you so far?’

Facilitating workshops
Speak easy
It’s good to get everyone to say something right at the beginning – to open their mouths and speak in front of the group – to help them overcome any initial shyness or reluctance they might have. Use a starter question that everyone can easily answer and which can be a bit light-hearted as part of a ‘who’s who go-round’ before the meeting gets going. For food-focused workshops try:

  • ‘What’s your favourite comfort food?’ or
  • ‘If you could eat anything right now, what would it be?’

Facilitating workshops
Introduce someone else
When doing an introductory go-round with the group it can sometimes be easier for people to introduce someone else rather than talk about themselves. Try asking participants to find someone they don’t know (include yourself!) and find out three things about them:

  • Their name
  • Where they’ve come from today
  • How they answered a simple introductory question e.g. their favourite comfort food,
    then introduce each other

Facilitating workshops
The strength of local food groups depends a lot on how collaboratively the different partners work. It’s often really useful to begin strategic planning processes by focusing on how connected the group is. Different people are likely to have different perspectives on this and the factors that influence it and it is a key aspect of developing strong local food groups and partnerships that function well. Getting conversations going about connectedness are therefore a really valuable starting point:

  • People working on food issues here…
  • How connected do you feel?

Different tools can be used to kick off this conversation but a continuum or line chart/exercise works really well where participants start by thinking about where their response is positioned between two extremes: ’Very well connected’ and ‘Not at all connected’.
Then ask:

  • Why do you feel that?
  • What factors make you feel more or less connected?
  • What needs to happen for you to feel more connected?

Facilitating local food events
Maps are great
A good way to engage people and get them to think about their work in relation to the work of others is to use a map. This sounds obvious but by asking participants to show where they are working and what they do there you can literally begin building a picture of the local food system. You can print out a map of the local area and ask participants to annotate it or even get them to draw their own version of a map of the area – as they see it. It is also useful to look for patterns on the map by using colour coding (with sticky dots or different coloured pens) different groups of people such as:

    • Businesses
    • Community organisations/groups
    • Statutory agencies


  • Growers/producers
  • Distributers
  • Retailers
  • Consumers

Facilitating local food events
Mix up
Working in bigger groups its useful to mix people up as much as possible so that as many people as possible make connections. Organise the gathering so that participants:

  • Work individually on some activities
  • Share ideas in pairs to consolidate their thinking
  • Work in small groups of 6 or 7 people to hear different perspectives
  • Come together as a big group to look for and discuss common themes and differences of opinion

Facilitating local food events
Move around
A really useful tip is to try and keep the energy of the group up by using different parts of the room for different sessions in the workshop. Participants will have to get up and move, and chairs and tables may need to be re-positioned. All this can help to re-energise a group that might be flagging a bit.

Facilitating local food events
DIY documenting
As much as possible encourage participants to do their own recording. Post-it notes are really useful for this. They allow participants to document their own thoughts in their own way. They also allow basic analysis of the group’s thinking by clustering comments together that are similar and identifying common themes. Where language/literacy is an issue you will need to consider taking on more documenting yourself and using more images than words. Pictures are particularly useful when working with younger children.

Facilitating local food events
Post-it control
A really Top Tip for using post-it notes. If you want people to think and comment in a concise or succinct way with few words or just a short sentence give them smaller post-it notes – the square ones are good. If you also give them thick pens on small post-its they will have to be even more succinct! If you want people to write more words let them use bigger post-its – the rectangular ones – and thinner pens.

Facilitating local food events
Eat together
People relax when they eat together. At strategic local food events – like those aiming to kick-start a local food action group or begin action planning – try to organise the event around eating food as well as thinking about it. Even better if the food can have a message – sustainably-sourced fish, locally produced meat, bread from local bakers or using locally grown grain, and local pastries, drinks, cheeses, preserves etc. It will also help to promote local businesses to what should be a receptive audience.

Facilitating participatory work in public places
Street view
Google Maps street view can come in really handy when you are planning work in a public place.

  • Before even getting to the place where you are going to work you can get a good idea of busy places where more people are likely to gather together by looking at the number of shops on different streets in the area.
  • To some extent you can also gauge the character of the street by seeing whether the shops are mostly generic high street shops (Boots, M&S, Primark, British Home Stores, WH Smith, Costa Coffee, Starbucks and smaller Supermarket outlets) or more local independent retailers.
  • Whilst acknowledging that street view can be out-of-date it may also be possible to gauge the buoyancy of the local economy by looking for empty shops, charity shops and pound shops. Empty shop windows are also excellent places to stick up flip-charts and maps.

It’s not always fool-proof but this can help you get your head around where you’ll be working before you get there and can help save a lot of time hunting for the perfect spot.

Facilitating participatory work in public places
Pick a good spot
When you engage with people on the street it is important to choose locations where people are more likely to feel comfortable stopping to talk with you. In particular look for locations:

  • On the sunny side of the street
  • Sheltered from the wind
  • Where the pavement is wide enough to let people gather whilst not blocking the pavement for others
  • Away from busy and noisy traffic

Facilitating participatory work in public places
Pick a good spot 2
Remember that where you stand can have a strong influence on the responses you are likely to get. Asking about the availability of fruit and veg. outside a greengrocers or supermarket is probably not ideal unless you want to understand perceptions of that particular shop. More ‘neutral’ shops include a Post Office or a Pharmacy or even on the back of a bus stop. And always ask permission (from the shop manager) before sticking flip-charts to the window of a shop unless it is vacant! I find that if you explain clearly what you are doing people invariably say yes and are often interested in what you find out.

Facilitating participatory work in public places
The Golden rule
If you ask passersby: ’Do you have time to answer some questions about local food?’ even if they do they will invariably say No. This question instantly gives them a way out!

Instead write out your question and stick it on a wall or window then ask: ‘How would you respond to this question?’ and point at it. People will look at the question – read it – and usually begin to respond, and by then you’re in! If other people have already responded and written comments on colourful post-it notes your charts will look even more interesting and people are more likely to engage with you.

Facilitating participatory work in public places
Why? Why? Why? Why?
Become the king or queen of ‘why’. If you are engaged in a conversation with someone and they give you their opinion of an issue the best way to find out more is to ask: Why?
This could be:

  • Why (do you think this way?)
  • Why (do you think this is the way things are?)
  • Why (is it like this here?)
  • Why (do you or others behave this way?)

Just ask why – listen – and keep asking why!

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