How to extract ideas and facilitate discussion at an event

Posted in: Content design

I was recently helping out a colleague to form a plan for a workshop he was organising. The focus of the workshop was to facilitate discussion and collect thoughts and experiences from the participants.

As soon as he described the day like that, flashbacks from my previous role appeared. I used to run a lot of training events and workshops that always featured some element of group discussion. We regularly used techniques that were called ‘participatory approaches’, which I thought would come in handy for my colleague.

Here’s my top five.


I was a bit dubious about this one initially but was quickly converted. It somehow seems too simple to be effective but I found it never failed to facilitate good discussions.

Get some flipchart paper, and draw a big H in the middle. The paper should be in landscape and the H should reach all the way to the top and bottom edges. In the horizontal line in the middle, you write down the topic, like “the office environment”. You then ask attendees to think about the topic and write down positives and negatives about it on Post-it notes. It usually works best if people do this individually at first. Then as a group, you start posting the positives on one side of the H and negatives on the other.

An example of a participatory approach called H-form
An example of an H-form.

Once you’ve gotten people to think of some positives and problems, you can ask them to come up with suggestions or ideas for addressing the negatives. These go under the horizontal line in the middle. You can also ask people to indicate their overall feeling about the topic - you use the horizontal line for this, people simply put a cross on it based on how positive they feel about the topic.

The most useful thing about the H-form is that you get a ready-made list of issues to address. And as they’re nicely on Post-its, you can easily move them off the H-form and use other participatory approaches to take them forward. Make sure you take a photo of the form first though!


This is a pretty simple one. And it works nicely as a follow-up to the H-form or whenever you need to prioritise issues to deal with or gauge popularity of ideas.

Write down each idea/issue on a Post-it and stick them all on a wall. Give participants either some little stickers (for example red and green dots) or sharpies in two different colours - green for voting something up and red for voting down.

The way I've always done this is that each participant has six 'up' votes and six 'down' votes. Give your favourite idea 3 points, your second favourite 2 points, and the third just 1 point. Do the opposite for ideas you don't like.

Once the votes are cast, you can talk about the reasons behind people’s decisions as a group.


An example of how the 'beancounter' technique works.
An example of how the 'beancounter' technique works.

Obviously, this works with more than one way of voting. For example, you can only focus on the favourites or even explore with more than two colours if you need more options than just like/don’t like. I also find that this works nicely if people have a bit of time to read the options and reflect so a good idea is to post them up before a coffee break and give people the break plus five minutes from when you start again to read them.


Another pretty simple one. You basically have one topic per table and ask groups of participants to move around from one table to another after a suitable time. You could, for example, combine this with the H-form and have one with a different topic to consider on each table. In any case, to make this work, you might want to emphasise that it’s important that Post-it notes make sense to other people without explanation from the person who wrote it.

In a carousel, people move around the tables in groups.
In a carousel, people move around the tables in groups.

Spider diagram

Another great follow-up to the H-form and beancounter. Write down the same topic in the middle of a flipchart paper and stick the Post-its with the main issues people identified in the corners of the paper, then draw a line from the middle to each issue. You then ask people to come up with solutions to each problem and post them on the relevant line. Again, this is another one that works really well as a carousel.

An example of a participatory approach called spider diagram
A spider diagram focuses people to finding solutions.

Lines of preference

I thought I should have one icebreaker on this list. As cringeworthy as they usually are, they do come in handy when you need to wake people up in the morning or after lunch.

In this one, you ask attendees to stand up and you indicate an imaginary line from one end of the room to another. You then give two options on a relatively mundane topic, such as pizza or pasta, each representing one end of the line. People then move to the point in the line that reflects how much they like one over the other. This works best the more mundane but notoriously disagreed upon topics you can think of: like ketchup or brown sauce on a bacon sandwich.

You can do this a couple of times to get people moving and giggling and then use it to divide them into groups if you want to.

An example of a participatory approach called lines of preference
Lines of preference works well for getting people out of the post-lunch coma.

Jisc has listed many more participatory techniques if you’re interested in finding out more.

Posted in: Content design


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