Tools of the trade

I often find myself describing my job in terms of what it actually looks like. I frequently say something like: “imagine a room full of people, a flip chart stand and lots of Post -It notes”. It is true I do get through a lot of flip chart paper and sticky notes, but there are an awful lot of other things I use too. I sometimes think that the job of a facilitator would suit someone who has a massive love of stationary, because I do seem to have an amazing amount if it! The trick is to plan your sessions carefully so that you only actually travel around with what you actually need rather than a car boot full of stuff that looks like you have just raided WHSMITHS. So, where to begin…..

Stationary Tools

1) Buy a lovely spacious box to put your things in. I have a 12 Litre Really Useful Box.  This is big enough for me to fit quite a bit of stuff in, but not so big that you are tempted to carry the kitchen sink with you. This travels to workshops with me and contains my most useful things when it’s at home but doesn’t hold the reams of paper and extra pens and sundry other items that I have in my “office” (I work from home).



Really Useful Box


2) Essential items that I always have in my box are:

  • Sticky notes such as Post-It notes , Stick’n notes or Stickies – I find these are one thing I always need and I have several colours at once.

  • Coloured card – I usually have a stash at home and cut it up into the sizes I need to take with me to the workshop. I commonly use a lot of A5 card as this is good for participants to write ideas on and the size means that they have to be concise.

  • Coloured paper – works better than card if you are going to be using the Sticky Wall as it is lighter. It also folds better for certain activities.

  • Sticky Wall I know I’ve talked about this before but I love it! You do need to make sure you have the space in the room you are going to use as it needs a good wall to attach to. But I find that as well as being a brilliant tool, participants also rather like it as it is a bit of a novelty (unless they have used it before of course!).

  • Masking tape – to secure the Sticky Wall on the actual wall. Also useful for sticking lots of cards together at the end of the workshop or pieces of flip chart paper together for a larger workspace.

  • Pens – lots of them! Biros, marker pens and board markers. Expect not to come home with some of these as they do always go astray.

  • Elastic bands – useful for those rolled up pieces of flip chart paper.

  • Paper clips – really good for keeping pieces of paper together at the end of the workshop.

  • Coloured Sticky dots – useful for dot voting/prioritising and highlighting information.

  • Paper shapes – I have a few arrows that I have used for workshops and are useful for outlining processes or flows of information and circles/squares that are also useful to categorise things for example.

  • Scissors – an easy thing to forget but frustrating if you need them and you don’t have any.

  • Blue tac/white tac – invaluable although check with the venue before hand as not every one likes you sticking it on the wall.

3) Not in the box are my roles of flip chart paper and often my flip chart stand. I don’t always need this but even if a client says they have a flip chart stand, I don’t assume they are going to provide the paper.

4) Camera – a digital camera (or phone if yours is better than mine!) to record the information as it is produced in the workshop. Things do get shuffled around a lot when clearing up the workshop, no matter how hard you try not to.

5) Fiddle toys – sometimes I put little toys on tables for my participants to play with. It can be a good discussion starter and sometimes keeping your hands occupied means your mind is able to think better and stay focused.

6) I also often give my participants biscuits which is slightly less brilliant for them……….

So, while it’s not Blue Peter and there is no sticky backed plastic there are often a lot of bits and bobs involved. They take time to prepare (you really don’t want to be cutting up hundreds of bits of card 10 minutes before the workshop!), and time to set up and collect after the workshop. But a good selection of different materials, colours and textures makes workshops much more interesting and hopefully adds to one of your key tasks; keeping your participants fully engaged.

Feeling the fresh Air – some top tips for those fed up days.

A couple of days ago I facilitated a warm up and walk and talk as part of a monthly networking event organised by Freelance Mum Faye Dicker. These events aimed at enabling working, freelancing mums to network with other like minded individuals really work well, with babies, toddlers and other young children fitting in around all the mums. Sounds like chaos but when everyone has the same small distractions around them, it somehow works brilliantly! This was for me the first time I had facilitated with my young son hanging off my leg – I don’t think it hampered me too much.

Once we had done a bit breaking the ice with a warm up game we got into the walking and talking – facilitating on the hop, again not something I had really done before. I posed a couple of questions to get everyone chatting a bit more and one of these focused on those days when you just don’t feel like things are going your way:

“What is your top tip for those days when you feel like crying into your coffee?”. Obviously this could also be your mug of much more healthy camomile tea, but it feels the same, a moment, morning or day when it’s just not happening for you.

My own favourite is “Take myself away from the problem and eat cake” which was suggested by Nicola Proctor from Nicola Jane Photography. Clearly someone else who agrees with the power of cake….

Most popular amongst the top tips though was the idea of getting fresh air or going for a walk. Much as I do love cake I think this is probably what I choose to do too, where fresh air seems to solve a multitude of problems. There are all sorts of things written about the benefits of fresh air to our bodies and brains, but for many of us it’s just intuitive to want some outside air in our lungs. Interestingly that is exactly what we were doing at the time, getting some fresh air, and one of things that works so well with this particular type of networking – walking along in the fresh air with our children (safely ensconced in their buggies and slings).

So based on what the networking mums said (with a few other pearls of wisdom thrown in) here are some top tips for when things aren’t going quite right:

  • Have a walk, step outside and get some fresh air.

    Even if this is just round the corner, across the road or around the block its good to put some distance between yourself and the problem.

  • More specifically:

    • About 15 minutes – I like this idea because it is enough to get you out the house but not enough to leave you worrying that you are wasting your valuable time and not going to get that piece of work done.

    • Walking the dog – great if you have one of those!

    • Without music – I also very much like this one as we do have a tendency to plug ourselves in at every available opportunity these days, so I too would probably take the fresh air without the music, I like the sound of those around me and the noises of life. For others though music can be an inspiration or release and hearing some familiar tunes can trigger all sorts of feelings that may get you out of your funk.

    • Whatever the weather – it is well known that the weather affects our moods and if it looks miserable then it makes us feel worse. But we can also feel fed up on a bright sunny day. I kind of like the idea of challenging the weather, and perhaps on a day when it is lashing it down with rain an act of defiance and embracing the wet full on is just what we need. Does anyone remember the article about the Nordic babies sleeping outside? Not that taking a nap is necessarily the answer mind you…

  • Sometimes it might not just be about going outside, but about taking a break. This can be as long or as short as it needs to be but allows us to reset ourselves and think about something different away from whatever it is that is creating that getting stuck. A change is as good as a rest as they say.

  • Doing something for me makes a lot of sense and the idea that we should be kind to ourselves and not beat ourselves up about things that don’t go right does resonate. As business women/freelancers/entrepreneurs whether mum or not we need to work hard, we need to be “on it” to be successful. But we also need to recognise our achievements, however small and celebrate them so that if we create the chance to go for a massage (me, me!), have a slice of cake (also me) or watch a film (like doing that too) then we should let ourselves do it

  • Ensuring good communication with your support network is invaluable especially when working from home, or on your own most of the time. A real conversation with another human can really break that spell of feeling stuck or annoyed and bouncing problems around with someone that understands can really take the weight off. Equally in the days where we have so many methods of communication to choose from this could just be a happy tweet, or a facebook like that makes you feel like you are doing a good job. Your support network can be just about anyone, be it other freelance mums who we have connected with, other business women, other people from our profession or just our friends. We all have so many networks that we can tap into when we need them when we need to. My only personal caveat to such great communicating is that as a lover of communication in general I can sometimes let myself get incredibly distracted by all the people I want to connect with. There is an optimum level of communication though without creating too many distractions to that is often hard to achieve

  • Which is probably where the stop, simplify, choose one thing and write a list top tips should come in. I am often guilty of trying to do far too many things at once rather than focusing on one thing. When I facilitate workshops I am used to fielding conversations from different people at the same time and balancing several different thoughts at once but it can get overwhelming if not done in the right way. Back at my desk it is good to strip it back and do one thing at a time. I do also love a good list!

  • And lastly I guess this is what it’s all about really “Put it in perspective – we’re all happy and healthy, its okay”. At the end of the day, it will be fine and the problem/issue/blockage/hurdle will have some remedy. It is really hard to see that when you are in the thick of it, but sometimes maybe the trick is trying to remember that and the fresh air, cake and taking a break enable us to do so.

And in case that’s not enough, how about trying the three minute breathing space.