Using Contrast to design and deliver your workshops

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this post on LinkedIn that received a ton of attention. If you’d prefer to listen to this blog, you can tune into Episode 81 on the First Time Facilitator podcast

In this post, I shared my response to a question I was asked a couple of months ago, "Leanne, in one word, what does it take to make a corporate workshop more engaging and effective?”

It took me a while to respond. Then one random Thursday, after reflecting on my recent experience facilitating leadership workshops and Unconscious Bias training in Hong Kong, that one word hit me. 


But before we explore contrast in a workshop context, let’s quickly explore how contrast plays out in other mediums.

Exercising with contrast

When I’m home in Brisbane, I do a group workout on Monday at 5.30am. It’s called HIIT which stands for High Intensity Interval Training. It’s only a 30 min workout but your muscles burn, your heart sings, and the endorphin hit lasts til the early afternoon.

HIIT works by using contrast. You push yourself as hard as you can for a certain period of time. Then you have a break.

Rinse and repeat.

During the workout, I peer at my Apple Watch which tracks the workout and it is fascinating to see how your heart rate picks up to work at its maximum rate. It's equally compelling seeing how quickly your heart rate drops during a brief break.

Having this contrast in the workout, the peaks and troughs, allows you to work at a high rate over a 30 minute period. If you didn’t have time for a break, you wouldn’t be able to maintain a maximum heart rate over the 30 mins (well… I certainly couldn’t!)

Contrast with food

On a recent trip to Thailand, I noticed that at every restaurant, there were four staple condiments/sauces on the table to accompany your dish.

These condiments had a range of flavours: Sour, sugar, spicy and salty.

Why this combination of flavours? 

It creates contrast.

We like the TASTE of contrast!

Have you ever bitten into something crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside? It’s an interesting combination, we’re not only surprised by the contrast in texture, we are delighted.

Contrast creates balance.  

It helps us reach peak performance longer in a workout. It makes things taste better.

You can draw the parallel of contrast across so many different areas: The best stories and movies have great contrast, too.

Let’s draw this analogy back to facilitation and our workshops.

The key is to continue changing things up. This may sound like a difficult thing to do but there are so many ways to create variety in workshops and presentations, that don't require an insane amount of preparation, time, or budget.

Here are a sample of ways we can use contrast to create more influential and contagious learning experiences.

Contrast in the way you deliver:

  • What you say - mix up questions, to instruction, to stories, to data

  • How you say it - Mix up your pace (fast, slow, pause), your pitch, your tone.

  • Where you stand - Move away from the safety blanket that is your laptop. Present from the side of the room, the back of the room, move closer, move away

  • Your energy - You don’t have to be an energiser bunny all day long, that would be exhausting (not only for you, but for your participants, too!)! When the group has high energy you can reduce your energy; when the group needs a rev-up, that’s when you need to give it your all.

  • Your co-facilitator - Mixing up presenters, trainers or facilitators also gives you audience a whole new experience! It also lightens the load for you and gives you a break, too :)

Contrast with your environment

Change up the location and environment! 

  • This can be as simple as moving the group outside for a section of the day (want ‘big sky thinking?’ go outside!)

  • If you’re delivering a program over a couple of days, consider changing the seating arrangements every morning (for example moving from a u-shape setup room, to cafe style). This gives the room a new ‘feel’ oh, and it means your participants can’t sit in the seats they were sitting in the previous day ;)

Contrast with activities

  • Standing vs Sitting: When facilitating workshops, I used to keep things simple and say things like, “Turn to the person next to you and share x” but I now contrast this with, “Stand up and find someone on the opposite side of the room to discuss x.”

  • You don’t need to be the scribe always - plaster flipchart paper across the room and instead of asking your participants to share their ideas, and you write them down, ask them to move to the flipcharts and post their note, or write their thoughts up

  • Sharing vs reflecting: I sometimes struggle with doing a ton of reflection work as I like to keep things moving. Reflection often means to me, okay get your workbook out and write down your thoughts on this. Which means the room goes pretty quiet. However it is important and it does create that contrast, particularly if it is used interchangeably with sharing. Group discussions, sharing your experiences and your stories with other people.

  • Reading a manual vs watching a video

You can't over-estimate the importance of contrast.

When I’m designing a conference or workshop I’ll use contrast as my key criteria. I'll look at the agenda, activities planned, environment (everything I've mentioned above) to ensure there's contrast across all of those areas. If there is too much 'sameness', I’ll incorporate something else to mix it up. A video. A story. An activity where they need to physically build something. Write something down. Share through drawing. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

How else can you add contrast in your workshops? Let me know in the comments below.

About the author

Leanne Hughes is the host of the First Time Facilitator podcast. She loves to shake up expectations and drive influential contagious experiences.

Leanne has facilitated leadership, on-boarding and team-building workshops across Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Mongolia and believes in a Strengths-centred approach to learning and development. She has over 13 years’ of experience across a range of industries including mining, government and tourism sectors.

In 2018, she was a finalist in the Australian Learning Impact awards for Learning Professional of the Year.

You can view more of her work at

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