Holly Hammond and Karrina Nolan recently ran Training for Activist Trainers, a 2.5 day workshop focused on training skills for social movement contexts. During the workshop we talked about a continuum in training – from workshops which are participant driven without defined outcomes to those which explicitly aim to get people to a certain place in order to implement particular campaign tactics.

The following tips relate to training or other events which connect people to a campaign and help individuals overcome their barriers to action. As organisers we can use the momentum of the group to leverage people to action – like a turbo-charged persuasive conversation. These tips were originally written for an electoral field campaigning context but may be useful for any trainings which are geared to engage people in campaign actions.


Any time we prepare to run a training session we need to be clear on the purpose:

  • Why is this training being held?
  • What do you want people to take away from it?
  • What action do you want them to take next?

Develop a realistic set of objectives for the training and check that what you design matches these.


It can be valuable to put ourselves in the shoes of participants:

  • What do they want to get out of the experience?
  • What motivates them to turn up – or get active on the campaign?

If possible, gather information about participants before they turn up. This could be in the form of a few questions on the registration form, a quick database check to see what kinds of actions they have taken in the past, or asking others for their experience working with them.

Understand Participant’s Needs

Remember, many new activists or volunteers are looking for:

  • Connection with likeminded people (potential new friends, a sense of community)
  • Opportunities to learn and grow (new experiences, skills development)
  • The chance to make a difference (acting on the things they care about)

This mean we should look to address these needs as we plan the workshop, keeping them in mind as objectives. It also means that the ‘vibe’ of the gathering, setting an inclusive culture and helping people meet each other, is often just as important (if not more so!) than the content you cover.

Less is More

If you pack the agenda with too much you end up rushing, cutting breaks short, and neglecting the relationships which create the glue for your campaign.

When designing a session be realistic about how much time each section will take. It may take some practice to be able to estimate this. As a general rule do your first draft and then think about what you could cut in order for it to be more spacious. After the training go back and note down how long things actually took – if things were quicker than you planned what was the quality of the discussion or the energy in the room?

See Andrew Willis Garcés’ Middle Class Standard Time for more inspiration for doing less.

Connect to Motivations

Start your workshop with activities that allow people to meet each other and focus purpose. Opening questions like ‘What brought you here today?’, ‘Why do you care about this campaign winning?’, or ‘What’s an issue you are passionate about?’ help people connect to feelings, values, concerns and motivations. Share why you’re there so people can connect with you too.

Manage Resistance

Be prepared for resistance to campaign actions you’re inviting people to undertake. This is completely understandable – you’re asking people to step out of their comfort zone. In order to do this people will want T4T4to know:

  • What you’re asking them to do
  • How to do that task properly (or be reassured they don’t need to be perfect)
  • How it fits into the logic of the campaign
  • That it’s worth taking a risk (it will contribute to the win and it’s worked before)

Give people opportunities to practice and ask questions. Don’t get waylaid by so many questions that you cut back time on practice. Anxiety can manifest as lots of talking and avoidance of trying new things but your workshop will usually go better if people jump into action more swiftly (not allowing anticipation to build too much), with time afterwards for clarifying questions. Participants with many objections to action may need one-to-one follow up, including during breaks if you sense they are impacting on others.

Hope Stories

Case studies and stories from past campaigns can be useful for demonstrating the effectiveness of action and helping people to feel hopeful. Be prepared with anecdotes from social movement history or your own involvement in activism. Sharing your own story of how you overcame adversity (like nerves before training people or an initial dread of doorknocking) can also be useful. Where possible include inspiration from other leaders in the campaign or a testimonial from someone who will be viewed as a peer by participants.

T4T6Gather a Team

Recruit a team to make trainings go well. This is an excellent way to put into practice an organising approach. Step volunteers up into support roles such as welcoming people, making announcements, signing people up for actions and more. Having helpers who can meet late people, update them and find them seats means you can focus on the group as a whole without too many distractions. This approach also means people see and experience a ‘leaderfull’ organisation where people share the load and take responsibility.

Emphasise Commitment

Make time at the end for shared commitments to future action. This could take the form of written pledges, a round of ‘next steps’, large charts for people to write their names on, or volunteers ready with sign-up sheets for upcoming action.

Back Yourself and Have Fun!

If your campaign values the leadership of concerned citizens, start with yourself. Affirm your role in the campaign and the training room. Make time to debrief with a focus on your strengths, processing challenges and preparing for future action. Notice where you can keep stretching to grow in your own power and effectiveness and get support to do that.

Stay in touch for future opportunities to develop activist training skills – or book a mentoring session with Holly Hammond. Photos by Mike Scott – Training for Activist Trainers, February 2016.