Workshops are hopeful things. They’re sold on so much promise, but that promise is often dashed as students discover their instructor has little idea how to teach anything.

For years I was a workshop guy. I taught them, I studied them, I even hired people to do them for other companies. I watched many instructors run them and I know the common mistakes. Here’s my best advice on how run a workshop people will love.

Rule #1: A 3 hour lecture is not a workshop

The word workshop implies that work will be done in a shop like atmosphere. This means the center of attention should be on the students doing work, not on the expert gloating in their own ego.

Most experts suck at workshops because they are used to lecturing. A lecture has the spotlight on the speaker, but a workshop has the spotlight on each of the students.

The skills involved in designing workshops are very different for this reason. Instead of crafting a message for people to listen to, a good workshop is crafted to give students the opportunity for guided instruction in doing things.  Many workshops are born from lectures, which explains why those workshops are so boring.

Rule #2: The more students you have, the less of a workshop it is

Better workshop instructors make larger groups feel more interactive, but beyond 20 or 25 people the instructor is spread thin. The common approach for large groups is to have people work in teams, as they at least get to be interactive with each other while the instructor is helping other students. In bad cases group work is a copout: the exercises aren’t interesting enough, or students  struggle to work with annoying strangers who are too pushy or too passive. Working in groups of 2 to 4 people in a challenging exercise ensures everyone works, but larger than that invites more time spent co-ordinating than working.

Designing exercises for groups of people to work together is hard. And also demands more testing to get right (see #5).

Rule #3: Work the triad: explain, exercise, debrief

The simplest way to construct a workshop is to think in units of 3.

  1. Walkthrough: Show how to do something.
  2. Exercise: Have everyone actually try to do that thing (while you wander around and help people one on one).
  3. Debrief:  lead a discussion of where people got stuck, what parts were fun/hard/frustrating, and what things people learned, or realized they want to learn. Show people’s individual work, rather than your own, to the class to help explain your insights and observations, and as way to invite them to share theirs.
  4. Repeat, with a more challenging thing.

These triads can be of different lengths 45 minutes (15/15/15 or 10/20/15) or longer. Its best to start with small things and build to a larger projects as the workshop goes on. It’s fine for the ratios to change. A more challenging exercise might be 1:3:1 (10 minutes, 30 minutes, 10 minutes).

Take breaks regularly. When people stand up and use their bodies for a minute or two their heart rate goes up, and they get energy back. It’s good for their bodies and minds to move around at least every hour or two. Gadget junkies can get their fix and people with biological needs can get that off their mind. Don’t see this as dead time: see it as taking a breather so everyone can bring more energy into the next exercise. Once every two hours is a good rule of thumb.

Rule #4: Stay out of the center

Workshop students come to learn and they can learn from other students often as much as they can from you. But they start as strangers to each other and you are the social link. Be friendly. Be conversational. Ask students who are good at something to help students who have questions on that thing. Do what you can to make everyone comfortable getting feedback from each other and not just from you (you can design exercises to make this happen naturally). The easy mistake is to center everything on you. This works for TV or lectures. This is a failure in a workshop.

Facilitation is the name of the game. It’s your job to create an environment where everyone is comfortable enough to take risks and learn some things. You should laugh, so they can laugh. You should be passionate so they can be passionate. At times you need to be a teacher, other times you’re game show host facilitating what’s going on, and other times you are quietly out of the way, helping people one on one.

Rule #5: Beta test your exercises

The top complaints workshop instructors here is often “it was too easy” or “it was way too hard.” Using one exercise for 10 or 20 people guarantees a spectrum of experiences.

It takes a surprising amount of work to develop an idea for an exercise into something specific enough to be interesting, but flexible enough for different people. Since every student in a workshop will have different levels of skill, you want each exercise you use to have built in ways to make it harder or easier.

Great teachers let their students know it’s ok to raise their hand and say “Can you make this more/less challenging?” They’ve prepared wrinkles and twists to handle those cases.

It’s a great idea to beta test your exercises, if not the entire workshop. Do a dry run of half the workshop, for free, with the kind of people the workshop will be for. You’ll learn many little things to fix and adjust that will make a huge difference when you do it for the ‘first’ time.

There are tons of books with workshop exercises. If you poke around you can likely find a book for your discipline that will give you many ideas to start from.  Many workshop exercises are horrifically lame, especially ice-breaker type games, but even those can inspire you to think of worthy ones.

Rule #6: Match promises to exercises

Each exercise should be about acquiring a skill, or at least having an experience that helps acquire a skill. List what you believe students will have learned, or experienced, by the time the workshop is over. Use that as your description for the workshop: it’s the promise you are making to students. If your workshop description has a promise than doesn’t map to a specific exercise, either change the description or change your exercises. You’ll find you need to limit your promises, which is good and realistic for everyone.

Rule #7: Always have a whiteboard or flipchart in the room

You never know when you, or a student, might need something big to write on to explain something. In corporate settings you’d be amazed how often the room you are supposed to teach in doesn’t have anything to write on. Digital whiteboards aren’t the same as they often break and take 5 minutes to figure out how to use. Flipcharts are cheap: always make sure there is one available.

Rule #8: The room should look like a workshop when you are done

If its been a true workshop there will be papers, drawings, diagrams, sketches, post-it notes and other made things all over the place. Tape the output of each exercise up on the walls so people can refer to them later. The room should look like a place where a real group of workers had been working on projects all day.  Students should leave feeling like they’ve done work, and have some work they can take home with them if they choose.

Rule #9: Build a workshop checklist

There are many things to bring and remember. When you do your beta test of exercises, make notes on all of the equipment you need to bring (e.g. markers, pens, post-it notes, flip-charts, etc.), and what things students need to bring (of which you will have an extra set or two for forgetful students). You never want to have to waste time in the workshop searching or waiting for things. Build a checklist of all the things you need to bring, and put it all in briefcase or box so its ready to go.

Rule #10: Give students the next thing to do after they leave

Students didn’t come for the day: they came to keep learning. Have the next logical exercise or project available on your website, or  in whatever materials you give them. Also include a small list of the best books or other resources they’re likely to need.

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9 Responses to “How to run a good workshop”

  1. Sean Crawford |

    Scott, I’m not surprised you have done workshops. You are a writer, and as award winning science fiction novelist Gordon Dickson said, “Writers are teachers.” And you are a speaker.

    Since late August I’ve been attending a weekly “free fall” writer’s group. The lady who invited me is a former fellow toastmaster, and since then I’ve been surprised to see two other toastmasters from my past or present club. Oh, and our meeting chairman is a retired schoolteacher. Meaning: a) it’s a small world, and b) that speakers and teachers write.

    Note to any of Scott’s writer fans: An introverted writer who takes toastmasters (public speaking) will find her writing will improve. (Am I right, Scott?)

    Reply
  2. Andrew Chambers (@atsc) |

    Great stuff! I agree with everything you’ve noted. I’ve been running all kinds of workshops for years. Of course in the old days they were often called “training” but training in that sense is now relatively dead especially in Higher Ed for Learning Management System upskilling. I’m just about to run some Moodle LMS workshops plus some student study skills workshops. These are both very dynamic events but very different. However all of your points match both situations.

    I’m continually trying to avoid using the word training! Your reminder of the important points helps me focus on this more clearly.

    Just a note your “promises” put forward to participants prior to the workshop are more formally called learning goals or learning outcomes…

    I’d also add a further point. If delivering technical “training” workshops make sure you have developed a guide to point them to relevant training videos, further tips and suggestions and step by step walk through documents. It should act as a reminder of the points covered with enough detail to ensure they can do the skills and find resources to support learning these skills. Most skills aren’t learnt at the training. They are picked up afterwards when the “students” attempt to actually do these in real life and things either work or they don’t… Hopefully following a good workshop they have enough bits stuck in memory and on paper (or via linked video and media) that they can get by.

    I’d add a further point. Make sure they know where to get help if they get stuck. Often it’s you but more often than not it isn’t… This must be clear…

    Best wishes. Hope your next workshop is a great success!

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Thanks. Glad to hear your experience jives with mine.

      In instructional design there is jargon for everything. If you go to an instructional design conference taught by instructional design experts you quickly realize how little all that jargon helps.

      Ok. That’s perhaps unfair. It’s a kind of knowing vs. doing problem and instructional designers aren’t any worse about this than anyone else.

      The word promise simply has an elegance and clarity “learning objectives” doesn’t.

      Reply
  3. Mike Schinkel |

    Scott, as a former professional programming trainer and more recently as a meetup organizer for 3+ years who ran numerous workshops, this post is really excellent. I’m happy to say in our workshops we followed all rules except beta test our exercises. But in life there’s always room for improvement!

    Really nice to have this list as a resource as a checklist for future workshops so we don’t have to stress over it so much. :)

    Reply
  4. Morgan Sully |

    Hi Scott, I just came across your article while researching how to run good workshops. Fantastic! I’ve been on ‘both’ ends of workshops; teaching/facilitating them, as well as hosting and marketing them in side a community center or co-working space – two very different ends.

    The things you wrote here are so useful and seem like they could almost be a training (not workshop) in and of themselves for new workshop facilitators. Many talented people I have met and recruited to teach a workshops have actually been terrible teachers (though quite talented in their profession).

    I wrote a blog post that might make a nice companion to your post here – How To Plan Educational Workshops in Your Coworking Space. It’s more on the ‘operational’ end of things from the perspective of an organization or club that intends to host a workshop, not so much on the technical aspects that happen *during* a workshop.

    http://morgansully.com/how-to-plan-educational-workshops-in-your-coworking-space/

    Think you could have a look through and let me know what you think? I really enjoyed your article and you’re more than welcome to link back to yours:)

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

    Reply
  5. Janice Giffin |

    Hi Scott,

    I’m a teacher and language coach, living and working in the Milan area. I am currently planning to co-teach a two day workshop on Communicative Skills in the Hospital Environment. The participants are 15 highly qualified nurses from all over Italy who have been “awarded” this course as a performance perk. None of them are native English speakers and I don’t know yet what their level of English competence is. Speaking fluently in English (to patients, caregivers, doctors etc) will be one of the goals of this workshop, but not the only one.
    I just wanted to tell you that I found this post by chance by browsing around and it has helped me to kickstart my ideas about defining the other goals, which have only expressed vaguely by the client.
    Thanks for a useful read and I’ll be watching you.

    Janice Giffin

    Reply
  6. Andrew P. Smith |

    Thank you for this Scott. I am a photojournalist here in Jamaica who has been running photography workshops for the past few years for an art studio and this year I have started doing my own. This information is a useful checklist in planning them, as well as confirming aspects of my own approach.

    Andrew Smith

    Reply
  1. [...] me about the workshop format. JF: We borrowed the basic idea from Scott Berkun… some of our plans came from his article. It’s less of a three hour lecture and more of a [...]

  2. […] How to run a good workshop by Scott Berkun […]

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