How do you do a successful workshop?
June 20, 2006 8:51 AM   Subscribe

I've been asked to fill in for someone at a workshop. Problem is that I've never led a workshop, at a conference or otherwise. What are some pointers and tips on how I can be successful while making it interesting and informative for the audience?

Taking care of possible sidetracks:

- I am the only other person capable and available to do the workshop, and we pretty much have to do it.
- I'm not really an outgoing person and have always had some confidence problems speaking to a group.
- I have about 5 days to prepare, from scratch.
- My experience sitting in workshops is limited (maybe I sat it one before, but I don't really remember).
- I've been involved in the material for only 6 months, so the audience is more educated in the field in general than I am.
- The workshop is in a technological area.
- Workshop is 90 minutes, and some time is expected for discussion (how much?)
posted by mutantdisco! to Education (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best advice is to prepare. Block out exactly what you want to accomplish over the 90 minutes, find out as much as you can about the participants and think of ways to ensure they are engaged. Don't be too rigid -- let it rip if there's a good discussion going, and keep a sense of humor. Most of all, have the person you are filling in for provide as much info as he or she can about they want to accomplish. Don't get up tight -- you're in charge, have fun.
posted by terrier319 at 9:12 AM on June 20, 2006

And please don't rely on powerpoint. It's a fine tool for brief 'flashcard' type material, or if you have to show graphs or whatever, but don't just read off of very dense slides that the whole group can read for themselves anyway.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 9:14 AM on June 20, 2006

Speaking as a former middle school teacher, get good rest the night before and be prepared with as much information as you can be. You never know what people are going to ask. In the beginning ask a few people why they chose your seminar and then tailor your presentation to that, if possible. Or ask, "What have you found to be the greatest feature of XYZ Program?" or "What snags have you run into using XYZ Program?" Or maybe hand out slips of paper in the beginning and ask people to write down their question/issue etc. and then you can pull them out of a hat as time permits at the end of your presentation.

Have a core set of information to present, and then maybe a few possible tangents you could go off onto if people are interested. If you have a bunch of people who don't talk and don't ask questions, be prepared with a few of your own. Everyone likes to be an expert, so ask them, "Hey, from my experience I've heard a lot of complaints about converting from Photoshop to Corel. What are your secrets?" Really valuable stuff comes out of these kinds of discussions sometimes.

Could you post your subject matter and maybe we could suggest things? Or is it really specialized, like cartographic representations of the E. coli genome, etc.? Also, who is your audience? Did they choose to come see your presentation or is it a mandatory work thing?

And as to the confidence thing, dress smart so you feel like you look great. Get good sleep the night before. If you're a fidgeter, keep a water bottle in your hand so you don't get bored and start wringing your hands. Finally, smile a lot and assume people walked in the room and said, "Sweet! I'm so glad Mutantdisco is teaching this!"
posted by orangemiles at 9:41 AM on June 20, 2006

Thanks for all the tips, to answer some of orangemiles questions:

- The subject matter is pretty specific. For example, if a supermarket was the entire technology field, then we would be discussing different types of ketchup based on their ingredients and recipes.
- The audience has chosen (paid) to be at the conference. I expect most are going because they truly believe that they will get something out of it (and not because it's held in a nice place). They will probably be some that are leaders in their area of the field (master ketchup makers!)

Thanks again!
posted by mutantdisco! at 9:49 AM on June 20, 2006

plan out your presentation in blocks of no more than 15 or 20 mins. you don't want to just get up there and lecture for an hour and a half -- people can only take so much of the same activity. switch up your delivery style for every chunk of time. maybe lecture for a bit, then use a bit of powerpoint, then split the group up for an interactive activity, then have then come back and report the small group stuff to the big group. point is, keep things fresh, get the people moving once or twice if you can. also, plan yourself plenty of extra time (if you think itll take 10 mins to do something, give yourself 15).
posted by cubby at 10:27 AM on June 20, 2006

Without more specifics, I can only give you general advice. I'm a software trainer, and I usually develop and teach from my own documentation. So the boat you find yourself in is the one I live in most of the time. Here are some general tips:

1) Overprepare: You want to have this material as much in your head as possible, so that you don't get lost if you get nervous. If it's software you're training on, get as much time tinkering with the software as you can between now and then.

2) Think in terms of outcomes: What should the participants be able to do when they leave your session? Pick a short list of specific, objective outcomes you want to achieve and teach to those. Communicate those objectives to your audience at the beginning of your presentation (e.g. "Today we're going to focus on three things...")

3) Move from general to specific: Start with a brief, high-level overview of the context in which your system exists. Paint with broad strokes. Then move into the nitty-gritty of your presentation.

4) Give them something to take away: A decent handout stepping them through procedures will be valued long after your presentation is forgotten. If you teach from PowerPoint, provide a printout of that for your audience. Let them focus on the skills to be taught rather than trying to transcribe what you're saying.

On top of that, I'd encourage you to stay on task as much as possible and try not to rush through your material. You'll get some questions that will take you in different directions. But you're not obliged to know everything. Don't get out of your depth. If you want more specific advice, my email address is in my profile.
posted by wheat at 10:39 AM on June 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

From many years of doing software training (statistics no less) I can say that wheat has it down. What I would like to add is that it really pays to have your trainees do most of the talking if possible and you do the summations and forward focus questioning. When they know they're expected to participate they will give depth of example to all of your general concepts. And don't forget, doing this kind of thing is actually a lot of fun if you know the vocabulary and are prepared.
posted by ptm at 11:46 AM on June 20, 2006

Conference Presentation Judo isn't quite what you'll be doing, but it does have some amusing & helpful tips.
posted by anadem at 12:10 PM on June 20, 2006

Powerpoint isn't evil, and it can help people who are more visual than aural learners. That said, yes, be sparing about what you put on slides. Less is more, graphics are good. See if there is a wireless clicker available (makes it so much easier when you aren't tethered to a podium).
posted by radioamy at 12:52 PM on June 20, 2006

I was thrown in the deep end giving workshops about five years ago and now I get plenty of wonderful feedback, about me specifically as well as about the program I've developed. The things I've found most useful are:

1) Humour keeps people focused and interested. I have a couple of true anecdotes which I tell to illustrate a point in an extreme way. I also find humour helps when you need to get the participants to do something. For example, everyone hates filling out their feedback sheets and lots of people just don't do it. I've found more people do fill them out if I jokingly tell them "It's OK, I'll tell you what to write if you can't think of anything. Put 'Andraste is wonderful, give her a pay rise'." They laugh and roll their eyes but I get a much better strike rate of feedback sheets returned now.

2) Powerpoint is good, but it doesn't work if all you do is put up slides which exactly duplicate what you're saying and then just read off them. Slides are good for graphs, illustrations and jokes. If you can find a couple of topical cartoons to include, so much the better. They often serve as good "links" between two sections of a workshop. Also, there's nothing worse than attending a presentation where something goes wrong with the projector/screen/power supply, and the presenter needs their Powerpoint and is utterly lost without it. Use it as icing on the cake, don't rely on it.

3) To tell people about mistakes they might make with a technique, I tell them about the time I made that mistake myself when I was new to the field. With a couple of jokes thrown in :) It sounds less lecturing or patronising.

4) Make it really clear that you want them to participate and welcome questions. If nobody's asking me anything, I'll pause and specifically ask for questions a couple of times during the session. Sometimes you have a shy group and they really need to be told it's OK a few times before they'll speak up.

And the thing I really wish I'd known before I started all this; if you're asked a difficult question, it's OK to say you don't know. You can invite them to stay back and you'll go into it in more depth in the break, or you can let them know you'll find out and get back to them or refer them to someone who can answer it. It's OK to say you don't know during the session. You can say "That's a bit outside my area of expertise" or "that might be a bit complicated and lengthy to give full justice to here. We can discuss it during the break if you like". The latter phrase is also good if someone is disruptive or argumentative during the session.
posted by andraste at 4:11 PM on June 20, 2006

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