Workshop Design

My biggest workshop fails would have been prevented with two easy steps

Here’s one of my worst workshop experiences: I was in Moscow for the launch of the Russian version of my first book. I was supposed to be giving a keynote to the 1000 person audience on the first day, and a small, intimate workshop to a group of 40 entrepreneurs on the next. Unfortunately, my talk was better received than expected, and 160 extra people wanted to show up to the next day’s workshop. Great, right? Well, that’s what the organiser thought, so he adjusted the room layout from cabaret (i.e. chairs around tables) to lecture seating to accommodate the extra attendees. And since I had seemed relaxed about the whole event, he didn’t bother mentioning it to me until I walked into the room to set up my computer and asked why there were so many chairs and no tables.

This wasn’t yet a disaster, but it was certainly a problem—the workshop I had designed relied heavily on small group exercises, and moving folks in and out of groups from lecture seating adds a ton of facilitation friction. The normal solution here is to cluster the chairs into loose groups so folks at least have natural groups from the seating arrangement. Just to make sure, I asked the organiser: “Everyone coming is still an entrepreneur, right? They all have businesses they’re working on?” And he said, “Hmmm… Well, maybe not all of them…”

As it turned out, the entrepreneurs had all heard about this workshop well in advance, and had registered if it was relevant. So the entirety of the extra 160 attendees was what you might call “curious onlookers”: journalists, academics, consultants, students, and so on. Now, this was a disaster. All of my exercises (and my Learning Outcomes, for that matter) had assumed that the attendees were entrepreneurs currently working on actual businesses. This new Audience Profile meant none of my exercises would work and basically forced me to revert into delivering an unprepared two-hour lecture. It was not good. And all because I had failed to re-verify my room setup and audience profile the day before (or even the morning of). If I had sent that one simple email, I would have been able to redesign my material to match the new constraints. But since I hadn’t, I was caught blind and my session was a slow-moving disaster.

Event organisers are busy. They’ve got a million things to worry about beyond your workshop. This means that the details you’ve agreed on which are super-critical from your perspective may easily get forgotten, changed, or otherwise messed up. As such, it’s your job to proactively get (and then verify) the information, setup, and materials that you’re expecting.

I now manage this with a series of emails. The first one goes out before I design anything, just to make sure I understand who is attending:

Hey Mark, looking forward to the session on the 27th about [topic]. Just wanted to get some details on the audience to make sure I put together the right material.
- What sort of people will be attending?
- How much experience do they already have with the topic? 
- What are they hoping to get out of the day? 
- From your perspective, what would make the session a big “win”?
On room setup, cabaret seating (chairs around tables in groups of 4-6) is best for me. Let me know if that's not possible and I'll work with whatever we've got.
And to re-confirm what you previously told me, is it still correct that we’re looking at 50-70 attendees and a 90 minute running time?

This one email solves 90% of the problems you’ll otherwise get “surprised” by. Assuming you’ve nailed the basics of workshop design, failed workshops almost never fail because of a hostile attendee or a huge teaching mistake. They fail due to silly and easily preventable logistical blunders. The email above is your starting point. But there’s still one more step.

A day or two before the actual event, you need to get explicit confirmation that the room and audience are still what you expect. Sometime after the Russian debacle, I was teaching a similar workshop in Romania. My workshop was part of a big festival, so the organisers were overwhelmed and weren’t responding to my emails. As such, I started calling them, one after the other (I had the numbers from a few people on the team), until somebody answered. And then I asked them if they could quickly confirm my session details. They said, “Yep, it’s going to be about 60 attendees and you’re in the theatre. It’s a great room.” I said, “Wait, the theatre? That doesn’t sound very workshoppy—how are the seats arranged?” And they answered that it was, in fact, a literal theatre, with fixed rows of plush velvet seats. Whoops!

I explained the situation (I had designed a workshop using lots of groupwork that wouldn’t be possible in theatre seating), and asked whether she preferred that I change my workshop to a lecture, or whether she could change my room. I said I was happy with a new time slot, if needed. She said she would call me back in 10 minutes, and when she did, explained that she had switched my room with one of the others. Apparently my session had been over-subscribed, so someone without full understanding of my room requirements had innocently moved me into the biggest room available, which happened to be the theatre. Without my follow-up, I would have once again been caught off guard and my attendees would have suffered for it.

Every workshop is designed for a certain Audience Profile and for certain venue constraints. You need to gather the information up-front, and then be as proactive as necessary to reconfirm it in the 24 hours before you step on stage. These are simple steps, but crucial. Without doing them, you’re liable to end up like me in Moscow: staring blankly at a frowning audience and wondering why you allowed something so trivial to cause so much damage.

Workshop Design

To create a brilliant workshop, start with the outline, not the slides

It’s hugely tempting, when you first sit down to design a new workshop, to start with the slides—they’re tangible and tempting. But it’s also a huge mistake to do so. Slides take the longest to create, so starting with them makes it difficult to majorly adjust the design as you go, which should happen a lot. Plus, it’s easy to get lost in the details of a clever story (or whatever) and lose sight of where you really want to spend your time, and what you really want your attendees to take away with them.

Those crucial takeaways are your “Learning Outcomes” (each composed of some number of talking points or supporting arguments or key ideas), and they’re the backbone of a good workshop. Before you dig into slides, take the time to create an outline first. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and could look like this:

A simple workshop outline composed of a broad “topic” plus specific, sharp “Learning Outcomes” and a few talking points for each.

A simple workshop outline composed of a broad “topic” plus specific, sharp “Learning Outcomes” and a few talking points for each.

The outline has a couple huge benefits.

First, you can more easily allocate your available time. If you know you’ve got four major points to cover, and two hours to do it in, then you know you’re looking to make 30 minutes’ worth of content for each point. So if you’ve got a 30 minute lecture in there somewhere, warning bells can start going off that you’re going to mess up the rest of your schedule. Better, instead, to cut that down to a 10 minute lecture (ruthlessly focused on the Learning Outcome you’ve picked), and then supplement it with, for example, 15 minutes for a small group exercise and 5 minutes of focused Q&A before moving on to the next Learning Outcome. (Thinking about time in this way also goes miles toward improving your attendees’ energy levels.) Working inside your slides, on the other hand, makes it extremely difficult to see the forest for the trees, and you’ll often end up spending too much time on the trivia and too little on what really matters.

Second, you can quickly redesign and iterate everything without having to fiddle with any slides. It turns a big overhaul into a 30-second job instead of a 30-minute one. This makes you naturally more aggressive with your redesigns, which leads to a better workshop.

Third, you can ask for feedback from an outline, which is nearly impossible to do with a slide deck. A recipient can “get” what the whole workshop is about in a matter of moments, and can then give you useful feedback about your message and structure instead of getting bogged down in feeding back on your slides’ visuals and details.

I’m personally so wary of this trap that I like to start a new workshop design by leaving my computer at home, and going to a cafe with a bit of paper and a pencil. But perhaps you are less vulnerable to digital temptation than me ;). In any case, and wherever you do it, treat the workshop outline (topic + Learning Outcomes + Key Ideas) as your first step. The slides come last.


How to introduce yourself without making everyone hate you

I recently attended a beer tasting — hard to screw up, right? But the host mysteriously chose not to begin by handing us a tasty beer. Instead, she fell into the common trap of trying too hard to justify her reason for being there by using a long, overwrought intro. She talked about passion for beer and her trips through the hops fields and her childhood experience of tasting the foam from her father’s brew... She’d clearly been watching too many TED talks and had lost sight of what her event was really about: attendees tasting beers.

Even experienced facilitators can fall into this trap and ruin their first impression. The truth is that nobody in attendance cares in the slightest about your life story or work history, and sharing it serves no purpose except to bore them, hurt the energy levels, and lower goodwill. (This also happens rather frequently in “getting to know you” meetings.)

The purpose of your intro is to offer just enough for the audience to give you the benefit of the doubt so that you can get started delivering the value they showed up for. In the case of a workshop, the “value” is in delivering your first high-impact Learning Outcome. In the case of a beer tasting, the “value” would have been in the first sip of a surprising and delicious beer.

From the audience’s perspective, your personal intro is about as valuable as hearing where the fire exits and bathrooms are located—it’s necessary admin, but not something to dwell on. Stop boring them ASAP and skip ahead to the good stuff.

From the audience’s perspective, your personal intro is about as valuable as hearing where the fire exits and bathrooms are located—it’s necessary admin, but not something to dwell on. Stop boring them ASAP and skip ahead to the good stuff.

Intros are easier than you think, thanks to the fact that the audience shows up already believing that you’re credible. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be there. As such, you don’t need to beat them over the head with your CV. All you need to do is to skip through the boring stuff as quickly as humanly possible and start proving them right by delivering value.

Of course, you do still need to tell them who you are. But it can be quite short, including only a) your name and b) exactly one relevant detail. Here are a few examples of great personal intros:

“Hey, I’m Katie. A few years back I quit my job and spent the next two years as an apprentice, learning traditional woodworking and furniture making, and now most of my home is filled with stuff I’ve made myself.”

“Hey, I’m Sophie. I’ve trained and managed high-value sales teams in a number of Fortune 500s, and at the peak was responsible for delivering $400 million per year in partnership-driven sales.”

“Hey, I’m Jacob. I’ve never done this stuff professionally, but I’ve worked on a bunch of hobby projects over the years, and I just wanted to share some of my lessons-learned from trying to apply all the advice and best practices from the ‘experts’.”

“Hey, I’m Ian. I’ve spent a couple decades freelancing, although now I’m primarily a full-time dad for my two boys. I’m going to talk about how to fit freelancing into your family life without sacrificing on either side.”

“Hey, I’m Imran. I’m mainly a programmer, but I’ve also been helping some of my friends optimise their Facebook ad campaigns, and I’ve seen that with a bit of patience and the right approach, you can usually increase performance by 10-20x.”

All of these are great: one key piece of relevant information, chosen and presented in a way suggests you have something to say which is worth listening to. If you have a brilliant stamp of credibility (like Sophie’s huge sales number or a Nobel Prize), then by all means, mention it. But the other examples above work just fine without anything like that, because they’ve packaged up whatever experience they do have into a sharp, clear, focused explanation of why they’re worth listening to.

So what about our misguided beer host? If I was in her shoes, I try something like this for the next event:

“Hey, I’m Jackie. I used to be a wine sommelier, but I’ve always loved—and have recently been obsessing over—beer. Today I’m excited to share a few of the most interesting ones I’ve found, all produced locally in Catalunia.”

Next time you’re getting ready to introduce yourself, spend a bit of time digging through your history for the single key piece of information which makes you seem most credible, and then use it as the foundation of the world’s shortest introduction. Your audience will appreciate it, and you can then jump forward to giving them what they actually showed up for: the value you promised to share.


Why a "three minute exercise" actually requires 10-15 minutes

Even if your exercises themselves are brilliant, it’s what you do afterwards that really integrates them into the rest of your workshop as a powerful learning experience.

Many people end up spending this amount of time on short exercises, but for all the wrong reasons. For example, they lose a few minutes on awkward group formation, and then another one or two when they have to re-explain a poorly written exercise prompt. Then, afterwards, more time disappears when they aren’t able to quickly and effectively bring an active crowd back to full attention. These sorts of “facilitation friction” delays are bad news, hurting your energy levels and tempo without giving anything back in return.

You should work to ruthlessly eliminate all sources of facilitation friction, and then put the recovered time toward its proper purposes: stand-and-share (where a subset of students share their thinking) and follow-up discussion (where you add relevant commentary and corrections).

These activities both sound simple, and you may already be doing some version of them. But I’ve seen countless facilitators mess up the details and massively undermine the purpose of what they’re trying to achieve.

Stand-and-share has a couple important requirements:

  • The sharer must be standing, since that signals to everyone else that they’re supposed to be listening

  • The sharer must turn to speak to his or her peers—the rest of the audience—and never reply directly to you

  • (Optionally) The sharer should be rewarded with a quick bit of applause

This means that your first “volunteer” isn’t going to be a volunteer at all. Rather, you should single someone out who you know is happy to be the center of attention, and then you’re going to (gently) throw them under the bus by interrupting them and using them as a facilitation example. It sounds like this:

You: “You guys back there seemed to have a lively discussion. Susan, would you mind summarising some of the stuff you were talking about for us?

Student (probably still sitting in her chair, and in a normal speaking voice, answering your question): “Sure. We were saying that—”

You: “Wait wait. Could you please stand up where you’re at, so we can all see you? And turn to the class—you’re sharing it with them, not me. Perfect. So what did you discuss?”

Susan continues sharing. If she slips back into speaking to you, redirect her back toward the class. If other students are still distracted, you now have the moral authority to cut them off without seeming harsh, since they’re now ignoring a peer. Once she’s done,lead a quick round of applause, say thanks, let her sit down, and then chip in your own commentary, if desired.

Too often, teachers will allow a student to answer directly back to them, which degrades the “class discussion” into a 1-on-1 conversation. This is low value for everyone else in the room, and gives them permission (or at least a strong temptation) to zone out, check their phone, or continue talking to their group.

By using firm facilitation corrections on a first “volunteer” who you know can handle it, you set a precedent for everyone else to do the same. And you show them that contributions are rewarded. You also make audience contributions a centerpoint of the workshop (since you’ve “given them the stage”), as opposed to a marginal side-discussion.

Instead of having every group present (which gets extremely tedious), you should simply grab volunteers (or “volunteers”) as needed until you feel that the major talking points have been exhausted. If you did your job of walking the room and listening during the exercise itself, you can hand-select groups who you know were working on the sorts of things you want to touch on during discussion. This ensures that the after-exercise discussion is high-value and keeps to the Learning Outcomes that you’re intending to deliver. Over the course of the workshop, ensure you’ve asked every group to present at least once, so nobody feels left out.

If you want to hear from a particularly shy participant, you can make it easier for them by priming them about what to say:

“I heard the group over there saying something interesting about the drawbacks of digital tools. Jeremy, would you mind standing up and talking us through why your group wasn’t so sure whether X is all it’s hyped up to be?”

The more constrained you can make your prompt, the easier it will be for someone to give you a sharp answer. Or, if you’re talking about something personal and sensitive, you can ask folks to anonymously share what they overheard, as opposed to sharing their own thoughts:

“Who overheard something in their group that was interesting or different? (A few hands go up. You single someone out.) You don’t need to tell us who said it, but can you tell us a bit about what it was, and why it stood out to you?”

If you aren’t sure who to call on next, you might follow the advice of the facilitator of UX workshops, Sophia Exintaris:

“Encourage anyone too quiet, but active with their eyes, to speak.”

Once you’ve started hearing the students’ thoughts, it’s easy to chip in your own. This makes your contributions feel less like a lecture, and more like a back-and-forth conversation. And as a (huge) bonus, this all works to identify folks who are stuck on an unknown-unknown or a confidently held false belief.

Exercises should never consume extra time due to weak facilitation, prompt design, or crowd control. As with everything, even the simple steps need to be facilitated properly in order to work. Once you’re doing it right, your post-exercise stand-and-shares are a goldmine of great discussion, and are a splendid use of those extra minutes. This post-exercise discussion is your chance to solidify and spread the learning. It’s how you extract the value from your exercises. It’s super important, and great fun once you see how well it can work.


Want more charisma for your next presentation? Bring your own clicker.

Regardless of whether you’re giving a boardroom presentation to 5, a workshop to 50, or a keynote to 500, you really ought to buy and bring your own clicker. I know it sounds silly, but it matters far more than you would ever expect.

Without a clicker, you’re a goat on a rope, chained to your laptop and physically trapped in the room’s “charisma dead-zone”. Without a clicker, your computer acts as a physical wall which splits you from your audience and draws away your eyes and attention. As such, a clicker massively improves your perceived charisma. And since you can never count on a venue reliably providing them, you really, really ought to buy and bring your own. Let’s dig into exactly why it makes such a big difference.

According to The Charisma Myth, charisma isn’t an innate quality, but is rather something that you project through a combination of warmth, presence, and power. Since you’ve been invited to teach and are introduced as an expert, you’ll rarely be lacking in “power”. But both warmth and presence need to be built from scratch each time you step in front of a new audience, and trapping yourself behind the podium absolutely obliterates your chances to do so.

Strong “presence” means that the audience feels that you’re completely focused on them, and that there’s nothing in the world which is more important to you than they are. This comes across naturally when you’re standing at the front of the stage, with nothing between you and them, speaking right to them, human to human. But what do you think happens if you’ve got a podium, a laptop, and an infinitely distracting screen right in front of you?

To be “warm” and “present”, you want to be as close to your audience as possible. Without a clicker, it’s impossible to escape from behind the podium.

To be “warm” and “present”, you want to be as close to your audience as possible. Without a clicker, it’s impossible to escape from behind the podium.

Strong “warmth” means that you seem friendly, approachable, and humble. If you’re all “power” and no “warmth”, then you come across as impressive, but also hostile, arrogant, and unapproachable. (Having all warmth and no power, on the other hand, makes you seem weak, flimsy, and overeager to please. You need both.) Stepping out from behind the “protection” of the podium goes a long way toward making yourself seem vulnerable, human, and available to your attendees. They’ll feel more comfortable asking questions, and more comfortable revealing their own weakness.

My very favourite clicker is the humble  Kensington Wireless Presenter . It works on every computer I’ve ever tried, is great value at $30, is easy to use without looking at, and—most importantly—it automatically powers itself down when you replace the USB dongle, which massively saves on dead batteries.

My very favourite clicker is the humble Kensington Wireless Presenter. It works on every computer I’ve ever tried, is great value at $30, is easy to use without looking at, and—most importantly—it automatically powers itself down when you replace the USB dongle, which massively saves on dead batteries.

Although charisma is a big topic with plenty to talk about, here are the top “quick fix” tips:

  • Get a slide clicker and stop standing behind your laptop

  • Get a wristwatch and classroom timer and stop using your phone as a clock/timer (holding a phone makes you seem cold and distracted)

  • If you assign exercises, walk the room while students are working and listen in on them thinking and talking to each other (helps warmth and presence, and also helps you teach better)

  • Let people finish asking questions before you jump to answer them

  • Watch videos of yourself teaching to see where you fidget and pace, and then get rid of whatever you’re fidgeting with

Projecting charisma isn’t about faking your personality or turning into a superstar. It’s just about making small changes to your behaviour (and your equipment!) which cause you to come across just like you already are with your friends: friendly (warm), competent (powerful), and there for them (present). But you need a clicker. Get one!

The Job of Teaching

If teaching is your job, should you ever do it for free?

If you asked me the same question about freelancing (design, programming, etc), then I would say: no, never. But running workshops is different, and it often does make sense to give it away.

If you’re freelancing, clients will try to low-ball you by promising that you’ll benefit from the intangible perks of building your portfolio and gaining exposure. But in the case of freelancing, they’re lying, and neither benefit is real. For example, you can gain portfolio/skills just as easily (and on your own terms) by simply working on hobby projects (while documenting & sharing the process as you do so). And unless the client is willing to devote active PR effort to the results of your work, then the promotional benefit doesn’t really exist unless you decide to do it yourself.

In other words, the appeal of working for free is supposedly to gain these two benefits:

  • Portfolio and skill-building

  • Exposure and dealflow

It doesn’t hold up for freelancing. So what makes workshops behave differently?

First, gathering an audience is hard work, and you can’t exactly hone your skills (or build a portfolio of teaching experiences) without one. So if someone has done the hard work of putting together a group of people who want to learn from you, then it may well be worth the effort to show up and teach, even unpaid.

Second, the world of events is surprisingly small, and it’s common for folks who organise their own events to also show up as attendees at others. So—unlike freelancing—giving an unpaid workshop does offer a certain amount of guaranteed, natural exposure.

(If you’re doing plenty of unpaid gigs, but still not getting paid invitations, then you may want to read about why they aren’t paying you and how to fix it.)

One complication appears if you’re already getting paid, but are still interested in occasionally doing unpaid work. Being too random here can undermine your pricing (“But Jake said you taught at his event for free…?”). The solution is to draw a line in the sand, where you always do one type of teaching for free, but never do another without being paid. For example, your line in the sand might be based on who is in the audience (e.g. schools and universities are always free, but conferences and corporates are always paid). In my case, I draw the division based on interactivity, time, and travel. If you want me to give a lecture of up to one hour, and if I’m already in the right city, then I’m always happy to come by and do the best job possible, completely for free. But if you want me to talk for more than an hour, or to travel, or to make it in any way “workshoppy” (i.e. interactive), then I’m going to bill at my full rates. This sort of clear “rule” will hugely simplify your proposals and negotiations, while allowing you to build your skills, portfolio, reputation, and dealflow. And of course, that all helps you increase your teaching day-rates.

The Job of Teaching

Why you aren’t getting paid for your workshops and how to fix it

To start being well-paid as a facilitator, you need three pieces in place:.

  1. Skills: Your design and facilitation skills are sufficiently good

  2. Relevance and value: People want to learn what you’re offering to teach them

  3. Exposure: And they know that you’re available to do so

If any one of these three is missing, then you won’t get paid. (Or at least nowhere near as regularly or as much as you would like.)

Your first task is to figure out what you’re missing.

Everyone starts by blaming a lack of exposure. It’s incredibly tempting to believe that you’ve already got the skills and that you’re teaching something people really care about (after all, you care about it, so why wouldn’t they?). And this might, in fact, be the problem. But if the problem is elsewhere, then you can lose an almost infinite amount of time trying to improve your website, your bio, and by calling in favours asking for introductions to potential clients and events (who never seem to need you at this particular moment).

(Note that in this post, I’m mostly talking about getting hired and paid to teach by a client or event. But you can also always cut out the client, organise your own events, and sell tickets yourself.)

In the early stages of your career, getting teaching gigs is almost completely dominated by the opinion of the people who have watched you teach. You’d be surprised how often event organisers attend other events, and these special spectators will then—assuming you’re skilled and relevant—either invite you to their own event or personally recommend you to another organiser.

So here’s how you start to debug where the problem is (followed by some suggestions about how to fix each issue):

  • If you’re hustling your way into teaching opportunities, but are not getting invited back (or invited to other events), then the problem is in your skills. This feels bad, but is actually great news, since it’s the easiest to fix.

  • If you’re getting recommended or invited, but it falls apart during the organisation/proposal stage, then you’ve got the skills, but are low on relevance. In other words, you haven’t found a set of topics which are exciting and worth learning for that particular audience.

  • If you have zero opportunities to get on stage, then the problem could be any of the three issues, but you need to fix your exposure to figure out what to improve next, even if that means teaching for free (should you ever do that?).

Let’s look at the fixes in reverse order. If you have no opportunities to even try to teach, then you’ll need to hustle a bit to try and get some. There are a few options for this. The quickest is to reach out to existing groups (like meetups and universities) and offer to give a short mini-workshop as a part of upcoming class or event (asking for a 10 or 20 minute slot inside a larger session is much easier—at first—than asking them to run a special session just for you). It’s normal, at the end of an unpaid session (after you’ve given lots of value to the audience), to let them know one quick way that they can help you, if they’d like to. In this situation, you’d just tell them that you’re interested in running more workshops, and to pass on your details if they know anyone relevant. Other options (although slower) are to build an online presence or to start running your own events. However you do it, your goal is simply to generate enough opportunities that you can figure out exactly where your problem lies, and to continue fixing it from there.

If clients and events are starting to talk to you, and then going silent part-way through, then it’s likely that whatever you’re offering to teach isn’t relevant and valuable to their particular audience. This usually points toward a fairly mundane problem with your client communications and how you describe yourself. You might want to brush up on how to write a good event blurb, the two email workshop proposal, and understanding the fears of event organisers. If you’ve got those basics under control, then you might need to shift your topic (usually by improving from vague “topics” to sharp Learning Outcomes) or shift your audience from a group who only kinda cares to one who really feels the pain. And remember: one rejection doesn’t mean anything about you or your offering. All it means is that it wasn’t right for that particular person. Try not to draw big conclusions until you’ve hit this wall with at least a couple of different organisers.

I’ll close with a story about the hardest to accept (but easiest to fix) of the three: a shortage of skills. I have a friend named (not) Mary. She’s a great businesswoman and an insightful thinker on the culture and incentives of sales teams, which is highly valuable to a certain type of audience. She’s also a great networker, and was able to quickly find a handful of opportunities to run unpaid (or poorly paid) workshops. After six months or so, we were catching up when she asked for introductions to more event organisers. This raised a mental red flag for me; given the amount of time she’d recently spent on stage, the invitations should have been pouring in. To confirm my suspicions, I went to watch one of her workshops, and the verdict was clear: she just wasn’t good enough (yet). She was a great speaker, but a bad teacher. She didn’t have a good grasp of the fundamentals of workshop design. And this was hard for her to realise, because she was wildly successful in other areas of her life, and was extremely advanced in skills that were closely related to teaching, but which weren’t quite teaching. But once she knew that was the issue, she was able to intentionally focus on intentionally improving her design and facilitation skills. And as she got better, she soon hit the tipping point that you’ll eventually reach as well, where every workshop she taught ended up in her getting invited back to teach two more.

The Job of Teaching

Negotiating your teaching fees (from “we don’t pay” to “so that’s €10k?”)

Here’s the secret to negotiation: do the work ahead of time so that you can calmly tell them what you need, and then happily walk away if that doesn’t work for them. This basically boils down having a clear price sheet (even if it’s just in your head) and a line in the sand about what you want to do for free vs. what you need to be paid for. And then having the confidence to state it plainly.

(The email excerpts in this post are real, but I’m rephrasing and blurring some details to avoid making it obvious which events they’re from. I’m also grabbing samples from several different-but-similar email threads to further anonymise and illustrate the point.)

Here’s a fairly common excerpt from an invitation to speak and run a workshop at a big conference (1000+ attendees). The pattern is to promise to be extremely good hosts, offering all sorts of perks as a way to compensate for being unable to pay:

We are a small conference with a very limited budget, based in a small country. But it's also a country of spectacular beauty, great sandy beaches, and plenty of sunshine! :) We have a great heart, we're full of passion, and we really want to change things in this part of the world.

This is a good and common setup. It’s going to be great! You should be there! The email will commonly continue by offering a variety of fun (but non-financial) benefits:

As organizers we will provide and fully cover:
- Arrival and departure flights
- 5-star accommodation during your stay
- Guided tour (if you want to)
- Assigned person to help during your stay

This is all very generous, and they are being legitimately kind with both the invitation and the offering. And this is where new facilitators/speakers tend to screw up. In their head, they’re thinking, “This would be amazing exposure. And it would be so much fun, too! I would happily do this for free, but let’s see if I can get a little bit of money for it, just in case.” What follows is an extremely awkward “negotiation”, where you’re asking for money, but it’s clear to both parties that you aren’t actually willing to back it up. This type of conversation is not fun, and it makes you seem extremely weak, since you keep asking for stuff and then backing down. In almost every case, you’ll walk away, head down and holding nothing at all.

Here’s my advice:

  • If you’d be happy to do it for free, then accept the invitation with grace and excitement, do it for free, and enjoy your time there

  • If you need to be paid, then tell them as plainly and clearly as possible what number you will need, and politely decline if they can’t provide it

Here are the key quotes from the next couple of key emails:

Me: “Thanks so much for thinking of me and for the kind invitation, but I’m not doing unpaid conferences at the moment.” (having and using a walkaway)
Conf: “Oh, now I get it, I'd totally missed the part about speaker fee. Can you share with me how much it costs to get a session from you?”
Me: “It's €5k/day (plus travel/accommodation). I'd also be happy to run smaller workshops during the day when I'm going to be giving the keynote.” (not haggling, just telling him)
Conf (a week or so later): “We are all set with conference dates. Here is what’s in my head right now. The keynote would be on [date]. And the next day, you would run a full day workshop. And if this works for you, speaking fee would be €10k?”

I agreed, and then we arranged a call to decide on exactly which Learning Outcomes would be most valuable for attendees. (The addition of a second billable day was obviously just a happy little accident.)

If you can’t walk away, then you can’t negotiate. It’s really that simple. So decide on your price sheet and then use it—calmly and confidently. Of course, sometimes they’ll be unable to meet your needs. And that’s okay! Here’s an excerpt from another invitation which I received at roughly the same time:

Me: Good to hear from you and thanks for the invitation. The dates are free and I could certainly join, but I only travel for paid teaching. In general it's  €5k/day, plus travel and accommodation.
Conference (a week or two later): Sorry for my late reply. I was doing my best to find a budget for your trip, but I failed. Unfortunately, we can't accept your speaking fee, which is a bit out of our budget. Hope to invite you next time!
Me: Thanks for checking and letting me know. Wish you all the best with the event :)

So that’s that. I cleared the potential dates from my calendar and moved on with my day. I wanted to show this “failed” example to be clear that this isn’t some sort of rhetorical tactic. It’s not about convincing or tricking people. It’s just about knowing what you need, letting them know, and then politely declining if that doesn’t work for all parties involved.

If the idea of “losing out” on potential exposure seems like a fool’s errand at this point in your career, then you might want to drop the pricing altogether and focus on teaching for free until you feel that you’ve got more demand than you can handle. That’s how I got started, and it’s how everyone else gets started to. And once you’re ready, then spend the time to decide what you need, create a price, and give yourself permission to tell people what it is.