Workshop Design

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.