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.