From (Too) Long Talk to Workshop That Works

To Really Work

Very often, when conferences list workshops, what is offered is not an actual “workshop” but just a long talk. There are several reasons why you should avoid that.

First of all, you’re communicating to the audience that they’re attending a workshop. As the word says, there should be work involved. If your audience is doing nothing but listening, then you’re not giving a workshop.

Second, if your audience is doing nothing but listening, they will lose attention. I’ve rarely seen someone speak for longer than 20 minutes and still capture the attention of the audience well. This short read on suggests that attention spans only for 20 minutes or less, which was already confirmed by research of McLeish in 1976.

Third, by actually doing something, your audience will better retain the content of your session. One of the main reasons I enjoy giving workshops is that already during the session, the attendees can start applying what I want to teach them. They don’t have to make notes and then depend on time to test it out or get involved. They already have started during the session.


So how do you make your audience work? This, of course, depends a lot on the focus of your workshop, but here are a few suggestions.

Provoke conversation. Instead of introducing problems and challenges, and also giving the answers, let the audience brainstorm in little groups. Be as clear as possible in your description. Don’t say “Talk about your experience as a developer” when you can ask “What are the three biggest challenges you’ve faced as a developer.” The former is an invitation for wild side-tracks, the latter invites for specific and to-the-point discussion. It is also a myth that you cannot facilitate this in bigger groups. Just let them talk in groups of 5-6 people. It’s very easy to do.

Provide time. One of the mistakes I’ve often made is to let people brainstorm or share ideas straight away. Until I was introduced to the concept of primary and secondary thinkers. Primary thinkers process their thoughts by talking out loud, while secondary thinkers need silence and time. The result of not giving time to the whole audience is that primary thinkers dominate the discussion. By the time secondary thinkers are ready to formulate their answers, the conversation often has already moved on. That’s a pity because the answers of secondary thinkers are often more thoughtful (yes, pun intended). An easy way to solve that is to first let everyone write down a few suggestions/answers on a piece of paper.

Let them try. We have a tendency to show off our problem-solving skills, but I’ve noticed that letting people first try to solve a problem will help them to solve problems a lot better. So instead of introducing a problem and its solution, just introduce the problem and give them an environment to try finding a solution. Sometimes they will struggle, sometimes they will find your solutions, and sometimes they will find a solution that is different and maybe even better than yours. For example, if you’re going to talk about bug testing, give them a WordPress plugin to work with. Let them find the easter eggs you put in there instead of telling them what is wrong with it.

Provide authentic environments. As much as possible, try to create an environment that they will be able to recreate at home. So if your workshop is about WordPress development, let them use a website. If it’s about reporting issues, let them connect to a GitHub repo. If it’s about design, set up a shared InVision account, or let them draw stuff on paper.

Especially for tech conference providing a computer environment can be a bit tricky, due to internet not working or people not bringing their laptops. There are three ways to limit the damage. First, give them homework. Ask them to download and install as much as possible beforehand. Let them make the necessary accounts before hand. Remind them to bring a laptop. Second, go offline. If you’re doing testing, have them install a local environment so the testing can be done without the internet. Third, have a backup plan. If a website is down, what will you do instead?

Learn. You’ll make mistakes while giving workshops. Heck, I’ve got a long list of things I could have done better in the past. Make sure that you don’t repeat your mistakes, but also reiterate what went great. You should be getting better at giving workshops most of the time (everyone has a bad day once in a while).

An Outline

Bringing this all together, this is what a 60-minute workshop can look like.

  • Introduce yourself (5 mins): Introduce who you are. Don’t be too serious about yourself; no one likes an arrogant presenter. They’ve probably read the bio on the conference website, but they don’t yet know about your favourite cat gif.
  • Introduce problem (5 mins): Briefly introduce the goals of the session. People can follow a session better if they know where you’re headed.
  • Analyse problem (15 mins): Let the audience brainstorm about the specifics of the problem. In order to solve a problem, you first need to understand it.
  • Gather input (10 mins): Bring together the input of the audience. If necessary, add some of the ideas you had. I’ve however found that in a lot of cases, the audience is able to find all of the suggestions I had in mind.
  • Find solutions (15 mins): Choose one or a few of the facets of the problem analysis and task the audience to find solutions.
  • Combine solutions (10 mins): Bring the input of the audience together and close off the session. List the main takeaways. Don’t be afraid to include ones that you hadn’t thought of, but the audience did. Give some suggestions for future learning.

That’s it. I hope this will help you prepare for your next workshop. Please let me know how you put your audience to work, the above suggestions can always be improved!


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