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Book review: The Workshop Survival Guide

workshop survival guide book cover

Recommended: Yes

Why read it? Short, quick read, but thorough. Whatever issues you might have as a facilitator, there’s a straightforward model for how to improve them in this book. Also, great stories.


Don’t do icebreakers, they can feel like work. Design an educational activity that accomplishes the same purpose (help people get comfortable with each other).

Except where necessary, don’t ask the class to do things that don’t benefit them, e.g. “Raise your hand if you …” Over time these requests erode goodwill.

Workshop design starts with “who”—what are your students’ roles, experience levels, motivation (or compulsion) for attending, concerns, and potential objections?

(Just ask the event organizer to answer these questions :)

Breaks conserve energy. Schedule them first.

Secretly plan for an early ending if the workshop is longer than ~2 hours.

You can typically fit 2-3 learning outcomes in a 90-minute chunk, ~6 in a half day, ~12 in a full day. But … you might not need 12 learning outcomes, so maybe spend more time on fewer :)

Teaching formats! Lecture, small group/pair discussions, “try it now” (hands on exercises), scenario challenges, Q&A

Typical workshop is several lectures alternated with other, more engaging formats.

Lectures are good for delivering book knowledge, examples, theories, and for preparing for / synthesizing after an exercise.

Every lecture should be paired with an exercise on the same topic.

Small group discussion questions should be clear, and clearly posted—but with no single right answer. 2-5 minutes of discussion is right, but the total exercise will take more like 10-15 minutes total.

Groups are good for exposure to new perspectives, pairs are good for coming up with ideas and working through problems.

Q&A is slow paced, and only interactive for the one person asking a question. So it can drag. Use it as a buffer so you can delete it if you need extra time. Schedule one ~5min Q&A per learning outcome.

If you’re going to poll the class, use a dot vote or post-up (so everyone gets a voice). Dot vote: put options on the wall, everyone gets X dots to allocate.

Post-up: ask a question, everyone writes an answer on a post-it and puts it on the wall. (Good for “What are you hoping to get out of this session?” at the very beginning—then come back to unanswered questions during Q&A.)

“Try it now” exercises are for building skills related to the knowledge shared in lectures. Break them up into small, atomic tasks that help students move confidently toward mastery. (They will not reach mastery in a single workshop, don’t try.)

Scenario challenges are for building judgement. Give them a scenario, then 1 or more challenges that require making a judgement call, documenting it, possibly sharing it. Note that a multi-challenge exercise actually goes from lecture to small group, to class discussion.

Planning your workshop:

  1. Schedule breaks
  2. List learning outcomes
  3. Check for any learning outcomes that must be taught in a specific format; plan that first

Tag each learning outcome and supporting element as “K/S/W”—knowledge (lecture), skill (“try it now”), wisdom (scenario challenge).

Plan on 5-15 minutes per exercise.

Variables to consider when designing an exercise:

Be minimalist af with slides. Spend < 1hr building the deck. All you need are:

Re: slides, put the message in the title (not the topic).

On attendee count: Think of yourself as a party host. <= 12 ppl is a dinner party, you’ll talk to everyone (but not all the time). 12-20 is a birthday dinner, you’ve got to stand up and yell to get everyone’s attention. 20-50 is a house party, not much personal contact but you’re creating an experience. 50+ is a wedding, needs way more structure, stage + microphone, hard to get individual attention.

Crowd control: for <= 30 attendees, deal with each issue at the individual level.

E.g. if class is doing group work and misunderstanding the prompt, you can just walk from group to group and clarify. (Assuming < 10 groups)

Same thing ☝️ for “a few ppl ignored the instructions.” Just go talk to them.

“Go individual” during every exercise. Walk the room, watch and listen.

Breaking people into groups: set up the venue with cabaret seating with six people per table, and find a home for anybody who’s isolated—before telling anybody what to work on.

Avoid lecture hall seating if at all possible.

For > 2 hour-long workshops, consider rearranging groups at each break. (But be sure to warn everybody about switching seats.)

To deal with alpha “talk over everybody” type, sit down with the group and cut them off as necessary to make space for others to talk.

For stand and share, just call on two or three groups. Start with someone you know is happy to share and has something to say. This sets the tone.

Ask them to stand up and face the class.

If something’s personal or touchy, you can ask “Did you hear anything interesting?” and prompt with “Tell us about it (you don’t have to tell us who said it).”

Questions about the experience of the exercise are good too (“How did that feel? Kind of awkward? Totally normal.”)

Eloquent answers come from preparing a list of stories OMG

Just write a list of unusual case studies, funny anecdotes, heroic struggles, fuckups, wins, etc. When someone asks you a question, pick a story and tell it.

More crowd control: If they’re noisy and distracted, just start. Go up to the front of the room and start talking in circles until they tune in.

Another possibility: Call for a stand and share. This grants you the moral high ground to tell everyone to STFU.

Set expectations for ☝️, e.g. “I’ll give a 3 minute warning when break’s almost over, and at 11:15 I’m gonna start talking.”

Talk to individuals when corralling people back from a break.

Never harrass someone for being late.

The solution for most workshop problems is “talk to individuals.”

When placing an isolated participant in a group, make sure not to walk away until they’re accepted and contributing.

If someone is hostile, put them on a pedestal and highlight their expertise.

When running late, delete a Q&A. If that’s not possible, you can recover 5 minutes by deleting an anecdote, or an exercise followup discussion. You can recover 10-15 minutes by deleteing a whole exercise (bad), or 20-30 minutes by deleting a whole learning outcome.

Do not stand behind your laptop. Come stand in front of it.

Getting help: Co-teachers run a chunk of the workshop, expert guests do Q&A or lectures, facilitation helpers assist during exercises, operational helpers fix tech & facility stuff.

If co-teaching, make it clear who’s teaching what section so you don’t get in each other’s way.

If you have an expert guest, don’t count on them to deliver a learning outcome. They should complement the learning outcome instead. If they get way off track, turn their lecture into an interview.

When disaster strikes: If you stay calm, let the class know how they can keep moving forward, and manage to deliver learning outcomes, it’s fine. Nobody cares.

Reduce workshop fragility:

    © 2024 Brian David Hall