Designing Better Workshops


One of my clients noticed a couple of years ago that a slippage in customer satisfaction from workshops that had enjoyed a 92-95% satisfaction rate over many years. During this time, I have noticed a profound change in the learning styles and preferences of the client’s audiences.

Comments tabulated over the last month or so included several that indicate issues with pacing and design. Among the desired forms participants suggested:

  • Chunked or modular content
  • Less presentation
  • More facilitated exercises
  • Motivation for the content
  • Less repetition and duplication of content

Today’s adult learner is a visual, hands-on learner with a short (<10 minute) attention span. Today’s fast-paced, multi-tasking environment in the workplace is a contributing factor. They want the information and skills they need in a format that is easy to learn, and easy to use. They also want to know why they need the information.

Workshop Design Goals

The goals of any workshop are to:

  • Impart information and skills, while tapping into the collective wisdom and experiences of the learners.
  • Allow  anyone with basic presentation and facilitation skills to be able to deliver the material and facilitate the learning and discussion processes without feeling overwhelmed.
  • Provide facilitated practice in the skills discussed.

Proposed Structure of Workshops

To meet the above goals, workshops should not have more than 3-5 concepts. A concept can be taught in one module with the following properties:

  • What the concept is and why the learner needs it (1-2 min.)
  • Anticipatory set (how many participants have heard of the concept and/or are familiar with the concept and why this knowledge is needed) — 1-2 min.
  • Introductory presentation (What is it? How does it relate to the previous concepts discussed in the workshop?) — 3 slides max – no more than 3-5 min.
  • Exercise instructions and demonstration — 2 slides max — 1-2 minutes max
  • Briefly demonstrate the exercise – 1-2 min.
  • Participants perform the exercise –using  small group leads to help with coaching participants is useful. This is where the rubber meets the road and the real learning takes place. Most exercises will take 15-20 minutes. A few, such as mock interviews, can take up to 30 minutes to complete.
  • Report back to whole group — typically 2 minutes per group for a total of 5-10 minutes

As you can see, the goal is for the presentation to take no more than 3-5 minutes and the exercise and report back are the value add points where learning is occurring.  Note that if you cannot fit a concept into this structure, most likely you really have two or more concepts and should find a way to break your concept into two (or more) concepts.

Applying the Methodology

Let’s see how we can apply this methodology to an existing workshop. For this example, we’ll use a workshop entitled  JumpStart Your Job Search (JSYJS). JSYJS is intended to be an overview workshop. It provides an overview of the job search process, including:

  • Emotional and motivational issues of job search,
  • What gets us stuck and how to get unstuck,
  • The changing job market
  • How to tap the hidden job market

During the workshop, different modules discuss the emotional issues of job loss, the pieces needed for the job search (networking, business card, resume, LinkedIn, tactical and strategic plan, time management, record-keeping, etc.) For the purposes of this example, class size is 24-30 participants and the workshop is three hours in length with a 15-minute break roughly midway through the workshop.

A sample modular outline for JSYJS would be as follows:

  • Reminder to silence electronic devices, location of restrooms, emergency exits
  • Workshop rules of engagement
  • Objectives
  • Participants introduce themselves and state what they hope to learn in the workshop (15 min.)
  • Module 1: The Changing Job Search Process
    • Exercise:How Participants got Last Job (5 min.) – each participant gets 5 seconds
  • Module 2: The Emotional Issues Around Job Loss and Job Search
    • Exercise: Stuck and Unstuck (20 min. total)
      • Stuck – 5 min.
      • Unstuck – 10 min.
      • Report back 5 min.
  • Module 3: Where are You in Your Job Search?
    • Exercise: Job Search Checklist (colored sheet) – 10 min.
  • Module 4:The Hidden Job Market – An Insider’s View
    • Exercise: Commitment for next 30 days and offer letter (10 min.)
  • Module 5: Managing Your Job Search
    • Exercise: The Lead Generation Funnel

The client reported that the workshop took about 160 minutes. The timing for the workshop after it was modularized was 155 minutes giving 10 minutes of slack time to take into account slight differences in facilitation styles and slight variations in exercise timing by small group leads.

Some Useful Links

How to Lead Workshops More Effectively
Teaching Workshops: How to Conduct Interactive Workshops
Top Ten Secrets for an Effective Workshop



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