We’ve all been there. You’re excited about a particular workshop or breakout session. You’ve got your pen ready to take notes in your favorite notebook. But ten minutes in, your mind is somewhere else. What time is lunch? Did I remember to feed the cat this morning? I wonder where the presenter got her shoes?
Writing workshops can be chock full of valuable information, but if that information is not delivered in an engaging way, no one will get anything out of it. Time is our most precious resource, and there’s nothing worse than wasting someone’s time.
Leading lectures, workshops, and classes are a great way to diversify your writer’s portfolio. It’s a way to get your name out there and make connections. Speaking events are another way to make money. How do you ensure that you are leading a workshop that people will both enjoy and find valuable? I have seven tips for leading a great workshop.
1. Get Personal
If you want people to listen to you, they need to care about you. At the beginning of every workshop or lecture, your introduction should do two things:
- Establish your credentials, knowledge, or expertise
- Humanize yourself as a presenter
First, people need to know why you are qualified to speak to them. I don’t mean that you need to rattle off every degree and certification. You don’t need to list all your Amazon rankings. Don’t be pretentious, but let your audience know why you have valuable knowledge to offer them. Here are some things you might say:
- I’ve been a freelance writer for four years
- I’m the author of two novels
- I’ve worked as a professional publicist for dozens of bestselling authors
But you are more than your career! Make yourself seem real and relatable to your audience. List off a couple of personal things about yourself. Don’t over-share, but tell your audience something interesting. When I lead workshops, I mention that I have a background in both anthropology and education, I love to travel, and I’m a proud dog-mom. My introduction slide has a few pictures of these things.
Don’t ramble. Keep it short and sweet. I get through my entire introduction in about one minute. The goal is to get your audience invested in you as a person so they want to listen to you.
2. Establish Clear Goals
Have you ever set through a workshop that you thought would be something else entirely? You stick around through information you don’t need, waiting to get to that one part that will be useful, but it never comes. It’s frustrating.
Remember, we don’t want to waste people’s time. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what a workshop will cover from its title or synopsis in a conference program.
Establish clear goals from the beginning of your workshop. Recently, I attended a session on book launches. I wanted information about hosting in-person events. The speaker immediately said that she would focus only on virtual book launches for that session. I appreciated that I wasn’t wasting my time looking for specific information.
List your goals or create a table of contents for your presentation. I also enjoy putting in flowcharts to explain how the workshop will progress.
3. Use Visuals
Long walls of text on PowerPoints are out. They are intimidating and boring to your audience, and they accomplish nothing. Either your audience is trying to read everything while you’re speaking about something related, so they miss important information, or you are reading verbatim what your slide says. That’s redundant and dull and can even come across as insulting to your audience’s intelligence.
Use visuals. Graphs, charts, and templates are always useful. Pictures of books or people are other good options. You can even add funny memes or GIFs to your slide to break up information-dense sections. Stock photos from sites like Pixabay or Unsplash can also enhance your presentation.
Visuals also help people process, comprehend, and later recall information. The human brain loves learning through images.
4. Facilitate Activities
While it can be tempting to cram as much information as possible into a workshop, people have a hard time listening to someone just talk. No matter how great your public speaking skills are, people will zone out at some point.
Participants should leave a great workshop feeling like they accomplished something. Let them put your teaching to the test. Design short activities for your audience. It can be something as simple as listing goals or as complicated as making a plot timeline of their own work. If you have a short session, these activities could take as little as two to five minutes.
Place these activities throughout your presentation. If you wait till the end, people will get bored listening to someone do nothing but talk. You also risk going over your time and not getting to any of the activities at all.
Your audience will feel much more accomplished if you cover just a couple of things and let them put it into practice than if you just talked at them for an hour or more. It’s all about quality over quantity.
5. Ask Questions
Your audience needs to feel like they are participating. Ask questions of your audience as you present. You can ask for examples or personal experiences.
Likewise, ask questions as your audience works on your activities. Circle through the room and ask how they’re doing. Many people won’t ask for help or clarity in front of a group due to shyness. Give them a chance to talk to you one-on-one. Ask about what they write; show that you’re invested in them so that they will be invested in you.
6. Manage Your Time
Asking questions leads me to my next point. Every workshop will have a person who likes to dominate the conversation. They will ask a ton of questions or ramble on about their own writing. While it’s great that someone is so engaged in your workshop, this is annoying to other participants.
When they stop for a natural pause, politely interject and say you need to move on for the sake of time. Offer to speak to them more after the workshop, or tell them you’d love for them to email you.
You should also watch your pacing carefully. Even if you’ve rehearsed your workshop, your pacing might be off on the day of the event. People have a tendency to either speak much faster or much slower than normal when they’re nervous. There are also factors like audience questions and technology hiccups that can interfere.
Wear a watch or have a small kitchen timer set up near your computer. Decide ahead of time which points can be rushed or expanded on if your timing is off. And keep an eye on your audience. If nearly everyone has finished an activity sooner than you anticipated, move on to the next part.
7. Have a Back-Up Plan
The first time I taught a writing workshop, I was so nervous. I even made my non-writer husband come along just in case there were hardly any people to ask questions and do my activities! I had worked hard on a presentation about planning a novel from idea generation to outlining.
The library couldn’t find the projector anywhere. I had the great idea to go paperless and give people a website to access the resources. Now I had no slideshow and no handout. I didn’t even have a whiteboard. And thirty people showed up!
I made it through. The librarian quickly printed my resource page. I apologized for having no presentation and did the best I could. Overall, it went fine. But this experience taught me to always have a back-up plan.
Technology is not always on our side. Every audience will be different. I spoke to a group of librarians about NaNoWriMo last fall. I was told I would be speaking to seventy-five people. There were six. I really had to stretch out that presentation on the fly to avoid awkward silences.
Overall, try your best. Create a workshop that you would be excited to attend. Give yourself grace when you mess up; most of your audience won’t notice. Writing workshops aren’t the Golden Globes.
Most importantly, speak to your audience with passion. Let them know that you care deeply about writing. The rest will come with practice and preparation.
What’s the best writing workshop you’ve ever attended? Tell us about it in the comments below.