Figuring out the right format for a workshop can be tricky. There are so many factors; what is the subject, do people need any equipment, how many people will attend, how many facilitators will there be, where will it be held, what level of expertise will the participants have, the list goes on…
Often when planning a workshop for a conference or event one or more of these factors is unknown. In some situations most of them can be!
One conference where this is particularly prevalent is the Mozilla Festival. I’ve run a number of workshops at these conferences and you often get given a brief along the lines of
“Run a workshop for 5–50 people in 15–90 minutes with no specified start or end time in a yet to be specified location. Oh, and there may or may not be WiFi…”.
Through planning, running and attending these kind of workshops I’ve found a pattern which works well and I wanted to share it in this article. I will refer to it as my pragmatic workshop format.
What is the activity?
The type of activity you want people to do in your workshop greatly depends on the subject matter and the expertise of yourself and the attendees. You will also want to consider the facilities available such as computers, WiFi, pens and paper, etc.
To best suit the different skill levels of attendees I like to break a workshop up into three or more separate activities which lead from one to the next.
The first activity should be a beginner level task which someone who is completely new to the subject could spend the whole workshop working through. It should teach them some basic principles in a confined and structured way.
The second task should be something an intermediate participant could move onto after completing the first activity in order to get more value from the session. This should teach a more advanced principle but this is fine to make less structured.
The third activity should be an open ended task which could take an infinite amount of time to complete (or at least hours to days). This will likely be an actual problem you are trying to solve yourself and gives expert participants something to jump to and find interesting. It doesn’t have to teach anything as it is intend for people to discover things for themselves, you could even just include this as a one line challenge at the end.
If you rely on technology for your activities then it will go wrong. This may sound a little pessimistic but it is best to have a backup plan for when something inevitably goes wrong. This could be a pen and paper version of the activities, or even a separate activity based on open discussion. I’ve found the most versatile activities are an offline experience that is enhanced with technology, however if your workshop is teaching people about web technologies for example this is harder said than done.
How many people?
The next thing to consider is how many people will be attending and how many people will be facilitating. Often you can be more certain on the number of facilitators as that is something you need to arrange up front, we’ll come back to this later.
For the participants I find it useful to consider what the minimum and maximum numbers will be. Sadly the minimum could possibly be one or even zero, however this is a pretty extreme situation so I find it more useful to assume a minimum of five participants. The maximum will depend on the size of the event or conference, what other things are happening at the same time, the difficulty of your workshop and other factors. A useful estimate would be dividing the total number of attendees by the number of simultaneous sessions and then double it. Let’s assume for our example workshop that this number came out at 75.
How do we plan content for between 5 and 75 people? I start by breaking the workshop down into tasks which can be done either individually or in a group of your minimum (so five in this example).
The important thing here is to try and decouple the activity from the facilitation done by the people running the workshop. If you need one active facilitator per group of five you could easily run out of facilitators if you start getting closer to your maximum. You can also fall into the trap of overwhelming the attendees by having more facilitators than attendees if you are close to your minimum. A good way to work around this is to provide the activity in a written form, a blog post works well as it is also useful afterwards as a standalone thing. This way attendees can start working through at their own pace and facilitators can dip in and out to add momentum and remove blockers.
How long should it be?
You will likely be given a start and end time of your workshop by the conference or event organizers, which feels like a nice constant to work from. However in reality the schedule will be running behind, you will start later or earlier than expected and your attendees will not show up at the correct time.
The times provided to you are helpful in planning roughly how long the content should be, but make sure you are flexible with this. If you’ve been given an hour then you may end up with 45 minutes, and that’s ok. Try to plan your activities to fit into that rough time slot given the different expertise levels we discussed before.
You will probably want to start your workshop with some kind of introduction. This might be a little talk and overview before you dive into the activity. But realistically people will be late to this, you will hesitate about when to actually begin because people may still be filing in and this hesitation will probably lose you 5–10 minutes of your session.
A way around this is to also produce a written version of your workshop introduction. This could be as a handout, a poster or an introduction in the activity material blog post. That way if people are arriving late they can quickly get up to speed with what is happening, people could turn up half way through and still be able to engage and join in.
My other suggestion about your intro talk is to plan it in advance, write it how you would normally do it, but then rearrange it from least important information to most important and strip it right back to be as short as possible. Be ruthless and honest with yourself. Who you are, who you work for, what you do are likely to be the least important information. What the session contains, where to find the activity materials and what you want people to learn is going to be the most important information. This way if people only catch the end of your talk they should have the right information to get going.
Planning workshops for conferences and events is always tricky. So let’s recap my main pragmatic tips:
- Break your workshop into self contained activities.
- Publish your workshop activities as a stand alone blog post.
- Have a backup plan for when technology fails you.
- Plan activities for groups of five people or less which can be done by multiple groups simultaneously.
- Create activities that can be done without a facilitator around.
- Be flexible with your activity lengths.
- Give a short verbal intro and provide a written intro for latecomers.
Hopefully if you follow the tips in my pragmatic workshop format you will find the whole thing an enjoyable and stress free experience!