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The Four Horsemen of Bad Workshop Experiences: And Tips for Avoiding Them

We’ve all been there, attended a much-anticipated workshop at a conference only to leave feeling disappointed by the experience. Granted, it might not have been part of a conference at all, but instead was a one-off deal. Either way, the outcome was the same; it was a waste of time. The problem is that this situation happens all too often and with well-meaning, well-educated people at the helm.

To help you avoid such a scenario, I’m here to share with you the Four Horsemen of Bad Workshop Experiences. These are things that many of us do with the best intentions in mind, yet cause undesirable results. Luckily you need not let these indiscretions continue to hold you back!

1. Ignoring the Needs of Adult Learners

This is a common mistake. Many people teach like they were taught in school. The only problem is that adult learners are different than kids. When we are kids, we are sponges, excited to learn for the sake of gaining new knowledge. Unfortunately, adults do not possess such a keen desire. Adult learners want material that is relevant, timely, and directly applicable to a problem they seek to solve. Better yet, they want to see a direct correlation with their own experiences!

Tips for teaching to the adult learner: Get to know your audience before, during and after an engagement. What problems are they struggling with? What concerns are keeping them up at night? Get past your own perceptions of why the information you have to share is so great and empathize with your attendees. See things from their perspective and work to address their needs, not yours.

2. Relying on PowerPoint to Make Your Point

What was once a convenient tool for enriching a presentation has quickly become the crutch that lets everyone down. PowerPoint’s reign is like a nasty tar that’s stuck where it doesn’t belong. The problem is that all too often people use PowerPoint to make their point; literally including what they’re saying bullet point by bullet point.

It’s insulting to the audience, boring, and disengages people. I don’t need to listen to you when I can read what you’re saying. And since I already read what you’re saying I’m going to check my email on my phone until your next slide pops up.

Tips for using visuals well: Including visuals is a great way to provide a workshop experience that meets the needs of a variety of learners. The key is to use visuals wisely and sparingly. I’m a big fan of not using PowerPoint. If you have to, say you’re giving a talk at Ignite or something, use as few words as possible. Let your visuals tell a story by using images or graphs. Be sure to use visuals that serve to reinforce your point and stick to just a few (3 at most) “points” in your workshop.

3. Acting Like a Know-it-All

In an effort to overcompensate for any number of deficiencies, one may be inclined to over-exert their “expertise” by acting like a know-it-all. I’ve felt such an inclination as a young professional woman that often gets directly asked, “what qualifies you to….?” And I can say, it doesn’t bode well.

Even though you might think that people want a workshop leader that has all the answers the truth is they don’t. Participants connect with and identify with people that are just like them (but maybe a few steps further on their journey). They appreciate imperfection, respect when you own up to your ignorance and enjoy the opportunity to contribute their knowledge to the collective experience.

Tips for being vulnerable while leading a workshop: Start by re-framing your perspective that to be worthy of leading this workshop you need to be a know-it-all (not true!). One of the reasons I love leading workshops is because I get the opportunity to learn from everyone else as well. When they ask a question I don’t know the answer to, I take it as an opportunity to deepen my own knowledge. Pose questions back to the group. When in doubt say, “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll happily look into it and get back to you.”

4. Over-Scripting the Experience

There’s being prepared than there’s being overly prepared. The thing about a workshop is that you have to accept a level of uncertainty when you go into the experience. Even if you know all of the participants involved, there will likely be unexpected areas of inquiry that come up. This is good! It means people are engaging. Many will mistakenly choose to follow the scripted plan to a T rather than let the experience evolve. This is a game of finesse and it may be outside your comfort zone to go with the flow, but leading a workshop isn’t about you.

Tips for maintaining an organic focus: The secret here is to have clear boundaries: what is the purpose of your workshop and what do you hope to accomplish as a result? Identifying these intentions ahead of time helps you to discern when an area of inquiry is on or off subject. As the workshop leader your role is to use your know-how to guide participants to reach the intended outcomes. Sometimes the "how" evolves in the moment and you must read the situation to know when your plans are inadequate so you may adjust course as needed.

Are you planning a workshop and want to WOW participants? Schedule a 15 minute with Ariana.

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