Lessons I learned from an online workshop

lessons learned online workshopI recently ran a workshop, hosted by the Manitoba Chapter of the Canadian Society of Association Professionals (CSAE), on the design of participation-rich events. Here are the lessons I learned from this online workshop.

[Note: This event was a workshop, not a presentation. Sessions are often advertised as “workshops” that aren’t. If you want to know the difference, read this.]

Allocate enough time for workshops so you don’t have to rush

I think my biggest regret about this workshop is that it felt rushed. Why? The quick answer is that I tried to include too much for the time available. But it’s more complicated than that.

Don Presant asked me to offer a CSAE session of up to an hour in length. I asked for the maximum. In retrospect, I should have asked for more time. (I might not have got it, but it never hurts to ask.) After the workshop, Don asked me how long a time I would have preferred. “Two hours,” I replied immediately.

Over the years I’ve become good at keeping to the time allocated for sessions. My approach is simple; I practice what I plan to do with a stopwatch running and keep paring down what I’d thought to include until it fits. I note the elapsed time at the start of each new segment and check how I’m doing during the session, adjusting accordingly.

This workshop didn’t work out so well. I cover the logistical reasons below. But being rushed is never good. I had never tried to run a one-hour online workshop before. And one lesson I learned is that I’m not going to try to run one in just one hour again.

Additional concerns when a workshop is online

My workshop was designed to include two chunks of content and two participative exercises. As is usually the case in my workshops, I work at two levels. I try to make the workshop personally useful for the participants by allowing them to learn about each other. Simultaneously, participants experience and get familiar with how the formats I use work.

This workshop would have been better in person. I probably could have done it in an hour. What made it rushed online was the time taken to switch between content and participative segments, and the toll this took on the flow of the session.

If I’d run this workshop in person, I could have easily run it by myself. Online, I needed two assistants — thank you, Don and Carrie Fischer! Don did the intro and close, monitored the chat, and fed me questions. Carrie hosted the meeting on Zoom, set up multiple breakout rooms, and messaged instructions while the breakouts were in session. There’s no way I could have run this workshop without them. Yet I now realize that having one of them or a third person manage the context switches between the interactive and content portions of the workshop would have helped me a lot!

Over the last couple of years, I’ve run multiple successful two-hour or longer online workshops. Looking back at the run of shows, these workshops had a similar or fewer number of context switches between interactive and content segments. Consequently, I’m going to allocate longer times for workshops than an hour from now on.

Logistical concerns that made this workshop rushed

One unexpected logistical concern occurred just before the workshop started. Instead of using CSAE’s Professional Zoom account, we had to use mine. Fortunately, my Zoom settings were set as I needed them to be, but I did worry that this would require me to take over some of Carrie’s work. Luckily, with Don and her as co-hosts, Carrie was able to handle the usual Zoom support.

Unfortunately, I was responsible for the context switches between Zoom Gallery mode and sharing my keynote presentation slides. That was a mistake; at least the way I tried to implement it.

Using Keynote in Zoom

There are several ways to share a Keynote presentation in Zoom. My favorite is to share my Keynote presentation as a virtual background in Zoom. Zoom has described this functionality as “beta” for a while, but I’ve not had any problem with it to date except for the minor bug I found this time, as described below. My “talking head” is superimposed on my slide at the size and position I choose. Here’s an example (this is my view as the presenter):

lessons learned online workshop

This works well for a one-off presentation in a Zoom meeting. However, it turns out to be painful to implement when you need to switch in and out of Keynote during a workshop. Here’s why:

  • When you switch to displaying a Keynote deck via this method in Zoom, there’s a short delay while Zoom loads the deck. We tested this during our tech rehearsal and the delay was acceptable (a few seconds) with the setup and bandwidths we had. This is not a big deal, though it’s not what a professional production team would do.
  • More seriously, if you stop sharing your deck and then want to share it again, you can’t continue from the last slide you displayed. Zoom reloads the entire deck from scratch. My workshop involved three shares of my master deck, interspersed with participative portions in Gallery view. To avoid having to step through previously viewed slides, I split my workshop presentation into three Keynote decks. And that’s when I found a Zoom/Keynote bug…
  • The Zoom/Keynote bug. After splitting my presentation into three separate decks, I began a rehearsal. I ran through the first deck, stopped sharing it, and then selected the second deck. Zoom picked the wrong deck to display! (At first, I thought I’d clicked on the wrong deck, but it quickly became clear that Zoom+Keynote was to blame.) This was not acceptable! I realized that each of the three decks had the same long filename with a number appended to the end. I guessed that Zoom was not reading the entire filename, and that’s why it was picking the wrong deck. Sure enough, when I renamed the three decks with a number at the beginning of the filename, Zoom reliably picked the deck I had chosen. Phew!

Better ways to manage context switching

During the hour workshop, I had to perform six context switches while facilitating: Gallery->Keynote->Gallery->Keynote->Gallery->Keynote->Gallery. I found it distracted my mental flow, especially the several steps involved in starting up a different Keynote deck each time.

In Gallery view, I used breakout rooms and a camera off/on technique for simple human spectrograms and fishbowl discussion during the last segment of the workshop. This was complicated to manage in the short time available, and I felt the quality of the workshop suffered.

I mentioned these problems to my friend and event production expert Brandt Krueger, who sympathized. He pointed out that I had encountered limitations of software-based solutions to what are essentially production issues. For example, I could run Keynote on a second machine (I have three in my office) and use a switcher to instantly switch video between the Zoom and presentation computers. (Brandt loves the ATEM Mini switcher, and I have come close to buying one on several occasions.)

Consequences

I had assumed that what I’d rehearsed might take a little longer when I went live. And I expected to spend some time answering impromptu questions during the first three segments of the workshop. But I had reserved what I thought was enough time for the open-ended final discussion so I could still end on schedule.

As it turned out, I underestimated the slowdown from context switching. Answering a couple of questions brought me to the final segment about ten minutes later than I’d planned. The time for the concluding discussion was shorter than I would have liked. We went over a few minutes, and I cut a final “lessons learned” pair share I had planned to include.

Although I covered everything I’d planned, the workshop felt rushed to me, and I don’t do my best work under the circumstances.

Well, that’s how you learn. I’ll do better (and allow longer to do it) next time.

Conclusion

There are some of the lessons I learned from this online workshop. I hope they help you avoid my mistakes. If you have other suggestions for improving the challenging exercise of running an ambitious online workshop, please share them in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Lessons I learned from an online workshop

  1. Adrian, I attended this workshop. Your assessment and subsequent lessons from the experience, now generously shared with others, inspires me. Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other and people don’t often admit mistakes or shortcomings in a public format for learning and growth. It’s empowering!

    As an event planner and learning leader, I took some lessons from the session as well. Many of my favorite in-person activities pre-Covid, don’t yield the same results today. For example, I’m certain the human spectrogram is powerful in person, given the time and willingness of the group, yet there may be a faster, more meaningful way to accomplish the same goal. I have tried a few and been pleased with the results.

    One thing we clearly agree on is, Participation is Key.

  2. Hey Molly, thank you so much for taking the time to provide great feedback and thoughts! These days, being open to sharing lessons learned feels liberating to me. It sure wasn’t always like that.

    I’d love to hear more about your alternatives to human spectrograms. (Always looking for ways to improve!)

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