Lessons I learned from an online workshop

lessons learned online workshop I 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.

Free online Participate Lab — May 11, 2022

Participate Lab A rare opportunity! Hosted by CSAE Manitoba, this free one-hour online Participate Lab will introduce you to the design of participation-rich events through the direct experience of participatory meeting techniques and formats. All are welcome to attend this event at no charge (both CSAE members and non-members).

Registration is limited, so register now!

Where & When

Online on Wednesday, May 11, 2022 — 12:00 – 1:00 pm PDT • 1:00 – 2:00 pm MDT • 2:00 – 3:00 pm CDT • 3:00 – 4:00 pm EDT • 8:00 – 9:00 pm BST • 9:00 – 10:00 pm CEST.

What We Will Talk About

We’ve known for a long time that lectures are terrible ways to learn. Today’s attendees are no longer satisfied sitting and listening to people talking at them. If you want to hold meetings where effective learning, connection, and engagement take place, you need to build in authentic and relevant participation.

Our time together at this Participate Lab will cover:

  • Why creating participation-rich meetings is so important.
  • Human spectrograms: a simple tool for learning about other participants.
  • The Conference Arc:
    • Building connection while uncovering wants, needs, and resources.
    • Creating the right program.
    • Consolidating learning.
    • Facilitating individual and community growth.
  • Ask Adrian Anything: using a fishbowl sandwich to facilitate group discussion on meeting design and facilitation.

This workshop is limited to 100 attendees, so register now!

Ask Adrian Anything — a free online participant-driven workshop on the future of events

Here’s a rare opportunity to ask me anything about meeting design and facilitation at a unique, free, online workshop. Join me next Thursday, March 10th, 2022 at 12:00 pm EST for Ask Adrian Anything (AAA): an online participant-driven workshop on the future of events.

Though the central core is the AAA session, this is an active learning workshop. During it, you’ll experience some of the practices I use to support and build participant learning, connection, engagement, and community.

How long will the workshop last? That’s up to you! I’m willing to keep it going as long as you have questions and concerns to share. When it’s over, you’re welcome to stay and socialize online, and I’ll stick around for informal chats.

If you want to join us, it’s important you’re ready to begin at 12:00 pm EST. We’ll open the workshop platform at 11:45 am EST so you’ll have time to do the usual camera/microphone online setup boogie for a prompt start at noon EST.

Register for free
We’ll meet online, using Gatherly [1, 2], a platform designed for online social interaction and learning. [Apart from being a fan, I have no affiliation with Gatherly, and am donating my services.] The Gatherly platform will allow us to learn about each other and about top-of-mind issues, concerns, and questions through small group work, human spectrograms, and fishbowl discussion.

Ask Adrian Anything

This is an opportunity for you to experience one of my participant-driven workshops. You’ll learn through doing, both about other participants and how to implement what you experience into your own events.

  • Experience a participant-driven online event.
  • Learn by doing participant-driven methods that increase event engagement, connection, and community.
  • Meet, workshop with, and learn from other event professionals.
  • Take this opportunity to ask Adrian anything about meeting design and facilitation.
  • Enjoy time after the session in an online social environment that closely mimics meeting in-person socials. You’ll be able to find folks you’d like to talk with and hang out one-on-one or in small groups for public or private conversations.

Register for free

Do they want to be here?

We’re at a workshop, conference, or session. Do I want to be here? Do they want to be here?

Sometimes we simply don’t.

Swap the perspective

Now, you are leading a workshop, conference, or session. It’s very likely there are people present (perhaps a majority, perhaps all of them) who don’t want to be there.

How can you best serve them?

Here’s a simple answer.

A helpful exchange

A month ago, experiential trainer Shannon Hughes asked members of Facebook’s Applied Improvisation Network private group for thoughts about her frustrating experience running a workshop.

want to be here
June 30, 2021 post on Facebook’s Applied Improvisation Network private group

Here’s what she wrote:

“Just finished a 90-min workshop that was like pulling teeth from start to finish. Visibly distracted, clearly checking emails, no engagement or dialogue during debrief. I’m exhausted!
I know it’s no reflection on me, but I can’t help wondering if this is at all “telling” of the way the session was marketed to participants beforehand and/or whether it’s a sign these are not my ideal client.
Am I naive or acting a martyr for asking these questions? I’d love to get a convo going around how we manage our own expectations and energy when our sessions fall flat.
Thoughts?
Yours truly.
Shannon Hughes

A helpful comment

Among many great comments, Edward Liu‘s stood out.

“Lot of good suggestions so far. The only thing I can add is from one of the best work trainings I ever did, where the first thing the instructor asked was, “who’s here because they want to be and who’s here because they were told to be?” The majority were “told to be,” which she acknowledged and said, “I was told to be here, too, here’s what I suggest to make our experience a little better for the 2 days we all have to be here” and then outlined her expectations and some basic ground rules. I can’t even remember what they were, because I was so struck by an instructor acknowledging that maybe we didn’t really want to be in the class.

She was good enough that we all wanted to be there after an hour or two, and also happened to teach a bunch of management techniques that I can now frame in applied improv terms. But I’d say her very first question was itself an improv technique: Listen to your partner, recognize what they want, and then do your best to give it to them. More often than not, trying to do that means they’ll reciprocate. In this case, your partner is the whole class and you can use the question to intuit what it is they actually want vs what you were hired to do, and then improv your way to ensuring you both get to group mind about the session as a whole as soon as you can.” [Emphasis added.]

Lots of good stuff! Here’s my take.

How to work with folks who don’t want to be here

1. Ask the key question that Edward shared:

At the start of your workshop, conference, or session, ask who chose to be here and who was told they had to be.

2. If there are people who don’t want to be here, then immediately sympathize with them! If possible and appropriate, gently find out why they had to attend.

3. Next, explore what you might be able to do to optimally meet attendees’ wants and needs:

Perhaps you can modify your workshop or session appropriately. In some cases, the Powers That Be may prescribe the entire curriculum, and there’s little or nothing you can do. But in most cases, you’ll have some latitude to adjust what happens while you’re together. If so, first use pair share to get participants thinking about what they’d ideally like to happen. Then run Post It! to hear what they’ve come up with and create a revised plan that takes the expressed wants and needs into effect.

This work is well worth doing, if only to let attendees know that you’re thinking about their wants and needs right from the start. But you can almost always improve your time together by simply asking Edward’s opening question and responding sensitively to the answers you receive.

A closing story

I once taught Computer Science for a decade at a small liberal arts college. Every year, I’d teach an introductory class. One year, the class felt very different. Students were more disengaged than usual. The whole classroom environment seemed different. It took me a few weeks before I was bold enough to share my experience with the students. When I did so, I learned that a third of the class was there to fulfill a degree requirement I didn’t know about, imposed by a new joint degree program with another institution. At every class I’d taught previously, all the students had chosen my class voluntarily. I was getting a crash course in teaching students who didn’t want to be here.

I wish I’d thought to ask my students at the first class why they were there. Perhaps I could have made the class a bit better for those who had no choice.

If you are leading a workshop or session and have any suspicion that some attendees may not want to be there, ask them! Your experience and theirs may be all the better for it!

The workshop that wasn’t

workshop that wasn't Last week, my friend Traci B wrote to me about a workshop that wasn’t.

“You’ll love this…I went to a 4 hour morning workshop at this digital conference. The speaker said, this will be interactive because no one wants to listen to me talk for four hours. He then proceeded to talk for 4 hours!

I did learn stuff and it prompted some ideas, but imagine how much better they might stick if it actually was a workshop. Also, he polled people in the audience and asked who was B2B [business-to-business] and who B2C [business-to-consumer]. 90 percent of the room was B2B…his presentation was almost all B2C.”

Sadly, experiences like this are far too common. Speakers (and the folks that concoct conference programs) decide to jazz up the description of a broadcast-style session by calling it a workshop.

The dictionary definition of a workshop is: “a seminar, discussion group, or the like, that emphasizes exchange of ideas and the demonstration and application of techniques, skills, etc.”.

Workshops that are

Obviously, the lecture Traci had to endure wasn’t a workshop. Genuine workshops include significant, frequent, and appropriate work by participants, guided by leaders. The leaders typically have significant content-specific experience. However, they also need adequate facilitation skills to guide the group through the session’s activities.

Some workshops are better described as trainings, where the participants are novices and the leader supplies the vast majority of the content and learning environment. However, most workshops I’ve led included professionals with significant skills and experience.

Customizing a workshop

When running such sessions, it’s important to customize the workshop in real time to meet the actual wants and needs of the participants, rather than plowing through a predetermined agenda that may be partially or largely irrelevant.

This did not happen at Traci’s event!

“Also, adapting your presentation isn’t tagging on “it’s the same for B2B” after every example…cause it’s not.”

Skilled leaders know to uncover the wants and needs of participants at the start of the session, and use the information to build a workshop that’s optimized for the attendees.

This sounds more difficult than it usually is. Preparation involves having a broad set of potential content, techniques, and skills to cover. Then, during the session, the leader concentrates on the wants and needs the attendees have initially shared, adjusting the time spent on each area to match the expressed interest.

One final suggestion

If a presenter (like me) is actually running a workshop, please don’t insist on calling them a speaker! In my experience, attendees prefer well-designed workshops to almost any other session format. Tell them the session is a workshop. They’ll appreciate the information (and likely the session too)!

Becoming Brave

becoming brave

The past

It’s been a long journey becoming brave.

Fifty years ago, I was a teenager who, after a single embarrassing moment, gave up dancing in public. For forty years.

Twenty-five years ago I was a college professor who spent hours preparing classes, fearful that students would ask me a question I couldn’t answer. And when I started convening and speaking at conferences I was scared of being “on stage”, even in front of small audiences.

Read the rest of this entry »

Scenes from a Participate! Workshop and Solution Room

40-seconds of highlights from the Participate! workshop and Solution Room I recently facilitated for the New York State Bar Association.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is training associations how to create powerful and effective participant-driven and participation-rich conferences. I love facilitating the learning that occurs. The training equips the organization with the tools needed to transform its events. Do you want to significantly improve your meetings? Then please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

 

Guaranteeing audience engagement at your events

engagement Most people won’t ask questions at meetings. So how can you get authentic audience engagement at your events?

In a thoughtful article “Audience Engagement – at the Heart of Meetings“, Pádraic Gilligan writes:

“…We all want audience engagement so why doesn’t it take place?…While the speaker can be to blame for lack of audience engagement, in my experience, it’s usually the fault of the audience!”

I disagree.

I’ve found that lack of audience engagement is due to the generally poor process used during most meeting sessions.

A different workshop

Last Wednesday I led a two-hour workshop in Boston for 160 members of a national education association. Every participant was active during ~80% of the workshop: discovering the concerns and experience of other participants, moving around the room while forming human spectrograms to learn about each other and the group (I used three participant-created chair sets during the session) and learning and connecting around issues and topics relevant to them throughout.

The hardest task of the workshop was getting people to stop talking with each other so we could move on!

Pádraic suggests that hi-tech polling methods can be used to increase engagement. I agree that such technology can help engagement, but it’s not necessary. During my workshop, I showed 12 slides, but would have been fine without them. Other technology I used included 5″x8″ cards, pens, and large post-it notes. We used no high tech, with one optional exception. We projected a Google Doc at the end, to capture and display feedback during the closing public workshop evaluation.

Facilitating connection

In 25 years of experience, I’ve found that most people have a fundamental need and desire to connect with others with whom they share something in common. When you use good group process to safely facilitate appropriate connection, ~98% embrace the opportunity and learn, connect, and engage effectively with their peers. Anonymity, if needed, can be readily supplied by no-tech/low-tech process. But it turns out that it’s needed a lot less than people think.

Every person in the workshop received a copy of my book The Power of Participation, which explains why participant-driven and participation-rich sessions are so important, how to create an environment for this kind of learning, connection, engagement, and resulting action, and how and when to use a large organized compendium of appropriate process tools. The participants I spoke with after the workshop told me how excited they were. They planned to read the book and start putting what they had experienced into improving their professional development work in education.

It’s possible to create amazing learning and connection though approaches I’ve outlined above. When I facilitate longer conferences, almost everyone will ask questions in public at some point during the event.

Conclusion

If you aren’t getting excellent audience engagement, don’t blame the audience! Change the processes you use in your sessions, to guarantee engagement!

You can experience how to use process tools to significantly improve the effectiveness of your sessions and events at one of my 1½-day workshops in North America and Europe. If you can’t participate in a workshop, buy a copy of The Power of Participation to learn the why, what, and how of building better learning, connection, engagement, and action outcomes into your events.

When event covenants collide—a story

collision of agreements Ever experienced a collision of agreements?

I was facilitating a one-day workshop for 24 college presidents. At the start, we agreed to follow six covenants, including the freedom to ask questions at any time, and a commitment to stay on schedule. Our program was tight and college presidents are not known for their brevity, and I was feeling somewhat apprehensive about the group’s ability to honor the latter covenant.

During our opening roundtable sharing, everybody heroically tried to stop when their time was up, but we were still running late when, at the end of one participant’s contribution, someone I’ll call Q said, “Can I ask a question?”

All eyes turned in my direction. Conflicted and flustered, I blurted out: “No.”

Everyone laughed. My self-contradiction was funny—in the same way that seeing someone slipping on a banana peel is funny.

collision of agreements

Q then asked his question anyway, which was the right thing to do. Why? Because both the question and the answer that followed were brief, and then we were on our way again. It was a challenge, but with the participants’ help we stayed on schedule for the rest of the day.

What I learned from this collision of agreements

This was an interesting learning experience for me for three reasons. I learned that:

  • A preoccupation with a long-term process goal (keeping a program on schedule) can lead me to try to block a short-term need (getting a question answered).
  • I can trust participants who respect the covenants we’re using (Q saw a contradiction and rightly asked me what was appropriate for him to do) to do the right thing.
  • I am far more capable of dealing with potentially embarrassing situations than I used to be. (The moment I realized that my aim to keep the event on track wasn’t threatened, the experience became funny to me too. In the past, I would have remained feeling uncomfortable for a while about “losing control”.)

I suspect it’s impossible to have a set of covenants that won’t occasionally clash—and I think that’s actually a good thing.

A Taoist might say that tension between opposites illuminates the underlying core. In this example, I was attempting to balance the success of the overall experience with the needs of the moment. There’s no “right” answer. After all, too many delaying questions could have disrupted the workshop flow and reduced the value of our time together. Awareness of the potential contradictions helped me to focus on a key aspect of the day’s work.

Noticing and responding as best one can to such tensions is necessary and valuable in the moment of facilitation. And, as a bonus, sometimes the outcome of a collision of agreements is amusing too.

Photo attribution: Flickr user manc72

The best way I know to radically improve your conferences

This 3-minute video explains why registering for one of my upcoming participation techniques workshops could be the best career decision you’ll make this year.

You’ll save $100 when you sign up for my Chicago workshop by September 9th, earn 16.00 CE hours, and — most important — learn how to significantly increase attendee satisfaction at your events.

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