Workshops. Are they the best type of Class?

I just read recently that if you spend long enough following someone on social media you’ll learn who they truly are—they’re political alignment, they’re sense of humor, they’re beliefs etc. To an extent I find this to be true, especially when someone’s back is up to the wall, you’ll see their true nature. You’ll see what they will do to survive, and who they’ll sacrifice along the way or . . . you will see something extraordinary.

You also get to learn about people as they observe things. There are those who will watch the world go by and criticize everything around them without knowing anything about what they’re talking about, and then there are those who will blindly say that everyone is simply trying their best no matter what the outcome or effort is—and they are only two ends of the spectrum.

Chances are I’m going to offend a tonne of people with this post, but if you try to keep everyone happy you’ll make no one happy.

You also get to learn a heap when you see ‘How’ people do things. And when I say this I mean that there is more than one way to get things done, but more often than not you will see the same method or the same tool being used.

And when it comes to teaching adults or providing training, the same tool keeps on coming up . . . The Workshop!

Now before I start offending people; what’s my issue with ‘The Workshop?’

Here’s the thing, I don’t have an issue with it—my personal issue is that every single instructor out there or ‘facilitator’ thinks they run the best workshop in town, and the impression is that workshops are the only worthwhile way to get things done when teaching of adults.

Some may take offense

So . . .  let’s get ahead of the trolling. There are those who’ll be thinking;

  1. If you’re not running workshops, then you’re just a boring instructor
  2. You must obviously do your training from power point presentations
  3. Workshops are awesome, leave them alone
  4. “What course did you attend, and are you certified? Because if you were then you wouldn’t have an issue with workshops.”

Okay before I answer these questions I should tell you one of the triggers for this post and that was hearing the words—and I am paraphrasing here, ‘that power points are so 2004, I don’t use them and I have my classes learn from one another to get the best transformations.’

Yeah . . . power points are old school, but they are only a training aid; the presentation. Not the Lesson!!!

And you see this bothers me because, if your class learns from each other, then what are you really there for? As an instructor what do you bring to the party? Ah as a facilitator that’s easy—facilitators are simply there to allow something either to happen, or to allow it to become easier. It’s a nice (highly available) definition that basically says that facilitators just make things happen as opposed to teach you something.

Ugh, here’s the thing . . . you gotta understand that hearing the words in the trigger were easy to take out of context, and in this case—knowingly were. Make no mistake I’m not saying that facilitators (of workshops) do not in fact teach or develop people. And I’m not saying that they’re useless . . . I’m not.

What has gotten to me into a bit of a spin here is the concept that ‘The Workshop’ is the only teaching format that is worth using with Adults. After all each facilitator claims they run the most interactive and engaging workshop on the block.

Look if a workshop is engaging and interactive that’s great . . . but they still need to achieve something, and this is where I have my issue with them . . . because . . . well . . . workshops just aren’t that good when it comes to teaching!

Make no mistake, Workshops have their place, but especially when it comes to teaching people new things they don’t know about previously; workshops just don’t do all that well. Worst part is—the majority of the time, it’s not the instructors fault!

Let’s have a look at why—the best is at the end.

Workshops are typically tailor made—for businesses.

Unlike a ‘typical’ course which usually has a pretty fixed format (once developed), workshops (especially) that are delivered in the workplace by an external facilitator are usually created for an audience to achieve a specific outcome, either for each workshop or customized from a basic template.

Although this is fantastic for the business itself, the facilitator is behind the eight ball because they can never have enough information to create the perfect session. Think of it like this.

Your client wants you to teach something for them—you don’t truly know all of the in’s and out’s of their business but you need to teach them new material based on their demands, and get them to an outcome. Challenging at the least.

Picture of two tools
Allen key & Wrench

The facilitator does not know the audience cross section before they get there—especially in the workplace.

The owner of the workshop is in a constant state of reading the audience. On its own this is purely an instructional skill, and all instructors should be able to do this, but depending on the agenda & the audience cross section itself, the facilitator doesn’t know the skill or understanding before they get there.

In a course you have the opportunity to pre-qualify the client before you start—but in workshops you can have a broad spectrum of capability.

For example—let say a workshop is being organized for leadership & management training. The cross section could have lone managers without staff, managers who have never been taught or exposed to external theoretical or practical content but have been simply given a title with no guidance. You can also have ‘managers’ who believe they are the gift to commerce who choose to sit training out! The bigger the skill & knowledge spread the more chance there is for a collective loss of cohesion.

They aren’t lessons & they’re not courses.

Workshops typically take a few hours or even a day to run. A course which fully teaches, revises, practices and assesses a skill can take days to run and lessons can be done within an hour. Workshops are, highly interactive development sessions—to develop known skills & create immediate take away outcomes. So their real advantage is where collective skill & knowledge already has a high starting point.

When it comes to audience engagement & interaction workshops often make use of ‘experiential learning’ or ‘peer-to-peer’ learning. Now as good as this sounds and as well as it works it comes with risks.

Dominant personalities within the audience can easily smother less confident members of the audience. As the facilitator your role then becomes about restraining those big personalities in order to provide more benefit for less confident and experienced members.

But also when experiential discussions are used, there is the element of risk here too. If you can imagine an audience with low experience . . . say a junior team that are all early into new responsibilities without much support or guidance.

Chances are they will get less from one another due to low overall experience, and especially if the group struggles with creativity or motivation, ‘skill ceilings’ can accidentally be put in place; because if the group cannot create new ideas or thinking, then they’re experience is going to be ‘as good as it gets’

The real reason Workshops fail

Time, is not your friend when it comes to skill development. As mentioned courses and lessons can (and should take time) take days. But . . . who has days to spend on training when work needs to be done now?

Workshops (at the high level—on paper) achieve more than a complete course in a shorter space of time, but the overall skill level at the end, and in the following week/s tends to be significantly reduced. Particularly without ongoing guidance, the small amount of information that is retained after a workshop is not fully utilized and with no subject expert around, the audience will tend to avoid new skills out of fear of misuse.

No Learning Confirmation

At least with the sample set of workshops that I see, confirmation or learning & testing of teaching objectives is something that I have never seen. So it begs the question . . . if audience skill is not tested then how effective are the sessions? It’s fine to have a great environment where everyone feels comfortable and safe, but what is the end state outcome? I have seen people attend workshops only to revert back old practices in less than a week after attendance. In fact when it comes to learning—rather than observe facilitators confirm learning, they instead ask; ‘What is the best thing you’ve seen today?’

Really? It’s not about you. Its about the client skill!

Furthermore once you break an audience down into small groups it is almost impossible to teach practical skills, functionally impossible to correct faults and stop bad habits and practices from taking place. In fact when the facilitator is focused in one area, other groups can ‘feel good’ about a bad practice and adopt this as their new ‘skill’ . . . the complete opposite of the intent.

Are they wrong? Should workshops be abandoned?

As I said, (you may find this hard to believe) I genuinely don’t have a problem with them, but like all tools Workshops are a learning & development tool for an audience that is aware of what is being developed.

Workshops are not a tool for new learning! They just suffer too much when it comes to the novice trainee.

Let me say it again—it is a learning & development tool! And like each tool there is a time, place and circumstance in which it can be used and where it is most useful. After all just because you know how to use an Allen Key to assemble Ikea furniture, doesn’t mean you can call yourself a builder.

Workshops have a place in teaching and in skills development, and are really useful especially when it comes to fast tracking milestone & development outcomes (particularly for walk through, talk through practice to get a client to do something for the first time), But make no mistake they are not ‘the best’ or ‘the only’ tool for use when it comes Adult teaching, and to that degree seemingly over used and over promoted by coaches and facilitators. Sometimes the circumstances for their use isn’t in their control—sometimes it’s just what’s expected.

So what method do I use for teaching?

I’ll give you that answer in a minute. Rather than look for an ‘awesome client experience’ an instructor who really wants to make the biggest impact will ‘Make sure the audience learns useful & functional skills. The audience will also have a good time when they do it.’

I got a lot of tools . . . and I use what works!

How can you prepare your Presentation? – Part 2 – Detours & Diversions

Previously we looked at presenting from experience, now we’re going to see how to make sure we can Control a training presentation from the planning stage.

But we can’t always just go from experience, or we can’t always have the audience drive the training during discovery. Sometimes when it comes to new teaching we need to bring something more than ourselves to the class.

Sometimes there are concepts that are too complex to simply ‘talk’ about, or explain through with the use of a metaphor.

These more complex ideas need more than words, and often require the use of pictures, or other graphics or some other form of training aid.

Now imagine that you have a detailed picture, simple graphics or some other appropriate representation of a concept. Is the representation enough to explain itself? More often that not, it won’t. If they did, an instructor wouldn’t be needed.

Enter . . . the Queue.

The incomplete prompting point which leads to further expansion.

These typically find the most use, when more than a few points need to be remembered  in careful sequential structure, or when lots of small points need to be raised. Each point is easy to discuss but queues are used to maintain structure and sequence during training rather than be useful in their own right. The major point to be careful off from experience is to make sure that each queue has a stop point.

Queue cards can keep you on track
Queue cards can help plan and keep you on track

What is a stop point? This is the final piece of information that ‘completes’ that queue, before you look to the next queue.

Why do we need the stop point? Sometimes a queue can not only remind of where you are, but can lead to a flowing avalanche of information. Without a stop point to remind yourself ‘where to stop’ you can accidentally achieve flow and derail your entire presentation by getting out of synchronisation with your training aids. I’ve had this happen and the results are spectacularly bad!

There are also times when your teaching subject is naturally going to raise a lot of questions from your audience.

Detours & Diversions; The forks in the road. 

Some subjects especially ‘conditional’ or ‘grey’ matter can cause your audience to spend more time thinking about asking branching questions or ‘detours’ rather than focus on the subject being taught.

These are exactly what they sound like; detours that naturally want to take training away from the pre-determined lesson plan.

Your lessons may run into upcoming detours

When you deliver ‘grey’ or ‘conditional’ matter organically with high audience engagement, then detours are relatively easy to handle. The audience can ask an expected question and you can answer it quickly or it can be postponed to another time when it will be covered in more depth.

Control a training presentation is what its all about.

However there are times when a question is so obvious that it has to be handled either before the audience has a chance to ask it and take up time with discussion or;

An answer needs to be on standby as you attempt to skirt around the question in the hope of saving your time for the training itself. Either way detours are questions that you will need to prepare for with some subject matter.

In the next and final installment we look at how to and when to use scripting for presentation preparation

How can you prepare your Presentation? – Part 1 – Queues & Prompts

More often than not there is more than one way to get something done. Preparing a training presentation is no different.

I start with the lesson plan so that I know what is going to be covered.  Then it’s time to think about the audience and where I’m going to give the training. Finally then I’ll be able to think about what I’m going to put in front of the people I’m teaching.

It’s a flow. A process! If one thing changes during planning then so does the final product, and training is a product.

One subject, can be delivered numerous different ways to achieve slightly different outcomes. Whether it be to teach for the first time, revise, or to discover amongst an audience who already have some form of subject awareness.

Go with the Flow

Now, there are going to be times when you’ll be able to deliver your training without any formal presentation. These sessions are great, because they demands flow & presence while being fluid enough to adapt to your audience in real time.

These are what I like to call the ‘organic’ presentation,or ‘organic’ teaching. These also can come across like you’re; making it up as you go, because in effect during the delivery of the training, that’s what it looks like is happening.

However from a preparation point of view, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact when training like this comes off so seamlessly to make it appear like you’re making it up as you go, then that’s the ultimate compliment, especially when your audience comes away with having learn’t the training objectives.

But thinking that an instructor is making it up as they go is as wrong as you can be. These lessons are not just prepared or rehearsed, but the subject matter is so well known that only a seasoned subject matter expert in the material can even truly attempt to deliver a training in this manner often after having delivered these individual lessons previously.

The Ability to teach from experience
Teaching from Experience

So just do it from experience!

So if these lessons require so much skill and can only be done by true ‘subject matter experts’ then surely the ‘organic’ design and delivery are the way to go right?

Hold on for a second before you pass that conclusion. A delivery style, just like a lesson type and all of the other variables that go into teaching are part of a great big toolkit to the instructor. Organic preparation and delivery is all good, but its only a single method and it has weaknesses.

So what are they?

Organic approaches naturally tend to be geared toward a higher ‘caliber’ of trainee. How so?

Without a presentation and perhaps only few training aids, organically delivered lessons which are delivered almost entirely from experience can come out with great depth of information and they can be delivered too quickly. Without self-control and a high degree of audience engagement instructors can go too far too quickly and leave the audience behind.

These teaching lessons can also sometimes begin to blur the lines between teaching and coaching, and when an instructor asks too many questions too quickly the student can definitely become saturated.

Not ideal.

In the next installment we look at how to prepare for distracting questions

10 Tips to being an Awesome Instructor

There are few roles in a community or an organization that come with the responsibilities of a being a teacher. After all teachers and educators are the one who have the responsibility of communicating correct information to others. On top of that and everything that goes with it, an instructor’s aim is to achieve independence in the person being taught.

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