Tips for Running Workshops


In one of the Slack groups I’m in, someone asked a question about running workshops and what folks found that has or hasn’t worked. I dumped my thoughts there but thought I should share them openly as well in case they’re useful to anyone.

An important caveat: this is what works for me. As in everything, I think the most important thing is to find a style that suits you. Being authentic is one of the most important things you can do whether you’re giving a workshop, giving a talk or writing.

I didn’t do all these things at the first workshops I presented. Through trial and error, these are the things I learned seem to resonate with the folks I train.

Your mileage may vary.

Start with the attendees

Every workshop I run, I start with a blank slide and ask the folks in the room what they want to get out of the day. They signed up (or their company did) to spend a whole day on this topic, so just about everyone in the room already has a few topics in mind; a few questions that they really want the answers to.

Getting that out in the open early allows me to tailor the content so that everyone gets some value from it. It also sets the tone that the workshop isn’t a pre-defined lecture but a discussion that is malleable based on the questions they may have.

I repeat this question a few times throughout the workshop: typically right after lunch and right after the last break of the day. If it’s a multi-day training, I’ll also ask at the end of day one. More often than not, I’ll wind up in my hotel room tweaking the content and topics for the next day based on that feedback and how I felt things went.

Modular workshop material

I’ve given my workshops in a variety of forms to a variety of people—from training broken up into one-hour modules delivered over the span of weeks to more intense sessions of two or even three days.

Preparing my workshop material in a modular fashion is a must. It gives me the flexibility to adjust the training based on both the duration and the attendees and what they want to learn about.

For example, I have a folder full of 1-2 hour sections on various performance topics—the network, how the browser works, fonts, images, service-workers, etc. The modules are rarely the same from different workshop to workshop. I tailor the content of each training based on who the workshop is targeting.

This is particularly true for private training. There’s ultimately a limit on how customized a public workshop can be as you’re appealing to a wide variety of folks in different roles and organizations. With a private training session, however, I’m able to create something carefully tailored to the challenges that company is facing.

Having modules in place makes it easy for me to adjust on the fly. If one of the attendees says they’re really hoping to learn about something I hadn’t anticipated including in the workshop, I have a whole section of content on the topic handy that I can make sure to work into the day without having to panic.

It’s called a workshop for a reason

Exercises are critical. It’s going to be a long day indeed if folks have to just sit there and listen to me rattle on the whole time.

But they also accomplish two important things: they give people an opportunity to get up and move around and they let people apply what they’re learning in a meaningful way. People have different learning styles. Some folks can happily absorb everything a presenter is saying and come away armed with a ton of knowledge. But others need to be able to do something for an idea to click.

And that something isn’t always in front of a computer. One of my favorite exercises to do during my performance workshops is to give folks a stack of post-it notes and have them build a render tree, CSSOM and DOM based on some sample code. It lets people get out of their seats for a bit, and the distance from the computer seems to help make the folks who maybe don’t spend all day looking at code a bit more at ease.

Always remember it’s about them

You can spend forever carefully crafting and refining your workshop and coming up with solid exercises but at the end of the day, you need to be ready to go with the flow. Some people may opt to sit out an exercise or two. Some sections you wanted to cover you may not get to. Some topics you hadn’t allotted a lot of time to may need to become more detailed. That’s all fine because the workshop is about helping them, not yourself.

While I have topics I want to teach, I also try to do everything I can to encourage discussion throughout the day. I want to hear about the specific challenges they’re facing so that we can tackle those. I want them to walk away feeling confident that they can take what they’ve learned and actually applied it.

In the best workshops I’ve ever had the privilege of leading, we didn’t get through all the material I had planned. People asked questions. We got into unplanned discussions about specific issues folks were battling, or we took a detour through a related topic that folks were wrestling with.

Attending a workshop is a commitment. There are a lot of other things attendees could be doing, but they’ve made a decision that learning about this subject is worth investing a good chunk of their time. The needs of the attendees should take priority over the presenter’s pre-planned agenda.