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Tips for Improving Onsite Workshops

The catchy all-encompassing title

Courtesy of  Jirka Matousek (2012). Flickr
Courtesy of Jirka Matousek (2012). Flickr

The title of the program is the catch. It serves as a brief description and hooks the interested party into reading the scope and objectives of the program. When a potential participant is browsing through a list of upcoming workshops from an e-mail, website or course catalog, certain terms/phrases will be the only reason for them to read the course description. “Building a Successful Website” is not as provocative as “Website Management with Google Analytics.” Usually the length of the ;8course name does not make a difference unless it requires two lines. Keep in mind your audience. Busy people are inundated with information. When you’re a member of multiple Listservs, you’ll receive an excessive amount of emails a day. I personally scan my list of new e-mails for subject lines that interest me, reading them and delete the rest. The title can function as a minor descriptor of what the course entails. It is also a summary of the main objectives of the course. If you’re only going to refer to Google Analytics for fifteen minutes during a two-hour workshop, then don’t put it in the title. Workshop participants will feel that you have wasted their time if you create a misleading description of your course.

Set objectives and goals upfront

The list of objectives can be a deciding factor. Providing a course outline ahead of time is an often overlooked concept. I personally like to pace myself by being aware of which topics will be included and for what length of time. There have been many times when, after receiving the course outline in class, I realize that the topic I was interested in is not being covered or is a small component of the lecture. I feel that workshop coordinator’s are either still revising their outline or guarding it like a trade secret. A lecture outline, with timetables, is a great resource for the attendee to have upfront and it also works as a time management tool for lecturers to prepare from. It’s a great organization tool for everyone involved.

Make time for questions

For short-term workshops answer questions after the workshop. Believe it or not, you can easily get off track and end up answering questions instead of meeting your objectives. If you are taking questions during a lecture, don’t hesitate to interrupt in order to get back on track. Also, asking participants to write down questions that come up, on a sheet of paper, for later is a great idea. As a presenter you should be prepared for a cold crowd. Sometimes participants don’t have immediate questions. Ahead of time, make a list of common questions that are asked about the topic. At the end of the workshop, if no one responds to your prompt for questions, be prepared to present those frequently asked questions. Provide your contact information so that they may contact you if they have follow-up questions after the workshop has ended.

The phrase “refreshments will be served” goes a long way

Food…and snacks. Everyone loves free food. Feeding a group of 30 can be pricey. If you charge a nominal fee for attendance it can be like crowd funding for group catering. Most workshops can cost upwards of $200 or more for attendance. If you charge everyone $10, it will be more inviting to attend and the payment easily covers the cost of catering for a sizable group. Refreshments go a long way and are highly appreciated during workshop breaks. One of the things about serving heavier food at workshops is that participants will be so busy trying to eat their meal that they won’t have time to mingle. Keep it light and simple. Additionally when serving food, consider food allergies, vegetarians, vegans and other special diets. In other words, don’t place peanut butter cookies next to the fresh fruit bowl.

There is always room for improvement

Conducting a user survey is one way to gauge the user experience of your attendees. You will want to know if any improvements are needed in terms of the presenter, handouts/materials, technology, seating arrangement, number of breaks, disability/accessibility accommodations, etc. You should also include an option to suggest other course topics they are interested in for the next class.
Rating systems are great, but don’t make them complicated. The goal is improvement, but you don’t want to make the process difficult or you will not receive thorough and complete responses. This would defeat the purpose and effort of conducting surveys. You may want to consider making them anonymous. Getting someone to participate in a survey that will be somehow associated with them may not be an easy task. Anonymity allows everyone to respond honestly without fear of the instructor/ coordinators knowing who they are. Consider if the format of the survey should be web or paper based. Web-based in easy and convenient. They are available for as long as your survey service will allow and can be fast and convenient for people to complete when they have time. Paper-based surveys are also effective and can be done in class. The workshop will be the best time to have their undivided attention. Scheduling time at the end of the workshop to conduct the survey is a beneficial option because participants will better recall their experience. Give the participants a reasonable amount of time to complete the survey. If deciding on paper, digitization for long term review is an option, but consider recycling. Years of using paper based survey’s can leave a hefty carbon footprint. The survey should focus on the class and not the instructor. A participant’s experience in the class will automatically be a reflection of their review of the class and the instructor. You can include a few questions about the instructor, but you want a survey that is evaluating the worth of the class.

If you build it, they will come. Do you have unique tips for creating a successful onsite workshop? Please share them in the comments section.