December 04, 2018

Designing Workshops

If you’re reading this, you probably know something valuable worth teaching. And you might be interested in creating a class or workshop about that topic.


If you want to avoid droning on with a bunch of Powerpoint slides behind you (we've all sat – or slept — through those), here are a few thoughts to help you start designing an engaging and interactive experience:

Start with your audience.

Whether you’re teaching high school students or executives, they’re coming to your workshop because they’re interested in learning, growing, or changing something. They have a need and your class is supposed to help meet that need. So, begin by writing one participant's name at the top of a piece of paper. If you don’t have a specific participant in mind, think of someone you know who you think would benefit from your class. With that specific person in mind, answer the following three questions:

Know, Feel, Do

1) What do you hope they know by the end? What new piece of information do you want them to have because of their time with you?

2) What do you want them to feel during and after?

3) And what is one action they should be able to do after your class is complete?

Keep these responses handy. They should guide everything else moving forward.

Dig into the theory.

This may seem obvious, but research everything about the topic you’re teaching. Even if this is your field of expertise, make sure you know the different points of view, key thought leaders, must-read books, and surrounding materials. Keep track of everything you’ve studied, so that you can turn some of the resources into a handout to share with participants after the workshop concludes.

Develop the exercises.

Once you have a grasp on what you hope your specific audience should know, feel, and do, it’s time to design activities to help them get there. This is where your workshop departs from the typical “participants-sitting-and-watching-you-flip-through-slides” format.

Watching vs Playing

Think about teaching your audience how to play soccer. You wouldn't teach the game only by talking to them about it, you'd have them start playing. You'd break soccer down into different skills and spend time going deep, demonstrating how to do that skill well, giving them a chance to practice, and then helping them integrate their newfound ability back into the larger game during a scrimmage or game-like situation. In short, you'd make it experiential. Rather than hearing about soccer, they'd have the chance to play soccer.

So, what are the key skills related to the topic you want to teach? And what experiences can you design that give your participants a chance to play the game? For example, if you're leading a workshop on how to present effectively, you'll need to teach the theory, but then you’ll want to provide time for them to practice presenting, focusing on one or two key elements, receiving feedback, and (ideally) having more practice time. It may seem obvious, but often in our enthusiasm to share all that we've learned about a topic, we shortchange participants on practice-time.

Create the Agenda.

Once you have your goals for the audience, the content, and the exercises, now it’s time to write the agenda (which we affectionately call, the Tick Tock). Here are some staple components:

1) Welcome: Create an environment to help the group drop their guards (food, music, an icebreaker/game)

2) Introductions: To the team, the group, the space, and the content

3) Theory: Key points, articles, and videos.

4) Examples: Where have you seen this in practice?

5) Practice: Group activity(ies)

6) Debrief: What did we learn?

7) Break/End or Repeatany piece between 3-6

8) Closure and Next Steps: Review the key knowledge, skills, and feelings you articulated in the Goals section, and provide any needed information for continuing the learning after the workshop.

You can download a template for creating your workshop agenda here.

Create the visual content.

Now that your outline is finished, decide what content you’ll need for your screens or handouts (if any).

If you choose to make a slide deck, make sure it’s not overly text-heavy (30pt font or larger), highly visual (personal/organic photos are ideal, but sites like Unsplash go a long way), and your layout and fonts are simple (Arial or Helvetica are fine and this template is a nice starting point). There are countless themes out there. If you don't feel confident in your design or layout abilities, stick to a theme. In most cases, the simpler the better.

Designing Workshops

Also, experiment with inserting the occasional video and gif, if pertinent. Pausing for a clip or a little humor is always welcome.

Optional: After the class is finished, share the handouts, slides, and the list of resources you compiled during your research phase. Even if participants don’t use them right away, they’ll appreciate having the tools handy.

Create the space.

When creating space for your workshop, think about all five senses. What will participants hear, see, feel, taste, and smell? The more meticulous you are about this, the more memorable the experience will be. Here are some examples:

Hear: What are participants listening to as soon as they walk in? A welcoming voice? Music? What else might they be hearing?

Example: For one of our workplace Storytelling workshops, we hired a violinist to play movie theme songs as participants arrived. It was a pleasant surprise that sparked fun discussion from the moment they walked in.

See: How does the space look? Will you need participants to brainstorm? Find a room with sufficient "vertical space" to have all your groups at a board or wall. Will you need participants to collaborate in small groups? Make sure you have tables for groups to sit around as opposed to chairs in a row or individual desks.

Example: We recently kicked off one for our Stanford programs at a nearby coworking space. Students needed a fresh, energetic space away from campus to get in the right headspace. It was well-received!

Feel: Where are they sitting? What materials will they be touching? Do the textures align with what you wrote for Know, Feel, Do?

Example: On the first day of our year-long fellowship, students receive a wooden box with a few simple gifts — a journal, pen, nicely printed materials for the program, a chocolate bar, etc. It was both thoughtful and helpful.

Taste: Can you provide snacks and drinks to energize or show care for the group? Is there an opportunity to bring any part of your content to life through food?

Example: We once found a chef to host a dinner for our students. After learning about our themes of experience, learning, risk, etc, he decided to use coffee beans and the color yellow throughout the meal and walked us through his thinking behind each dish. But you don’t need a chef to make an impact here. Even bottles of water and nice store-bought snacks go a long way. (Note: dark chocolate almonds are always winners).

Smell: Are there any distracting odors in the room? Or are there any smells you can add to the experience?

Example: For workshops that start in the morning, we often have fresh-brewed coffee and baked goods. On the other hand, we try not to bring food into the room at the wrong time — making people hungry or letting the smell of food linger for too long.

Run all the way through it.

Like most great things, practice makes perfect. Try running through the entire experience from start to finish at least once. Ask a colleague or friend and/or someone to join you — someone who’s mostly aligned with your audience. Take their feedback and adjust.

Create a day-of checklist.

There will be 1,000 things to take care of on the day of your workshop. Write a checklist the day before and keep it handy. Trust me on this one.


Within 24 hours, capture what went well and what you would change. Update all of your content with the necessary changes and keep your notes in a safe place for the next time you lead the workshop.

Alright, let me know if you decide to teach anything anytime soon. I’d love to hear how it goes.

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