Building a Better Workshop

A few years ago, atheist and skeptic organizations started adding workshops to their conferences, and that was great. Workshops are hugely useful when you’re trying to become more effective, as the activist wings of both movements were, or when you’re trying to apply abstract principles to your life, as rank-and-file members of both movements were.

There were a few problems, however, because everything was new. While some presenters knew what to expect from workshops and had maybe even facilitated some before, most people didn’t. They had skills and knowledge to share, but no good idea of how to get that across in a workshop format. Nor were conference organizers clear on what they wanted or expected from their workshops.

As a result, we ended up with a few workshops and a whole lot of mini-lectures. Now, lectures can be great, and if your purpose in adding workshops to your event is to keep adding content after you’ve spent your speaker budget on the main stage, there’s no reason to stretch beyond the mini-lecture. But if your goal for workshops is to get people to change their behavior, to be more effective or to live their principles more fully, lectures can’t substitute for workshops.

Why? Because the interactive nature of workshops builds confidence at the same time it conveys information. You can walk away from a lecture thinking the information is interesting but you don’t have what it takes to apply it. You can’t do the same with a workshop where you’ve spent a good chunk of time applying your new knowledge. You know you can do it because you just did.

So now that I’ve convinced you, as an organizer or potential workshop facilitator, that you want to offer real workshops instead of mini-lectures, how do you go about it?

You can start with either the facilitators or the topics. If you care enough about your community that you want to help them grow with workshops, you probably have lots of ideas for topics. We did going into Secular Women Work. Still, we mostly started with our facilitators. With their combined experience, they were going to come up with a wider variety of topics than we were.

What were we looking for? We wanted:

  • People with experience getting things done in the same communities our conference was targeting
  • People with outside experience in areas where we wanted our attendees to become comfortable enough to act (in our case, these were things like conducting media campaigns and protests, accommodating disability, or communicating assertively)
  • People with experience facilitating productive discussions, particularly around difficult topics
  • People with experience facilitating hands-on workshops
  • Teachers and counselors

As you can see, this list is a mix of choices driven by content and choices driven by familiarity with the demands of a workshop.

How we approached speakers varied. There were some workshops we’d participated in elsewhere that we asked for directly. People who hadn’t done much speaking we usually approached with a topic we knew they’d be comfortable teaching, though we usually left it open for them to propose a different topic. People with more experience, and particularly those with the outside experience we wanted, we pointed in a general direction and asked for ideas. We frequently framed our invitations as some variation of “What skill do you wish everyone else had to make your life easier?”

That brings us to topics. We use four broad categories to generate topic ideas and to maintain a good balance of topics. These were:

  • General skills that make everyone more effective
  • Activist skills targeted to making change
  • Applied activism on specific topics (e.g.; abortion rights activism, Wikipedia editing to increase representation)
  • Building a more inclusive movement by lowering barriers to participation

Your topics will differ with your focus, but we found that being clear on the category of topic helped us communicate with facilitators about the purpose and direction of each workshop. That, in turn, helped determine the format of the workshops.

The main thing to remember in crafting a workshop is that it’s supposed to give people hands-on experience with the topic. There are, however, several ways to do that.

  • Large group discussions are excellent for topics where everyone has some experience but everyone could use more. These allow people to learn from each other as well as coming to understand that the experience they have on a topic has given them worthwhile insight. Facilitators for these sessions should have a general outline of where they want the discussion to go and be prepared to fill in information that isn’t volunteered by the participant.
  • Small-group breakout discussions work better for intimidating topics where you want people to feel freer to make mistakes and be corrected or share more private information with each other. The smaller audience makes it easier to open up. The Ada Initiative Ally Skills and Impostor Syndrome workshops make good use of this format and have facilitator guides that explain how they work.
  • Worksheet- or workbook-based workshops are very useful when the topic has a lot of moving parts and all of them are required for success. This facilitates an orderly walk through each step of a process, and even though the problem may be too big to fully work through in a single session, participants walk out with the start of a plan to accomplish something big. The Skepticism Activism Campaign Manual is the mother of all workbooks (for a multi-hour workshop), with exercises nestled among huge amounts of information. Yours obviously don’t have to be that big to be useful.
  • Role-playing is great for building communication skills and for getting people thinking on their feet. It can be done in front of a workshop, but breaking people into smaller groups gives more people opportunities to practice, and practice without stage fright. The trade-off with smaller groups is that it becomes much harder for a facilitator to observe and provide feedback. Multiple facilitators are very useful for role-playing workshops.

In any of these cases, these interactive elements can be paired with an introduction to the topic that contains information. Workshops shouldn’t be mini-lectures, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a component that involves lecturing. Generally, however, workshops should be weighted toward participation.

Because we were working with a lot of people who had never given a workshop before, we offered to help anyone who needed it structure their content as a workshop. A few people asked questions about whether what they wanted to do was appropriate, but no one needed intensive help. Offering did lower barriers to participating, though. Our presenters knew they didn’t have to be perfect straight off. They could learn as they went, and we’d be there to catch them if they needed it. That and emphasizing in our invitations that we wanted workshops that were interactive were key.

One final thing we did to ensure successful workshops was adopt discussion guidelines that made it clear that workshops were collaborative, that they were not arguments or competitions. We can’t guarantee that made a difference, but our feedback was excellent.

So that’s how we built a schedule of 15 well-received workshops. We’re sharing the information here to make it easier for everyone else who wants to add workshops to their events.

As a bonus, enjoy this video of one of our organizers and one of our workshop presenters discussing how to create workshops from this past January.


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