How to Create and Present a Kickass Technical Workshop
I’m not a great teacher. I don’t have any special instructor credentials. I have, however, attended some bad technical presentations in the past, so I know of some common problems. Fortunately they’re not too hard to fix.
I recently held a programming course of my own. Resolved to avoid as many pitfalls as possible, I invested some time to properly market, prepare and present my class. These are some principles and techniques which seem to work well.
Start with basic market research. Consider your intended audience - what are they likely to want from the workshop?
Write a carefully worded invitation to the course. Create a proper pitch - sell it well! Standard principles of marketing and copywriting apply: state why the reader should care (the benefits) before listing concrete curriculum and details (the “features”).
Announce the workshop in a wide range of channels: face-to-face, email, social media… the more the better.
Make sure it’s easy to sign up. Think of it like converting prospects to customers - make the “buy” threshold really low for potential pupils.
Once signed up, contact participants individually well before the workshop. Send reminders and practical info. Also, try to gauge their experience level and interest in the subject of the class. This lets you tailor your material to the audience beforehand.
PLANNING & STRUCTURE
Again, think about your target audience - after the steps above you should have a better idea who will show up. Generalize this into personae - which archetypes of people should you prepare for? Can you tweak the workshop to offer something to both Pro Programmer Penny and Middle Manager Mike, if both kinds of people have signed up?
Think through the overall structure and syllabus of the workshop thoroughly. Use flexible techniques like whiteboarding, sketching and mind maps to brainstorm scope and content. Like software development, missteps are much cheaper to fix in the initial planning stage.
How will you teach? A range of methods works best, if you have time for it. Some lecturing, some “show and tell”, some “try yourself”. Each individual attending has her own way of learning - try to present the material in several ways to cater to everyone. Don’t worry if this duplicates a lot of material; repetition aids memory retention!
Present both core facts and related context. In other words, present both “what it is” and “why you should care”. Micro and macro.
Your audience will have varying levels of expertise and aptitude in the material you are teaching. Try to cater to both the experienced student as well as the total novice, if both are likely to attend.
I like to start workshops with a lecture to lay some foundation, with plenty of live demos and moving examples along the way. Then I move on to practical exercises. In short: talk about it, show it, let people try it. Note: the rest of the article assumes this workshop format.
Start strong. Present a clear agenda - “what are we going to learn today?”. Keep your personal introduction brief; people care about what you intend to teach them, not your credentials.
Avoid long rambling slides. Short slides are good, one-word slides better, a simple picture is best. Many succinct slides are better than few, text-heavy slides. Make. As. Short. Points. As. Possible. Each slide then serves as a very precise prompt for you, making you less likely to ramble and forget your next point.
Your slides don’t need to be works of art, but do use some basic techniques of graphic design:
- Decide on overall style beforehand in order to make the slides as consistent as possible.
- Use large fonts with high contrast colors. How will your code, text and video look when projected on a canvas? In normal daylight? From thirty feet away?
- Use repetition. Content which repeats sticks in your mind after a while.
- Use contrast. Content which stands out is memorable.
- Employ evocative, high quality images. Avoid bland clip-art.
- Write short, to-the-point text with plenty of whitespace around it.
- Drop the standard company-branded powerpoint template. I’m sure your official company stationary is nice, but it simply adds clutter beyond the first slide. Limit your marketing and branding to the introduction and conclusion.
Prepare to spend a lot of time creating good practical exercises! Some factors to consider:
- Assignments should start nice and easy to give a sense of accomplishment. Make the pupil feel awesome!
- Each exercise should be focused on teaching a single thing, and it should be obvious what the student is learning. “Why it this awesome?”
- Create a wide range of exercises, make them possible to solve in any order. A long chain of cumulative exercises is vulnerable to “blocking”. Instead, make it possible to jump to something different if the pupil gets stuck.
- Provide for a wide range of expertise in audience. Cater to both the star pupils and the less experienced. One way of doing this is to add “extra credit” parts to every exercise.
- Demand little to no preparation from students before the workshop begins. Instead, make it really easy to get started during the actual session. Think user experience!
- Don’t assume reliable internet or intranet access during the workshop. Instead, provide tools, documentation and cheat sheets in the exercise handout.
- Make sure it’s easy to distribute the files and tools to the students. Buy a bunch of usb sticks, preload them with the handouts before the workshop begins.
ITERATE & PRACTICE
Once you have the basic structure and content in place, set aside plenty of time practice, tweak, practice, tweak. Iterate and internalize the material. Like any other writing process, your material improves as you return to it repeatedly with fresh eyes. Make sure to leave time for the material to “breathe a little” in your mind before the big day arrives.
Arrive early. Survey the room, set up your own laptop, make sure the light level is under control. You don’t want to burn time hunting for light switches, cables and curtains once the workshop starts.
When people start arriving, greet as many as you can at the door. Get some smalltalk in before the actual workshop starts. You need to build rapport with the audience as quickly as possibly in order to engage them, so reach out to them at once! Don’t like public speaking? You’ll find it much easier if you already have some friendly faces in the audience before your presentation begins.
Now for the hard part (at least for me): the lecture. Strive for a relaxed and clear presentation. Control your body language. Keep a steady, calm pace. Like a singer or a martial artist, use your stomach: breathe and speak from your gut, don’t squeak from your throat.
Engage your audience. Ask both retorical and actual questions to the room. Have people answer with a show of hands, individual answers or group discussion. Participation is good!
Take short questions as you go, refer longer discussions to a QA session at the end - or possibly one-on-one email correspondence after the workshop ends.
Structure your talk in short sessions with plenty of breaks, say 30-45 minutes with 5 minute breaks in between. Make the sessions even shorter if the venue is small and cramped - the crowd will quickly use up the fresh air.
Pay attention to your audience. If the seem bored, speed up. If they seem to “fall off”, slow down.
Hand out slides and exercises after the lecture - not before. With a bunch of laptops and cellphones in the room, you’re already fighting for the attention of your audience, so don’t undercut yourself further by giving them something to read while you’re talking. Control the message. You want their focus on you and the big screen.
During the practical exercises, actively circulate, talk to students, gauge their progress. Offer to help. It’s easy to ask questions to an instructor who is present and attentive. A teacher sitting behind a desk fifteen feet away? Not so much.
Finally, solicit feedback from the audience at the end of the workshop. What worked well? Which parts of the workshop felt weak? Why?
Take their feedback to heart, and give an even more kickass workshop the next time! :)
Presentation Zen (Amazon)
The Copywriter’s Handbook (Amazon)