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Tips on Conducting a Successful Workshop

by Moira Allen

Offering writing workshops, classes, and seminars can be a great source of extra income for a writer, and a great way to "give back" some of what you've learned along the way. Conferences are eager for writers who are willing to talk about their experiences and share their tips for success. Community colleges welcome experienced professionals who can offer adult education courses on their area of expertise. Local groups -- civic clubs, writers' clubs, professional and women's organizations -- all offer opportunities for writers to share their "success stories" (and promote their books at the same time).

Talks can be as much fun for the presenter as for the audience. Here are some tips on how to offer a workshop or seminar that both you and your audience will enjoy:

Preparing Your Talk

1) Develop an outline of your talk. Highlight the main items you want to cover. Include both high-priority items and low-priority items. You may find that you cover all the important material more quickly than you expected (especially if no one asks questions), and still have time to fill -- thus, you'll need things to "fill in" with. You should also structure your talk so that you can "drop" topics if things go more slowly than you anticipated.

2) Do a rehearsal. Give your talk aloud, preferably to someone who's willing to take time to listen (such as a spouse). Time it. Find out how long it takes. Expect that your talk will take LONGER in the classroom, because you may have to explain things more carefully and answer questions along the way.

3) Build in lots of time for questions and answers. Decide how you want to handle these. Some people like to field questions as the talk proceeds; others prefer to postpone them until the end of the session. Taking questions "as you go" allows you to determine areas that need further explanation -- if you don't stop and answer a question, the participant may not be able to follow the rest of your talk. At the same time, handling questions during the flow of your talk can interrupt that flow, and lead you off on a tangent, making it difficult for you to get back on track and cover all the points you wanted to present. Whichever approach you choose, be sure that you still have at least ten to fifteen minutes at the end of the talk for a final question-and-answer session.

4) Prepare handouts. Participants love to be able to take something away with them. If you've written something in the subject of the talk, that's the best type of handout -- even if it's a printout from your website. It's also generally acceptable to make copies of relevant articles -- as this is an educational use, this is usually considered "fair use" of such materials. Be sure that you also provide flyers for your book(s), and your card -- including something that lists your URL and e-mail address.

Preparing Yourself

1) Wear comfortable clothes. Do not wear a non-breathing polyester blouse with a scarf (especially if you're a guy...). Don't wear anything that will make you hot, sweaty, etc. If you're male, you generally won't need to wear a coat and tie; dress casually. If you're female, wear comfortable slacks and a nice top that will keep you cool and won't wrinkle as you drive to the talk (or show sweat stains too badly). Wear shoes you can stand in for several hours. Don't overdo the jewelry or makeup.

2) Eat properly before you speak. There's nothing worse than having an attack of the growling tummy, or ravenous "empties," right in the middle of your speech. Be sure you're properly nourished. And don't fill up on sugars and fats, such as a bunch of pastries from your hotel continental breakfast. Focus on proteins and carbohydrates to get you through, as you'll use a lot of adrenaline and energy during a workshop.

3) Bring a water bottle. Sip from it regularly. You'll be surprised at how quickly your mouth and throat dry out. (Take it easy, however, if you haven't eaten first, as too much water on an empty stomach can make you queasy.)

Giving the Talk

1) Relax. Try to feel comfortable. Think of this talk as a conversation with friends rather than a presentation to strangers. Remember that your audience automatically has a "respect factor" built in by the very fact that they've come (and possibly paid money) to listen to you. You don't have to spend time convincing them to respect you; instead, make sure that they get what they've paid for.

Don't worry about appearing nervous. Everyone is. Once you get into the swing of your talk, your nervousness will disappear, because you're talking about things you know well. Let your content support you -- you know what you're talking about, and have nothing to worry about.

2) Determine the level of your audience. Often, you may have to shift gears when you realize that your audience is above or below the "level" of your prepared talk. For example, I once presented a talk on how writers could benefit from the Internet, and discovered that at least half my audience hadn't even learned how to log on -- let alone use search engines or participate in online discussions. When you find that your audience won't understand the majority of your talk, be prepared to "backpedal" and focus on more basic issues. Conversely, if you find that your material is not advanced enough, be prepared to talk about more complex issues, or you'll bore your audience.

3) Make eye contact. Move around. Make sure that you make "contact" with people in different parts of the room, rather than just staring straight ahead or looking at one person. Watch how people respond to what you say. If they look interested, or react physically -- nodding, smiling, or (if appropriate) grimacing, you're on the right track. But if people look confused or bored -- or are just staring at you with no expression -- it may be a signal to change your approach.

4) Encourage discussion and feedback. Often, participants have experiences and insights that will be useful to the group. A workshop is also much more enjoyable and lively if you aren't the only one talking.

5) Don't let one particular person control the discussion. Often, you'll have one participant who asks one question after another, and who prevents you from keeping on track with your presentation. If this happens, tell that person that you will answer questions after the presentation, and ask them to jot them down and "hold" them until then. If you're already in the "question and answer" period, make sure that you remain in control. Be sure to call on other participants, and give everyone a chance to be heard.

6) Be available for a few minutes after the talk, if possible, so that people can come up and chat with you personally. Some people have questions that they don't feel comfortable asking publicly. Others just want to be able to thank you for the talk. This is also a great time to hand out your flyers and cards.

Perhaps the most important tip of all: Have fun. If you aren't enjoying the talk, chances are that your participants won't either. If workshops aren't fun for you, they probably aren't worth doing!

For More Information:

Teaching Writing Online, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/teach.shtml
Tips on Teaching Creative Writing, by Shirley Kawa-Jump
http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/teaching.shtml

Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.


Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts Mostly-Victorian.com, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

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