Tips For Making Your Conference Workshops Interactive and Engaging

Our worker-owner Andrew Stachiw has years of experience in facilitating conference workshops. Here, he shares some of the guidelines he’s developed to make them interactive and engaging – because there’s nothing worse than going to a conference you’re excited about and having the presenter put you to sleep.

As many of us know, a conference workshop can be one of the most exciting and invigorating times we share learning, or it can be closer to a dull meandering affair that leaves you wishing you were in another session.

Below are some tips I have compiled to help you build and facilitate an engaging and insightful conference workshop. But remember, there is no silver bullet for workshop development and facilitation, and a great workshop can usually be boiled down to a combination of preparation, engaging techniques, practice, and the facilitator’s energy levels.  Take what you need below, and good luck conferencing!

This post is framed for a conference, but frankly, it can be used for any one-off workshop, and a lot of the tips still apply to multi-session workshops or semester long classes.

These tips were originally developed by TESA for the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) and their 2015 Institute.

  • When writing your workshop description make it stick out! Attendees will be reading a ton of different descriptions and they can all start to blend together. Have fun with your description and make sure you provide a succinct and clear description.
  • One more thing when writing your description: under promise and over deliver.  You won’t be able meet everybody’s goal in your workshop, so it helps to phrase your workshop as a first step/launching point towards deeper inquiry or practice. Then, when you are able to do more and have a deeper discussion, well, folks will be wowed.
  • If you are going to have a powerpoint or prezi, don’t do it for the whole session. Furthermore, don’t read the slides if you don’t have to!
  • Another powerpoint/prezi tip: instead of reading the slides or having them be the focal point for content, use them as a presented guide, and put discussion questions instead of descriptions on your slides.  This will keep participants engaged and help to insure that the presentation is a two-way street.
  • If you are designing workshop with activities, group discussion, or moving around, make sure to leave at least 15-20 minutes of flex time for transitions and extended discussions.
  • Before you start your workshop, have an agenda up on the wall with the time allotted for each section.  This will help keep both you, and the participants on target with time and transitions.
  • Prepare for people to arrive early, and others to arrive late – have a 5-7 minute walk-in or intro activity for people to do while folks trickle in. Make sure this activity doesn’t require everyone to be in the room.
  • Don’t assume everyone will have a writing utensil and paper.
  • When designing activities, try and include techniques for as many learning styles as you can: audio, visual, movement based, etc.
  • As much as you can, make sure you have important directions presented verbally and visually (written down).
  • Get people moving! Whether it is an intro activity, walk around, or small group breakouts, moving  helps us all stay fresh and engaged.
  • Have an intro activity that helps folks get to know each other, especially if your workshop has a more intimate or conversation based element to it. Of course, you can’t build lasting trust in 5 minutes, but it goes a long way towards creating a more welcoming and open environment.
  • Be aware and active in regards to power dynamics in your workshop. Avoiding them, or hoping they will go away will only make them worse, and it will erode the sense of trust and community in your workshop. There are many techniques to utilize on this front (creating community guidelines, step-up/step-back, circle discussion, etc.) so be sure to build a couple into the framework of your workshop.
  • Find ways to include a variety of participant engagement styles, everything from individual journal-ling to small group breakouts, to whole group discussions.
  • Create an evaluation for participants to fill out.  Conferences will often provide these, but designing your own will go a long way to help you refine and improve your workshop for next time.
  • If you are having discussions in your workshop, the effectiveness of these will come to how well you ask or design your questions. As open ended as a question is, you can expect an open ended response. And, the same goes for specificity. Have more questions than you will need prepared, so you can follow the vibe and focus of the participants accordingly.
  • Make sure you have an outro activity! So much of learning retention can be solidified in even a 5-minute outro activity. Don’t skimp on the intro or outro activity.
  • The energy that the presenter brings to the room is what they can expect back from the participants.  If you are nervous, rushing, quiet, or low-energy, the participants will match you.  So, get excited, practice, and have fun!
  • One more time, have fun! Some of the best learning happens when we are having fun, and not necessarily hyper-focused on learning. Embrace and explore the junction of learning and fun.

Support Our Work

TESA is proud to lead the development of games, tools, and programs for social change. You can support our work while having fun: buy our games about changing the world. TESA can also work with you to build a game, program, or tool for your cause!