10 Ways to Make a “Boring” Workshop Topic Exciting

Workshop Activities

Have you ever wondered how to create engagement for a “dry” or “boring” topic?

Recently, at the end of a 90-minute workshop I conducted on “Email Etiquette,” for a staff development day for an online public school (on-site meeting), the principal walked up to me with a big smile on his face, “I wondered how you could make this topic engaging, interactive and fun–and you did it! It was great!”

Using that presentation as an example, below are 10 tips you can use on your next workshop-style presentation.

1. Engage before the presentation

  • Informational interviews. I conducted 10 minute “informational” interviews with 3 staff members (the principals of the high school and middle schools and also the chair of the staff development committee). I focused on finding their “pain points” regarding email etiquette. I also got a story that I shared (with permission).
  • Survey. About 3 weeks prior to the presentation, I created a free 10-question Survey Monkey Survey related to the topic that was sent out to their 55 staff members (47 responded!).

The informational interviews and the survey also created “buzz” about the presentation. The audience was excited to hear what I was going to tell them.

2. Tailor the content to include client specific examples, stories and data

The informational interviews and the survey gave me data and insight I could use to tailor the presentation to the organization. Although much of the workshop could apply to any organization, the 10% of tailoring to their organization made the content more relevant to them. Stories are especially engaging.

3. Cover only a few main points (3 is a good number)

People can’t remember too many points. Beyond 3 is difficult. Although there are many concepts and techniques for email etiquette, I grouped them into 3 main categories: Be Clear, Be Polite, Be Professional.

4. Include an audience activity near the start.

Although I don’t do this for every workshop (I often start with a story), for this workshop, I decided to start with an audience activity that was highly engaging and relevant for the topic: dissecting a bad email, first individually and then reviewing with a partner, with the goal being to find the maximum number of things wrong with the email. After this activity, I polled the audience to find who found the greatest number of things wrong and had that person read their list, after which I solicited additions from the audience. The example of a bad email was so bad that there was quite a lot of chuckling as people read it.

5. Depending on your workshop time, include a mix of audience activities.

  • Individual activities
  • Partner sharing
  • Small group sharing
  • Small group project. For this workshop, I had the audience work through a sequenced activity (for which I previewed the steps and then had them do one step at a time on my prompt), which involved an individual activity, a partner share, a quad share (2 partner groups together) and then the quad creating a graphic poster on a subtopic, with each quad having 1 minute to present to the large group.
  • Large group discussion (it is always easier to get people to share in a large group if they have first shared with a partner or in a small group)
  • Competition (although I didn’t use it in this presentation, competitions can be highly effective). For a presentation on conflict resolution, I have had the audience participate in a Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament, for example.

Audience activities should also include a debrief–what was learned and why was it important?

6. Be willing to adjust on the fly

As I had never done the sequenced activity before, I realized that I had one too many steps (I was going to have 2 quads join together for a double quad), so I announced the change and it was no problem.

7. Include some humor. Have fun!

Humor can be planned or in the moment. For one audience activity, I have a slide that asks the audience to yell out the name of an animal on the count of 3, then I click for the line that says “Wait for it . . . 1, 2 . . .”  after which I count “1, 2, 3” Well, before I clicked on the “Wait for it . . .” a person shouted out an animal and then after I clicked on “Wait for it . . .” people laughed because someone jumped the gun.

8. Have a simple, but useful hand-out 

Be careful of having too many fill-in-the blanks on a hand out because people will miss them and some will get anxious to get their handout filled in.

9. If using PowerPoint, have engaging visuals

Engaging visuals are large, intriguing and relevant

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10. End with a call-to-action

What do you want your audience to think, feel, or most importantly, do?

For this workshop, a follow-up survey and short webinar a few weeks later was planned. The action I gave the principal (because he was leaning forward with wanting to have guidelines, which I knew from our informational interview), was to select someone to head a committee to draft email etiquette guidelines. During the webinar, I would facilitate a discussion of the guidelines.