Category Archives: Communication

Talks, Lectures, and Workshops. What is the Difference?

group learning

I am about to go on a mini speaking tour and in preparation I am skimming Scott Berkun’s “Confession of a Public Speaker.” I like this book, but while reading it I realized that I will be giving two different types of “speeches”. Let’s call them talks and workshops, and even though in both cases the subject will be Stan, the audience’s expectations will be different and my presentation must reflect those differences. In particular, Scott’s book is a lot more relevant to talks than workshops.

Most inexperiences speakers assume that the people who come to their talks want to learn something and some people do have that expectation, but those are usually inexperienced consumers of talks. The truth is that it is very unlikely that you will learn something during a talk. Learning is a hard and active process and it is not going to happen by passively absorbing sound and light waves in a reclining position.  The most realistic goals for a talk is to inspire people to learn more about the subject. This is a difficult task for the presenter, but if you want to know how to do it well, I highly recommend Scott’s book.

A workshop is a different animal. As the name suggests, the participants will be working alongside the presenters and in so doing are hoping to come away with enough initial knowledge to jump start their own exploration. People who attend the workshop have already been inspired to learn more and the bar is therefore higher than during a talk. So what are the important attributes of a good workshop?

To think about that, image you are taking a technical class at a University. You are listening to a lecture. Are you at a talk or at a workshop? The listening part gives it away. Most likely you are at an uninspiring talk that should instead be a workshop. In order for the workshop to go well, here is my short of list of requirements:

  1. Participants should have the required background at the right level of abstraction
  2. If this is a computing workshop, participants already installed and tested the required software
  3. Presenters have designed a series of exercises that gradually guide the audience through a set of hands on tasks each illuminating a different part of the subject
  4. Participants have a chance to discuss the problem and their solutions with each other and with the instructors
  5. There is a mechanism for the immediate feedback that tells the instructors if the majority have mastered the task

As a presenter, I can not control 1 and 2, but I must make it easy for people to assess their level of knowledge and software installation instructions must be clear.

Creating exercises is very time consuming, but I believe necessary for workshop style learning. Time for discussions can be weaved into the exercises and the output of the exercises can be shared with the rest of the class. Which brings me to the feedback mechanism, which is perhaps the most often overlooked aspect of the workshop.

I don’t have much experience with a feedback system during workshops, but I have used live surveys during talks and they work really well. For computing workshops, I would like to experiment with live code editors, where participants have a chance to post their code, their questions, and the error messages to the shared workspace. This would only work for moderate size groups, but I it seems to me that workshops should only be conducted in relatively small groups (say 50 people or fewer).

If you have any pointers on how to make the workshop experience better, feel free to post them in the comments.