Definition of a workshop

As event organisers we can easily overcomplicate our events that’s why we need to be clear: so what is the definition of a workshop?

Nowhere is their more potential to mix things up than when we introduce some meeting design into a conference or a meeting.

With an understanding of meeting design the opportunities to create different environments to cover any particular piece of content increases.

Those formats can lead to much better sessions for attendees, but alongside that potential comes an increased risk. Are people going to be confused?

With a whole host of possible session formats (24 as listed by attendees at our WhoStoleMyAudience event earlier this year) the meeting architect has an arsenal of formats at her disposal.

But in this post I wanted to concentrate on the simple definitions for the three most popular formats we find in our learning events.

At most conferences we have only three formats

Plenary session. These are normally the traditional speaker to audience style session, panel session or a panel debate but the defining characteristic is that the session appeals to all of the attendees.

A breakout session is a smaller version of the above. It has at its heart the “dissemination of information” format but it will interest only a section of the audience. It is likely to be run alongside other breakout sessions.

A workshop is an interactive session. The interactive element format is what defines the session. At a workshop the attendees do some actual work and the interaction is much more than Q & A.

If this is a post for conference organisers you would think that outlining the three most commonly used formats was simply stating the obvious.

However this wasn’t obvious to the organisers at two conferences I attended over the summer; they were still mixing up their breakouts with their workshops. First world event organiser problems eh?

Definition of a workshop

At both of the conferences I attended, they had listed sessions as workshops, but they were in fact breakout sessions.

In place of interaction, discussion and peer learning we had content from the stage, with time for only a few questions at the end. This is not a workshop: a workshop is not simply a small session it has to involve some actual work!

For attendees at both these events they had received something different from what they expected. I spoke to a few attendees and what was clear was that conference attendees know what a workshop was but the planner didn’t! 

Put some extra work into your workshops

So I urge any conference planner / architect / producer to look at their next conference programme and make sure that if they have any sessions billed as “workshops”, then they ensure that the session is markedly different from their plenary sessions.

Here’s my extended definition of a workshop:

  • Workshops are likely to be more work for the planner, the speaker and for the attendees than other sessions.
  • They should be about collaborative learning.
  • They should be facilitated more then speaker led.
  • They should produce an outcome.

Now all of this sounds like more work but that’s fine and that’s what you should expect with any format that has “work” in the title.

Conference planners have to close that gap between what they deliver under the title of workshop and what attendees expect.