How to run a writing workshop: Nine simple tips

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As a writer at Siegel+Gale, I get to play in a lot of sandboxes, from shaping messaging strategies to writing sample ad copy. But my hands-down favorite part of the job is leading writing workshops. Workshop sessions bring those strategies to life. They shake people out of their everyday routines. They introduce new writing techniques. And done well, they’re fun (never underestimate the power of fun).

I’ve taught all kinds of writing workshops for everyone from NYC high school girls to senior executives to college students. Here are a few tips I picked up along the way.

Creating and presenting content

+ Know why you’re there. Your goal is to help participants achieve their goals, so make sure you know what those are.

+ Be concrete. Every exercise you create should be directly translatable to participants’ daily activities.

+ Plan. Thorough planning ensures you’ll cover all your topics in the way you want to. I plan 3-4 hour workshops down to 5-minute blocks (I’ve even been known to break a 5-minute block into 2- and 3-minute ones. What? I’m very precise).

+ Be flexible. If a discussion comes up that’s interesting and relevant, roll with it. Never forget that your clients know their jobs better than you do, so be prepared to let an important discussion really bloom and adjust your timing on the fly.

Maximizing participation

+ “Yes and…” This is a basic rule of improv (see Tina Fey’s BOSSYPANTS for a hilarious explanation of why, along with a list of others), but it’s also the guiding principle for leading any workshop in any subject. Everything participants say can be a contribution and should be acknowledged as one—which doesn’t mean that everything everyone says is right. If someone makes a suggestion that seems off brand or otherwise off track, acknowledge any part of it that’s relevant and offer an alternative, or ask other participants for suggestions to sharpen it.

+ Wait for answers. People can be reluctant to jump in at first. But someone will start the ball rolling eventually (research shows this can take up to seven seconds)—and that’s the moment when they really begin to take ownership of the material.

+ Listen for the real question. Sometimes people cover nervousness or skepticism with questions that don’t seem fully relevant. Careful listening can often lead you to understand what’s really being asked so you can address the underlying issue.

+ If you don’t know, admit it. Nothing tanks your credibility or turns people off faster than pretending you know something you don’t. If you’re stumped, first ask yourself if the point at hand is germane. If it is, ask your main client contact (assuming they’re in the room with you), or see if anyone else in the room can help. If not, set it aside gracefully and return to your regularly scheduled programming.

+ Know when to move on. Spirited conversation is great, but keep the workshop focused on the task at hand.

If you’ve built and delivered a workshop well, it’s been supportive, productive and fun. And if your participants learn as much from each other as they do from you, then you’ve built a sandbox that’s worth playing in.

 Julie Polk is a senior writer at Siegel+Gale New York.

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