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A Primer for Hosting Online Creative Workshops

A Primer for Hosting Online Creative Workshops
Published June 3, 2020 by Anne Ditmeyer

A lot of planning and attention goes into creating engaging, thoughtful workshops and events. This guide is designed to get you thinking about creating virtual space, whether you're launching something new or adapting an in-person workshop to fit an online format. As many in-person events are going virtual (including this year's 99U Conference on June 17!), we're given a chance to rethink how events are organized.

There's no one-format-fits-all when it comes to hosting online workshops, so here's a framework of how to think about planning yours. 


Know your purpose

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, recommends starting plans for any event by thinking about your purpose. Parker explains, “Purpose is everything. If you don't know why you're running the workshop, you rely too heavily on form. It's easy (particularly as facilitators) to geek out on form or process and skip the why. Particularly when translating from IRL to digital, we have to pause and ask: 'Why am I doing this? At the core essence, why do I....teach this? What is it that I need them to get?' And then ask: 'Given the new constraints, what's going to be the best form to help me achieve this purpose?'”

Parker shares the example of her mother-in-law who is a ceramics teacher who now has to teach ceramics remotely. “(How the hell do you teach ceramics remotely? You don't.) She realized her purpose is to give her students the confidence to be able to create something from nothing. She didn't want to add to Zoom time. She also didn't want them to have to buy anything. So she transformed her course into papier-mâché based on found objects for the year. She realized that ceramics wasn't her purpose, it was the vessel. So she kept her purpose and changed the vessel.”

Parker explores more around purpose in her newsletter and podcast, Together Apart, which digs into translating in-person experiences online.

Play with format

With the help of technology, workshops can take many forms from pre-recorded videos to live teaching, each with various levels of attendee participation. “It's not the online part so much as what's behind each person in this new form. Every single person in your workshop has an entire universe behind them that you can make use of,” Parker reminds us.

When Matt Trinetti, a facilitator for Escape the City based in London, and his team took their entrepreneurship program online they realized how you deliver content in engaging way changes. "We flipped it where we started sharing the material beforehand, asking people to come with questions," Trinetti says. They started looking at their three-hour sessions in terms of short sprints, making sure facilitators were never talking more than 10-15 minutes without engaging the audience. 

Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton sees technology in a whole new light since launching Draw Together, a series of analog drawing classes for "kids (of all ages)" on Instagram and YouTube. "I dance and draw and talk about feelings with thousands of kids around the world every single day—LIVE—how would this ever be possible in person? None of this would be. I can connect with thousands of kids and they each feel uniquely seen and heard," she says. She's since shifted from classes each weekday to Draw Together Camp on Mondays and Thursdays for the summer, yet another play on format. 

Set the stage

At any event people, want to feel welcome. At their in-person events, CreativeMornings has attendees wear "icebreaker tags" to serve as conversation starters. This idea translates online through prompts as they welcome people to their monthly events and virtual FieldTrips. Rather than sticking with the typical, "Where are you joining us from today?" why not try, "Share one creative thing you are working on right now" or "How are you connecting to nature?" Consider how you can link it back to the workshop goals or theme. This gives attendees a way to connect with the content—and with each other. 

Parker’s work goes into rituals: “Create an opening ritual to cleanse their palette from whatever they were doing before. In part because they are no longer traveling to your workshop. They are no longer ducking under a door frame. They are no longer walking down a hallway to enter a classroom. It's even more important that we create opening transition rituals as they enter into your Zoom room.” 

It's often the simple acts and repetition that can make an event feel special and a shared moment among participants. During London Writer's Hour, an event hosted by Escape the City's Trinetti and Parul Bavishi, they invite attendees to raise their hot drink—usually coffee—to virtually cheers each other before getting down to work. “It helps get people in a state to work," Trinetti points out.

MacNaughton shows up every day balancing a pencil on her upper lip. It's her "signature move" that students have come to learn and love, and even mimic themselves. CreativeMornings has been setting up small breakout rooms at random to mimic the spontaneous conversations that spark while waiting in line for coffee at their in-person events.

Warm up the audience

Share an agenda or overview at the start of the workshop so participants know what's in store. In addition to welcoming participants, a warm-up activity can help align everyone's focus. It should be simple and easy to do to remove any barrier to entry. Warm-ups can also be a good way to test out ideas for the first time without devoting too much time to them.

MacNaughton kicks off Draw Together with two types of warm-ups: physical and drawing. "The first is to get any of our squirmy energy out, elevate our spirits, and set a mood of complete and total non-seriousness. Also, we don’t just draw with our exacting fingers, we draw with our whole bodies, inside and out, and doing some shoulder and arm wiggles helps remind us of that," she recounts.

The drawing exercises vary, and MacNaughton sees them as "a shortcut to help us calm, focus and get in a mental space to draw. It’s also a way to help any of us who might be afraid of the blank canvas to just make some marks without expectations of it being good."

Invite others to speak

As a facilitator, consider how you can help ensure other voices are heard within a group—even the typically quiet ones. "Utilizing the chat box and acknowledging what people are saying can feel like having a conversation at scale," Trinetti says, pointing to the fact that listening is key in all facilitation. The facilitator may want to read a few responses aloud, or invite a few people to unmute themselves and speak up.

One way to keep things from feeling too monotonous is to invite outside guests. MacNaughton accepts drawing requests from kids, takes "field trips" (in the form of 1-2 min edited videos), and invites guest teachers. MacNaughton sees the purpose of these experiences as both educational and fun. "It’s so important to present people other than ME—I am one person who represents one experience, and we want to be sure to include other artists and people who bring other things to the table....The opportunities with it are endless."

Foster connection through sharing

Just like in-person workshops, small group work allows a different kind of intimacy and trust, which makes it easier to open up, share, and connect with each other. Depending on the workshop style it may naturally happen through the chat or group discussion. Another option is to use a feature such as breakout rooms in Zoom. (Check out the definitive guide to hosting virtual events on Zoom by Alexa Kutler from CreativeMornings).

Asking participants to share their work is another way to connect with each other and find inspiration in unexpected ways. The simplest way is to have people work on paper and hold up their work to the computer camera. Sharing screen or using the virtual whiteboard is another way to help participants communicate ideas. Another option is to invite participants to reflect on how the session went for them, rather than asking them to share specific work.

In Draw Together, where students can't see each other during the class, MacNaughton invites participants to share their work with the hashtag #DrawTogether so everyone can be inspired by what others have created. This also gives participants permission to keep working even after the live session is over.

Energy is contagious, even through a screen

Don't underestimate the power of quiet time to reflect and work on something. For workshop participants, your time together may be a welcome change from the flow of a typical day. Seeing other people working when cameras are on can be highly motivating. 

The passion, energy, and enthusiasm a facilitator brings to a workshop is contagious. As I've learned with workshops from eight to 200+ participants, people are looking for creative escapes and workshops are a great way to bring people a change of pace and to help empower them with something new. When the facilitator is having a good time, the participants surely will too!

More about Anne Ditmeyer

Anne S. Ditmeyer is a creative coach and consultant based in Paris, France who works with clients around the world. She’s the founder of Prêt à Voyager, which explores the intersection of travel and design. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @pretavoyager.

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