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Boosting the Instructional Effectiveness of
Conference Workshops

by Frank J. Troha


My friend, a trainer, had just returned from a conference and was obviously upset. "My stress management workshop was an embarrassment," he complained. "I lost the audience early on. And - from what I saw and heard - most of the other workshops bombed out."

Apparently the conference organizer had dropped the ball, neglecting to inform my friend and other workshop facilitators about the particular needs and desires of conference attendees. Likewise, many of the facilitators (my friend included) had neglected to pick up the ball. Judging from my friend's assessment of the conference, few (if any) facilitators had bothered to identify the special interests of their workshop registrants and tailor their workshops accordingly.

As a long-time designer of training programs on management, sales and technical topics, I believe I understand the problem and can offer a proven solution. Most conference-workshop facilitators tend to have above-average subject matter expertise and platform skills. But, many of them lack the instructional design skills needed to consistently succeed. To help your facilitators do a better job - and better ensure the overall success of your conferences - consider passing along these basic, but vitally important, recommendations:

a. Know who your audience members are, including their likes and dislikes as they pertain to classroom learning. For example, some audiences (executives in particular) tend to prefer lecture to small group exercises. Even more important, know your audience members' burning issues and exactly what they hope to get out of your session. To benefit from this crucial information, conduct interviews by phone with a random sampling of prospective or pre-registered audience members.

b. On the basis of your interview results, identify and organize what you'll need to cover and how best to cover it. In doing so, first prepare an outline of pertinent key points or content. Afterwards, for each item listed, indicate the most appropriate means by which to communicate it (e.g., brief lecture, demonstration, mini-case study, video segment, Q&A, etc.).

c. Make sure that your workshop has an attention-getting, dramatic opener. Audience members need to be engaged from the get-go. A relevant anecdote, news clipping, provocative question or quotation -- anything that's likely to "hit the audience where they live" (as far as the workshop topic is concerned) can do the trick.

d. Make sure that your workshop has the potential to deliver on-the-job results. In addition to providing the right material in the right manner, consider how you can help facilitate your participants' transfer of learning from your workshop to their places of work. (After all, if in the end there's no application of learning, your workshop will be a waste of time, money and effort.) Prepare job-performance aids (i.e., templates, checklists and other quick-reference tools) your workshop participants can use during in-class exercises and on the job. Also, consider preparing a concluding activity in which participants plan out and commit to addressing at least one on-the-job issue, using what they will have learned in your workshop.

e. Identify sources participants can turn to for further information on the topic of your workshop. The mention of relevant websites, books, journals, CD's, etc. should be a part of your workshop's conclusion and provided in the form of a handout.

f. Conduct a dry run of your workshop, paying particular attention to its duration. If you run over the allotted time, consider which elements of the workshop can be modified or dropped without significantly compromising its overall effectiveness.

g. After designing the workshop, go back to the same sample of audience members and walk them through what you intend to cover and how you intend to cover it. The feedback is likely to be invaluable. Just as Pepsi or Coca-Cola wouldn't launch a new soft drink without first conducting consumer taste tests, you shouldn't launch a workshop without first testing its appeal and value.

h. Finally, don't go into the conference cold. A week or so beforehand, use e-mail or regular mail to send a note of personal introduction and welcome to each of your workshop's registrants. Personal and organizational benefits to be gained by participating in the workshop may also be included.

As you can see, this isn't brain surgery. But, if my friend and his fellow workshop facilitators had applied the simple, straightforward recommendations above, chances are their conference would have been a runaway success for themselves, their audience and the conference planner.


The Author


Frank J. Troha, Ph.D., is an independent corporate learning design consultant, instructional designer and author. He is also adjunct associate professor of instructional design at Fordham University Graduate School of Education, New York City, where he teaches corporate human resource and training professionals. His e-mail address is: . Web: .

Many more articles in Training & Development in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Frank J. Troha. All rights reserved.

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