How to get the most out of an online workshop

I give writing workshops. Some clients find them awesome. For others, they are less effective. Since I am usually delivering similar content, what accounts for the difference?

The value often depends on the way the client has positioned the workshop and the way participants engage during the session.

So here’s some advice on how to get the most value when you buy, position, or participate in an online workshop.

How to buy an online workshop for your organization

A crucial variable here is how well you match the content to your needs.

I’m often most successful when the buyer is attempting to fix a point of personal frustration. For example, these were need statements I heard from three recent clients who were considering working with me:

  • Our organization runs on strategy memos. We need them to be written better so we can be more efficient.
  • Our organization wants its documents to be more effective and central to how we work, and we’d like to get a healthy start on how to do that.
  • I read a dozen long corporate emails a day. I really need my managers to understand how to structure those so they are effective, not wasteful, of the time we spend reading them.

What these statements have in common is that the person making them has a problem, and can clearly articulate it — and that problem matches up well to what I do.

When I get on the phone with somebody like this, we rapidly get to a point where I say, “Ah, I can help these people,” and they usually agree.

If there is any doubt, I send a one-page description of what I cover and they can read it and see how well it matches up to their need. There’s also my book — if you liked my book, then that’s exactly what your people will be getting in my workshop.

Here are a few situations that don’t work:

  • You want something other than what I’m expert in. You look at my content and try to twist it around or have me cover things that are normally part of some other consultant’s content. I’ll turn that request down, since even if I did the work, the results would be lame.
  • You are doing pattern matching. Somebody in HR is tasked with productivity training; they find me and see if my writing workshop fits the bill. This might seem workable when you hire me, but your participants are going to be less enthusiastic doing “required” training to check a box.
  • You overstuffed the workshop. I can handle 20 people at once. More than that, and you lose important elements: I can’t keep track of who is still interested, and individual participants feel freer to “check out” during the crowded session. So if you have more than 20 people to train, set up multiple sessions.

How to position an online workshop

After you arrange a workshop, you’re going to need to do a bit of an internal marketing job. If you have to drag people kicking and screaming to spend a couple of 90-minutes on a Zoom call, well, let’s just say the results are unlikely to be good for you, for me, or for the participants.

Here are some principles for getting a more positive response:

  • Set up the timing to be convenient. Depending on the time zones of your participants, you may need to arrange the timing carefully to best meet their needs. You’ll want to avoid times that they’re booked, like department meetings. If you give people three or four weeks notice, you can usually find a time that works for everyone — especially if you have me deliver the same content with multiple sessions at different times of the day or week.
  • Send a short email about what this is and how it works. Your email should include the problem the workshop is trying to solve for the organization, why you picked me, and what’s included. (In my case, you can copy that directly from my one-page information sheet.) You should also set expectations, for example, “We’d like you to participate with your camera on, and there is no need for an prep work or homework between sessions.” Finally, let people know that this is not a lecture — the workshop leader will be asking questions and looking for answers, both verbal and in the chat window.
  • Use your organization’s favorite conferencing tool. Trainers like me will accommodate your technical preferences; I’ve given recent workshops with Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams, for example. That’s a lot better than asking your people to deal with the quirks of my preferred tool-set.
  • Help me customize the content. In my case, I ask for writing samples from your team to use for exercises, to keep the content relevant for your organization specifically. I need your help to get those. It’s not a big thing to ask for, but if you aren’t persistent in collecting them, I won’t have optimal content to teach from.
  • Remind people once a couple of days ahead. This helps people make sure the workshop is on their schedule.

How to participate in an online workshop

If you’re going to be one of the participants, here are a few tips to get the most out of an expert workshop.

  • Turn your camera on, if you possibly can. I don’t care about your Zoom background or what you’re wearing. I do care if you look puzzled, or are nodding your head as if to say “Ah, yes, I get it.” I need feedback from the audience to make the workshop better for you, which is difficult to do if all I can see is a bunch of names in little black rectangles.
  • Use the chat feature. Culturally, some organizations use this feature a lot, others don’t. But I really pay attention to questions and comments in the chat window. It’s a great way to let me know there’s an issue for you or your have a question, which I’ll get to as soon as it makes sense. For example, this is where you can say, “What do I do if legal keeps adding terrible text to my press releases?” or, “What’s the best way for two authors to collaborate on a document?” (When I get participant questions, I spend more time on them than canned content, because they tend to get at the pain points for the organization.)
  • Don’t pass up the opportunity to quiz an expert. A workshop leader like me has seen all sorts of situations relating to the content I’m teaching. And you only have a limited time with me. Feel free to jot down a few questions ahead of time and raise them during the session; if you’re wondering about something, somebody else probably is, too.
  • Be mature about the dialogue and criticism. Sometimes I need to tell people that I think they’re wrong, there’s a better way to do what they’re doing, or that I disagree. I will always do that gently and respectfully; the objective is to use dialogue to get to the truth, not to pick on any individual. For example, when a group is critiquing a document that one of them wrote, I often get feedback later that the original author learned a lot from the exercise. Everybody else on your team has many of the same writing flaws that you do, and we’ll be talking about why people write that way, not about what’s wrong with you specifically.

These tips can make a few hours of online training pay off richly in people’s skills in the months and years that follow. Of course, you could ignore them and make sure everyone — participants and trainers — sees these workshops as annoying and painful. Just recognize that it’s worth it to put in a small amount of effort up front to get a better payoff from the money you pay and the time you spend with me.

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  1. Has any company every said “we would like to move ahead with hiring you for this training, you’re well recommended, but if you could change the title of the workshop for us? You know, take that “bull….” word.”?

  2. I found that the “bull…” word cuts both ways. My first response to it was – what audacity, arrogance in that choice of a title! Right behind it was, now who would use such as word right up front? Maybe someone who could deliver on such a bold assertion! Well Josh, I’ve been following you for a year now and in that time it has become clear to me that your direct, no nonsense way of writing certainly entitles you to use that word.