12 Most Non-PowerPointed Ways To Lead A Stimulating Workshop

12 Most Non-PowerPointed Ways To Lead A Stimulating Workshop

In 1982, John Naisbett published his prescient “Megatrends” in which he predicted ten seismic societal shifts by millennium’s start. Perhaps his most enduring prediction is what he called “high tech/high touch.” He maintained that as society became more technologized, we would feel an ever-greater need to connect through real-time, sensory experiences. And so it is today.

The majority of us are social media connected, addicted to our smart phones and in love with anything “tablet.” I myself have a trove of tech wonders all beginning with the letter “i.” Still, though, for all of our linking, liking, and tweeting, I’ve encountered many of us who feel a certain disconnect and isolation.

I spend my days offering workshops on those “soft skills” of interpersonal communication and I’m now convinced that the workshop forum is a prime opportunity for creating a “high touch” experience — a place for people to connect in real time with real people.

Here are my 12 most strategic tips for engaging and stimulating participants in your workshop.

1. Check your attitude

Your goal is “to give” not “to impress!” Presenters bent on impressing tend to “data dump” which only paralyzes participants. You will genuinely impress with the quality of information you offer — not the quantity. “Quality” means “clarity.” You’ll know you offered clarity if, at workshop’s end, people leave feeling challenged and looking forward to working with you again.

2. Ditch the slides

I appreciate the benefits PowerPoint offers certain types of presentations; however, I opt not to use any slides in my workshops. My reason is this — slides compel people to look at the slides and not at each other — or me! All the information I could put on a slide I can put into handouts that people can read and digest at their own pace.

If all you’re giving participants are slides, then they don’t need you. What are you giving them that a slide can’t? Answer: a “high-touch” experience of connection shared with others.

3. Create a roadmap

No matter the length of your workshop, you’re going to take them on a journey. By the time participants get home from your workshop, they’ll have forgotten at least half of what you said. And 24-hours later, they will have forgotten half of that half. When the workshop is over, what do you want them to feel, know and do? Let the answers to these three questions guide your strategy for mapping out your work.

4. Introduce yourself with a story

Tell people the story of your relationship to the workshop’s topic or theme. A resume or LinkedIn profile is not a story. Give people insight into your passion for the topic and not simply recite your expertise. Passion makes you likeable, interesting and trustworthy.

5. Begin the day’s work with a question

You want to get folks thinking about the workshop topic in a way they’ve never thought about before. In my workshops on managing difficult behavior, I begin by asking, “what makes someone difficult for you?” People laugh and write quickly. BUT then I ask, “what makes you difficult for other people?” Hmm… tougher question and now they pause. They don’t like to think of themselves as “difficult.” It’s those uncomfortable moments of “pause” that engage people.

The entire workshop experience should be an oasis — a time and safe place for participants to consider the topic in ways they normally wouldn’t.

6. Get people talking with each other

Workshop learning takes place in three ways — from you and the information you provide, from the handouts and resources you offer during and at the end of the day, and from the give-and-take of the participants. Conversation is vital to the dynamic of a workshop.

Introduce each section of your work with an inventory, questionnaire or question that helps them focus and reflect on the topic even before you present your information. When they’ve completed the exercise, have them turn to the person next to them and compare answers.

Getting people to talk with each other relaxes them, energizes them and helps them connect with the material, reminding them they’re not alone.

7. Present your material on a board or flip chart

Old-fashioned? Yes AND writing on a whiteboard or chalkboard is a tactile thing. The very act of writing out ideas helps to create energy from you because it demands more from you than simply reading a slide.

8. Encourage questions

Perhaps the greatest gift you can give participants is the gift of questions. You want to get them thinking, questioning, wondering. This is what will propel them in their work after the workshop is over.

Are you comfortable taking questions and thinking on your feet? If not, ask the participants to help answer a question. A fellow in a workshop I offered on cross-cultural communication had a challenge at work that stumped me. I invited him to diagram the issue on the whiteboard (it involved direct reports in four countries). Writing on the board got him to be more clear in his thinking of the problem and helped us to visualize it. After a few moments of silence, a woman asked, “what if you…?” and it became an “aha!” moment. He took her suggestion and ran with it, coming up with his own answer. The room was electrified and we repeated the process with others. No slide could duplicate that exchange!

9. Use humor

Humor is always a tricky and sensitive skill; however, even if you’re presenting on a cure for some medical malady, tension and intensity needs to be relieved. A light-hearted spirit that reveals the likable side of your personality makes people feel comfortable. The more comfortable they feel, the more engaged they become.

10. Don’t give them all the answers

Rather then “telling” people information or supplying ready answers, see if they can first get the answers. For instance, in a workshop on motivating employees, I asked “How do you know if someone is engaged at work?” Participants readily supplied what are actually the top ten characteristics of an engaged employee. Then I asked, “What do you have to do to bring about that profile?” That’s the harder question. Rather than giving them the answer, I broke them into groups. In their totality, the groups came up with the answers that replicated those in the handouts I later distributed. Now those handouts made sense!

11. Have them write a letter to themselves

As your final exercise, have each person write a letter to him or herself. The letter is simply a reminder of what they most want to remember from the workshop. Yes, this is an old fashioned technique, yet, it’s been shown that writing something helps us connect more with an idea. You explain that you will mail the letter back to them four weeks later. Too often, people go to a workshop, get a nice folder of “stuff” and then file it away back at the office. The letter should be a reminder of what they want to be doing during the following month based on the workshop.

“Change” only happens through practice. This letter helps with the practice.

12. Supply follow-up resources

The easiest way to supply handouts is by having people fill out a form that contains a checklist of workshop-related topics on which you can email them articles. I also provide a box they can check off if they want info on my 1-on-1 and in-house coaching and training programs. This allows us to continue connecting.

Why is this non-PowerPointed approach successful? It’s successful because people feel connected — to you, to each other and to the material. They feel connected because the strategy of the workshop is based on the power of conversation and story — and so the “facts” become alive.

Photo credit: Big Stock Photos

J. P. Reynolds


JP Reynolds is an executive coach and corporate interpersonal communication skills trainer. JP regularly lectures on issues of communication and relationships at UCLA Extension. In addition, JP is a non-denominational wedding officiant. During the last twenty years he has celebrated over 1000 weddings—non-denominational, inter-faith and cross-cultural.

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Very, very sound advice. Thanks for writing, JP


“Check your Attitude”. Definitely it’s a requirement whether you like it or not. Great tips JP, thanks for sharing.

Duncan Brodie
Duncan Brodie

Really brilliant article.  Thanks for posting it


Great post JP, I like it!