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You should run a workshop!

UI designer and developer Richard Powell on the joys of running a workshop

Our industry is moving faster than ever – so fast that the techniques and technologies we use today won't be optimal in six months. That poses a difficult question: how do we keep our skills up to date? Attending workshops is a start, but I believe we can do better than that.

The power of workshops

I've been lucky to attend some great workshops hosted by some very talented people, and each time I've noticed my skills massively improve on the day and over the six months afterwards. Workshops distil years of experience into a day or two, but they also give the tools for further self-motivated learning. Sure, we could read a book or blog, or attend a presentation instead, but workshops have advantages:

  • They tend to be hands-on and practical; you learn by doing as much as by listening.
  • They can cover more material.
  • You gain knowledge from the participants as much as you do from the host. It's collaborative and social.
  • You probably leave with material to learn from in your own time.

So attending them is important, but I want to talk about giving them. Perhaps you already blog, or give presentations at local user groups. That's great – and I believe that giving a workshop is even better. I'm now going to tell you why.

The rewards of giving a workshop

My own workshop adventure started with a single tweet. In it I asked if anyone would be interested in an introduction to jQuery. The web design community in the northeast [UK] is thriving, and quite a few people responded positively. Ten months later I can say that giving four workshops has been the most rewarding adventure I've had in my career. If you depart on this adventure yourself a few things might happen:

  • You'll receive heartwarming messages revealing that participants are producing better work because of you.
  • You will learn more about your chosen topic; stuff that you probably don't realise you could understand better.
  • You'll meet some of the industry's most enthusiastic people and make friends.
  • Your confidence will increase and you will experience a massive sense of achievement. If you can pull off a workshop, what else can you do?
  • You will earn some money, raise your profile and be offered new and exciting opportunities.

I've met a few people who have had similar experiences, chat to them: @martuishere and @htmlboy (HTML5, CSS3, Responsive) @pootsbook and @xocs (Ruby on Rails), @nrocy (Arduino) and, of course I'm always available for a chat (@byrichardpowell).

Planning your workshop adventure

The first step is to realise that you can. If your job pays, you have a valuable skill and if you are reading this article you're probably enthusiastic about what you do. Having a supportive employer helps too, and I've been very lucky in that respect. Don't worry about being an expert – very few people are – and don't worry about difficult questions: people who attend workshops are enthusiastic about the topic, they want to learn and they aren't out to trick you.

So suggest a few topics on Twitter, mailing lists or blogs and see what's most popular. Your topic could be a particular library or framework, or it could be on something like typography, grids or user research, but you'll need to decide what you will and won't cover. Be very public about this too: people will be disappointed if they don't get what they are expecting. Also, don't forget there is an opportunity in conversing with potential participants; ask if it is OK to contact them when tickets go on sale.

The most difficult part of the preparation for me was creating the material. It took a lot of time: five days for a one-day workshop. So make it easier by breaking it into small chunks, asking for feedback from a peer, and giving yourself plenty of time. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it – and know that you'll only create this material once, because next time it'll only require small tweaks.

(If you are planning a workshop then get in touch. I am happy to give one to one advice on preparing the material.)

A fear when putting on a workshop is that no-one will turn up, so don't compound this fear by committing to an expensive space or investing a lot in advertising. Think about what organisations can get out of hosting or advertising your event, aim for a space that's cheap – or free! – and remember to keep advertising constantly. In my experience the most effective advertising is via Twitter and local mailing lists.

The likes of Eventbrite are good for selling tickets: the service allows promotional codes and earlybird discounts, which can really help. Release your tickets at least four weeks in advance and think carefully about how much you want to charge. My workshops are incredibly cheap, but you might not be willing or able to sell tickets so cheaply. That's fine. Talk to your local web design community and see what people are comfortable with.

Finally, don't worry about making mistakes – because you probably will. I did. The important thing is to encourage formal feedback by making it clear that it will improve future events and is completely anonymous. Google Docs or services such as CustomerSure are great for this.

It could be the most rewarding thing you ever do

If asked about my ideal work, I think I'd say it'd be rewarding, would raise my profile and would pay. That's a lot to ask of client work, but it is realistic with workshops – and by giving one you'll be proving enthusiasm, experience, a desire to move the industry forward. That can count for a lot. So rather than sitting on your knowledge, share it and reap the benefits. And besides, workshops are just great fun.

If you have given a workshop please comment and share your experience, or just let everyone know of your next event. If you are looking to learn a particular topic or if you have attended a great workshop you should comment too. And if you could use some advice on giving a workshop, then please do get in touch.

Enjoy your workshop adventure, and let me know how it goes!

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