Monday, October 10, 2011

7 Ways to Prepare to Give a Conference Workshop

Over the weekend, I was blessed to speak at a local writer's conference, Write Brain Workshop, presented by Northwest Ohio Writers Forum in Perrysburg, Ohio. I've given presentations to writers and I've taught fiction workshops in the past, but this was my first time speaking to complete strangers.

I had a wonderful time meeting so many talented local authors, and the venue--a gorgeous mansion on the banks of the Maumee River--couldn't have been better.

I spent a lot of time preparing for my workshop. If you're interested in speaking at conferences, here are my preparation tips.

1. Give the presentation on a topic you are passionate about.

Months in advance, the event coordinator, Elizabeth Irwin, and I discussed possible topics that would interest the attendees. She felt a craft-based workshop would fit well with the other speakers, and I quickly offered three options which I felt passionate about. We narrowed it down to "Plotting the Scene." Since I've spent years experimenting with plotting methods and I regularly study books on plot and structure, I knew I'd be comfortable speaking about it.

2. Prepare a written handout to supplement your speech.

One time saver was that I had already written a short article about plotting the scene for this blog. If you're interested, here's the link, "Plotting the Scene." I printed it out, and expanded it with regards to the time frame I would be speaking. Write Brain Workshop is a hands-on conference, meaning the guests prefer an interactive learning experience rather than only listening to someone speak. I brainstormed ways to get the audience involved.

3. Write a brief introduction about yourself, your writing, and your qualifications. Practice it.

This summer I gave a presentation to Maumee Valley Romance Writers of America about questions to ask during the agent call. While I was more than ready to speak about the topic, I'd failed to practice my opening, and I stammered a few moments. Lesson learned. We think introducing ourselves and our topic will come naturally, but sometimes it's the hardest part of the presentation. Practice it over and over until you're comfortable.

4. Using your written handout, break your topic into several chunks, depending on how much time you have to speak.

I kept my introduction short, asked several questions to get a feel for their writing level, and launched into the definition of a scene. I then paused to allow for questions before continuing to the next chunk. By breaking the presentation up into digestible bits and pausing to allow the guests to process and ask questions, I was able to avoid the dreaded glazed over look in their eyes (for the most part!). It also assured me I was connecting with the audience and they understood the new information.

5. If it is a hands-on presentation, determine how to involve the audience.

I had a lot of ground to cover. I knew I would not be able to give the guests enough time to work on their own scenes. But I wanted them to be part of the creative process because I know how sticky information becomes when we work on assignments. Since I'd broken how to plot a scene into three levels, we brainstormed part of a new scene together after each segment, building on our previous work.

6. Determine what materials you will need the day of the presentation.

Find out how many guests are expected to attend. If you are giving handouts, prepare for the maximum amount of attendees. Since we were doing a group exercise, I needed an easel, a dry erase board, and dry erase markers. I also brought a notepad just in case.

7. Relax and enjoy it.

People are paying to learn about writing when they come to a conference. They're excited. No one is forcing them to be there. Make the experience as enjoyable as possible for them by relaxing and enjoying it yourself. After all, you've been given a gift--a set amount of time to share your passion with others.

Have you ever presented at a writer's conference? What are your tips? What qualities in a speaker do you admire?

Enjoy your Monday!


  1. Love this, Jill! Especially since I've love to teach a workshop at a conference someday! I think the hardest part for me would be figuring out my topic. Planning out the actual lesson would come naturally - since I had to do that every day for four years of my life as a teacher. :)

  2. When I'm listening to a talk, I always enjoy the personal angle that the speaker brings with mention of their own experiences. It validates what they're saying, and makes a connection with the audience.

  3. I bet you are a phenomenal speaker! Would have loved to have been there.

    I taught a week-long writing class to 2nd-6th graders and I adored it. It surprised me how much I loved it.
    ~ Wendy

  4. You did an amazing job. It was great to have a worksheet to follow but you did not depend on it to get you through. You were able to engage the audience. Plus I really learned a lot!

  5. I'm so glad your teaching time went well. Thanks for the tips on teaching writing workshops. I've taught a few, and have another in the works, so this will be very helpful as I plan. :)

  6. Good morning!

    Katie: Presenting a workshop at a conference would come very naturally to you, Katie. I'd love to listen to one of yours!

    Joanne: Me too. And I like listening to people who aren't too formal or stuffy. The old "be yourself" adage is true!

    Wendy: I would not go so far as to say phenomenal--but I enjoyed it. So cool about teaching elementary kids! I taught a fiction workshop to our school's 7th and 8th graders last year and had a blast! We're repeating it this year. :)

    Christina: Welcome! I loved meeting you--and I really appreciate you coming by today and your kind words. Thanks!

    Erica: You're preparing for another one? Lucky guests! It's fun sharing tips with other writers!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  7. Fabulous advice! I'll definitely be keeping this in mind for any future conferences I may be involved with.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  8. Great post, Jill.

    I bet you were great.

    I've only spoke about history in front of an audience. Your tips are right on...especially to prepare and figure out the audience participation to make it fun.

  9. I'm glad your workshop went so well, Jill. Sounds like you have a great plan in place before you begin, which helps ensure your success. Wish I could have heard your presentation.

  10. Congratulations on a successful workshop, Jill. And thank you for sharing some advice. I've spoken publicly before, but it was not writing-related. I'll keep your tips on hand for the future.

  11. I've never taught at a conference, but if I ever do I'm going to reference this. It's great!

    I especially love the passionate rule and offering a hand out. I get so much more out of ones where hand outs are available. With them I just seem to be able to concentrate more during the session and always gain so much more than when I'm speedily writing everything down.

  12. I wish I thought this would come easy to me, but I think I would have to practice a ton before hand.

    My favorite quality in a speaker is one who can teach like they're having a conversation with you and slide in funny stuff every once in a while to keep things interesting.

  13. Sarah: If you get the opportunity, take it. It's really fun to share knowledge with other writers!

    Loree: Well, I enjoyed myself, and that's half the battle! I would love to listen to you speak on the Civil War. I know you're an expert!

    Keli: What a nice thing to say! I had a great time!

    Brandi: Honestly, it's easier for me to speak about writing because I am so passionate about it. :)

    Eileen: Same here. I need to see things and write them down. Just hearing them doesn't make them stick. :)

    Heather: It doesn't come easily to me either--hence the preparation! And I'm with you. The presentations that really stuck out for me were ones where the author was down to earth yet conveyed information I hadn't heard before.

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  14. I know you were awesome! You are well-organized and know your stuff!
    When I spoke last year, I did not have a handout and wish I had. It would have been a nice take away.

  15. Congrats, Jill!

    I've never spoken at a writers conference, but have taught at a small writers group.

  16. Terri: Not every presentation calls for a handout, but this one involved different levels of plotting, and I felt it would be best to have one. :)

    Susan: I love speaking to small groups. It's more intimate and less intimidating. How fun for your attendees--I'm sure you were wonderful!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  17. Great tips, Jill! I used to do a lot of teaching in my corporate job and would love to transition to teaching in this type of setting, too. I'll come back to this post when that day comes! :)

  18. I enjoyed your post. Very informative. I've never presented at a writer's conference before, but would like to if the opportunity presented itself. I like handouts and presenters who give you examples and down to earth information helpful to all level of writers.

  19. Hello, Jill! I wish I could have been in three places at once so I could have heard at least part of your presentation, but I do know that the feedback forms all gave you two thumbs up. I'm glad you enjoyed your time at the Write Brain Workshop, and this is a terrific article to bookmark and save for future reference. I teach classes for Owens and at my church - these are great tips.

    Thanks for being there!



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