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Confessions of a Workshop Facilitator

In the early stages of my creative career I’d find myself, now and again, sitting in the audience at a workshop. I remember looking at the men running the workshops — back then it was mostly men — and thinking, quite clearly, I never want to be one of those guys.

It didn’t matter which aspect of creativity the workshop was about, the people running them always seemed to be the same. They’d be dressed fashionably — fashionably for whatever era it was when they’d last enjoyed success. They’d have won awards for their work, but you knew that those awards would already be as time worn as the work that won them. And they’d broadcast their spiel with the easy monotone of someone who’s delivered the same words a hundred times before.

Now don’t get me wrong, there were always some good bits — some meatballs tucked away beneath the claggy pasta and under-seasoned tomato sauce of their presentations. But right now I have no recollection of what those good bits were. I just remember the one salient thought: I never want to be one of those guys.

So, here we are, in 2019 and … guess what?

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I’ve spent a good part of the last two years running creative workshops. I’ve run sessions in LA, Stockholm, Paris, New York, London and — I’m proud to say as a Welshman by proxy — Caernarfon. And the fear of becoming one of those guys has meant that I’ve done everything I can to make my workshops as good as they can possibly be. Only my audiences could tell you whether I’ve succeeded or failed. But what I can say for certain is that I’ve learned a lot over the past two years. And the things I’ve learned I share with you, so that if you’re ever in the situation of running a workshop you never become one of those guys either.

Do It Cause You Care

The main issue I had with those long in the tooth advertising creative directors who led the workshops I attended was simple — they were doing it for them, not for me. Their sessions were a forlorn attempt to wring the last few gasps of life from a moribund career and shore up an ebbing ego.

The best speakers speak with passion. And in a workshop setting that passion must be driven by the belief that what you are saying can be genuinely helpful to those who have taken the time to attend. If you put the needs of the attendees before your own, and are prepared to speak with candour and humility about your own mistakes and failings and share what you’ve learned from them, then you’ll find a positive vibe fills the room like sunshine on a Spring day.

I’m firmly of the opinion that creativity is — after love — the most valuable attribute we human beings possess. Feeling like I can play a role, however modest, in enabling people to express themselves creatively gives me a reason for doing what I do that is bigger than just me.

There’s Always One

So far I’ve run workshops in America, Europe and Asia, and I’ve come to realise that no matter where you find yourself, you’ll always encounter the same people. I don’t mean literally — that would be weird. I mean the same personality types. There’ll be the enthusiastic ones, the ones you gravitate towards naturally; there’ll be the initially uninterested who you have to bring round, step by step; and, more often than not, there’ll be the sceptical one at the back.

A couple of observations about our inscrutable friend in the corner who always seems to be doodling whenever you’re talking.

The first is that if you’re in a short, one off workshop, and you’ve made a few attempts at drawing him or her in through questions, eye contact and using their name, and you’re still not getting anywhere, then let it go. It’s probably a lost cause. Devote too much time to them and you’ll start to lose the group.

In a longer series of workshops you have time to treat it as a personal challenge to bring them round. Lovebomb them. Take the time in the breaks to engage them in conversation about life beyond work. Praise their endeavours and see if you can swing them from nay to yay.

Also, bear in mind that you could be reading them totally wrong. Maybe they’ve just got an unfortunate face. I’ve been surprised on more than a couple of occasions when the doodler at the back has turned out to be one of the most enthusiastic givers of post workshop praise.

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Keep Moving

Literally and metaphorically. Let’s deal with the former first.

Thinking back now to those workshops I attended twenty years or so ago, I can recall the facilitator standing at the front of the room, broadcasting to us, the attendees. It was as if there was a physical line between us, an invisible demarcation of status and superiority.

If you’re running a workshop, no matter what kind of space you’re in, cross that line and move around. Walk between the tables. Be with your audience. Don’t loom over them, kneel down and chat. And when people are busy doing the workshop exercises, whatever you do, don’t check your phone. People are more aware than you think.

And now to metaphors … the fastest way to becoming ‘one of those guys’ is to stand still. To have your workshop worked out and then to stick to it, doggedly, slide for slide, time and again, until every last drop of vitality has left its mummifying corpse.

The full creative masterclass sessions I run take six days. That’s a lot of workshop material. It took me about three months to put together. And having spent all that time crafting and shaping and writing, it was very tempting to just work it and keep invoicing. But every session I give I add, tweak, reshape; removing exercises which didn’t work as well as I planned or dropping in clips, articles, thoughts that have occurred to me along the way. This constant tending to and nurturing of your workshop garden keeps it bountiful and fresh.

Listen and Learn

If you’ve been hired to run a workshop it’s usually on the understanding that you know stuff the attendees don’t. Yet more often than not I come away having learnt stuff too. This is great. It gives me extra material for next time, but also as soon as the people in your workshop start suggesting material you could use you know that you’ve won them over and that they’re with you. Talk, but don’t forget to listen.

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Have a Break

A simple and practical note borne from experience. No matter how resilient your own bladder is, or how resistant you are to the siren call of social media, this isn’t about you, it’s about them. And most regular humans struggle to maintain concentration for more than an hour. So always schedule a break within the first hour, and when you kick off let everyone know that’s what you plan to do.

Don’t Just Talk, Do

I’ve run many different workshops on a number of different subjects, but the common denominator of all of them has been creativity. And it seems to me that if I presume to keep an audience engaged on the subject of creativity then I should be spending at least some of my time actually being creative, rather than just talking about it.

In my case this means making work as a photographer, which I do for love, and working with clients on brand identities and campaigns, which I also do for love — and cash.

As soon as you stop doing the thing you’re telling other people to do, then becoming ‘one of those guys’ is really just a matter of time.

Be Like Pooh

There’s much we can learn from Winnie the Pooh — it’s a shame he doesn’t run workshops. One of my favourite Pooh quotes is ‘the things that make me different are the things that make me me’.

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And perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from the last two years running workshops is that for it to go well I don’t have to pretend to be a super successful someone I’m not, I just have to be honest. And this means admitting failures, sharing weaknesses and letting the audience in on the many and varied fuck ups that I’ve made throughout my own career.

After all you’re there to share what you know, and if you share only the things you got right first time then it’s probably going to be a pretty short workshop.

Thanks for reading. You can find out more about the workshops I run here.

Written by

I write, think & speak about the creative process. For more inspiration go to or listen to my podcast The Wind Thieved Hat on iTunes.

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