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What I’ve Learned About Presenting Online Writing Workshops

Like most professional writers, I’ve always supplemented my writing income with speaking gigs—workshops, talks, presentations of all sorts, both for adults and for children. Although over the years I’ve presented the odd Skype or other remotely-delivered live presentation, the vast majority of my speaking gigs have been face-to-face and in person. They’ve often involved travel of some sort or the other—usually long distance, sometimes close to home.

Since late March, when the shutdown began here in Australia, that’s not been possible. Things are easing now where I live–we can travel now, at least within our State, that’s not the issue—but it still isn’t possible to return to the old speaking-gig model. Schools aren’t keen on having outside visitors, libraries’ hours are still restricted, and adults who usually attend workshops don’t really feel confident yet about the face-to-face experience. Like so many, I’ve had to learn to pivot pretty much exclusively to online presentations, and in the process I’ve learned quite a few things about the differences between online and in person, and how to best adapt a model I’ve evolved over the years I’ve been doing these gigs.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve done the odd Skype or other online live presentation before, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with the remotely-accessed method of delivery: but all those previous presentations were talks, not workshops. Talks, like conference presentations, don’t need a lot of adaptation to present online—you give your talk, people sit there and listen, and then they ask questions at the end, which are hopefully moderated by whoever is the organizer. You do miss some of the buzz of the in-person audience, the expressions on people’s faces, etc. But it works pretty well, still. Some of the talks I’d given online had been to multiple schools at once, through a Department of Education closed system, and they worked like Zoom does, with muting of microphones etc. I’d be based in one of their studios which enabled the use of an electronic whiteboard, or ‘smartboard’ as it’s known here. The main challenge with those was making sure every school could contribute to question time. The Skype talks I’d given meanwhile had been to individual schools, one at a time, and that was easy because apart from not being in the classroom, it was, well, pretty much the same as being in the classroom 😊

Adapting talks to Zoom or other platforms of that kind represented no real issue for me. But I’d never given a online workshop and I was pretty nervous about it. My workshops have a structure, of course, but they are very much open to improvisation, as I’ve learnt over the years that works best in that setting. Online, I felt, had to have a much tighter structure, or people would quickly lose focus. I would not be able to do what I normally did, give people time to write—sitting in front of a screen, that would feel like ‘dead’ time, even if you used ‘breakout’ rooms. Yet people still needed a practical activity or exercise to work with, I felt, not just talking and group discussion. Timing was important—no way was it possible for me to run a workshop of more than two hours online: so a workshop I might have run over a day in the ‘real’ world would either have to be drastically shortened, which wasn’t ideal; or split into two-hour sessions, over a period of weeks. But would that dilute the impact of the workshop? And what of the bonding of the group—how to achieve that? In an in-person workshop, that bonding naturally happens over the course of the workshop, including in coffee or lunch breaks. As well, of course, because generally in an in-person workshop people are from the area you are giving the workshop in, there is that shared connection, even if they don’t know each other personally. In an online workshop, however, participants can be from anywhere across the country-which meant you had to think about another factor, time zones. As in the US, there are different time zones in Australia. And finally, there was the issue of the ‘venue’—the background, as it were—I had to think about how that would appear on everyone’s screens.

So I plotted and planned and worried a little–until I gave my first online workshop, via Zoom. And very quickly, I learned a few things from that experience:

*People don’t expect quite the same from an online workshop as an in-person one.

*In some ways their expectations are easier on the presenter than an in-person one, in others a little harder. For instance, they don’t mind not having time to write but they are much more focused on getting answers to specific questions.

*People prefer feedback and advice on things they’ve already written or are planning to write rather than creating new things based on your planned activity.

*The group bonding doesn’t really happen in the same way as in-person, but there are still good connections made in discussion.

*Structure is important but improvisation can definitely still happen.

*My instinct on timing was right: two hours works well and feels like a natural limit. It did not dilute the impact of the workshop.

*The background of your presentation is not really an issue—as long as it’s unobtrusive and reasonably tidy, most don’t seem to take any notice. And of course they have their own background to think about, anyway 😊

*Show and tell needs to be kept to a minimum: in an in-person workshop, I might show a short Powerpoint slide show to demonstrate, say, the process of creating a picture book, and this will often engender quite a bit of discussion. But though sharing your screen to do the same thing online can work, it doesn’t have the same impact as in-person, and people tend not to engage with it as much. In fact, oddly enough, as I discovered, the technological ‘bells and whistles’ I might use for an in-person workshop simply don’t seem to carry over properly in an online workshop: in person, they serve as a point of entertaining connection; online, they seem like a distancing distraction. And that, I wasn’t expecting at all.

Over to you: either as presenter or participant (or both), what are your experiences of online workshops? What do you think works—and what doesn’t?

About Sophie Masson [1]

Born in Indonesia of French parents, and brought up in France and Australia, Sophie Masson [2] is the multi-award-winning and internationally-published author of over 70 books, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, she has a PhD in creative practice and in 2019 received an AM award in the Order of Australia honours list for her services to literature.