Advice for teaching great classes & workshops


There are a variety of new ways to learn about design, development and online business through organisations such as General Assembly. They pride themselves on using real professionals as instructors. I’ve been teaching with General Assembly in London for two years now and I’ve now got two workshops (three hours long) and one class (90 mins long) that I do regularly for them. Its been a journey of understanding how to explain and teach things you can take for granted. If you've got the knowledge and skillset, I thoroughly recommend the process of instructing others about it to help you understand the area more deeply.

I’ve learned a few things through trial and error and working out what makes a useful and informative class. Here I outline the important practical advice to follow before, during and after your class to get happy students.

Ahead of time

Have a clear structure

Don’t just hit your students with a load of facts. Think about what you want to tell them. It's a classic format but have a beginning, middle and end. This takes time to refine: the first time I did one had someone else’s presentation and I ended up ripping it apart and rebuilding it in a structure that I felt made more sense.

Also you need to determine what level you're teaching. Beginner or advanced? Or is it even intermediate—something that is much harder to define. Either way, you need to be clear who this is for and advertise accordingly so you get the right level of student. I like to go for beginner with no prior knowledge as it's much clearer what ability level the group will be at and there's a much bigger pool of potential students out there that you can help.

Make plenty of notes

I'm a big fan of utilising the presenter notes field in Keynote to cover off the things you want to say for each slide. Not so you read it off but so that you have everything important to say to hand. After all you're teaching so it's important to be correct and thorough. Also a few times when my memory has blanked I've never regretted having them to hand. You can even output them with your slides when you send them round but I've never made mine neat enough for external consumption!

Practice

Make sure you actually speak your words out loud before you deliver your presentation and can do so without reading. It's amazing how doing this really helps you shape what you want to say. Many times I've found something that looked sensible when written down sounded weird when spoken aloud. It can take two or three iterations to get what you want to say sounding right and and the movements from one slide to the next sounding logical.

Consider your slides as standalone

One thing you can guarantee is people will want to receive your slides after the class, so it's good if they make some sense without you. Though of course it's the combination of the slides with you speaking where the real value lies. The slides themselves can just be a reminder of each point so don't go overboard with text. However you're aiming for clarity so have words where key things need explaining. As its teaching, you can break the rule the conference-speaking rule of having no text on your slides.

Come in under

Time how long your class is going to take. You may have to do it in bits and estimate but you should have a good idea. Then always aim to come in 5-10 minutes under time. Not only is this useful for Q&A time but if your students have been sat through three hours of content, no matter how impressive, they will always be happy to get away early. And as I have always done my classes in the evening people appreciate being able to get away on time to reach trains etc.

Software update

If the class are going to need any software for the session, do make sure you advertise this clearly and remind them to install it beforehand. Also worth reminding them to make sure their operating system is up to date as that can scupper them downloading the latest version of a programme.

Doing my wireframing workshop, where I teach how to use Omnigraffle

Check your connections

Do find out what the computer setup is and presentation system you’ll be using beforehand. Do they have the relevant adapters? Or is it all setup with Apple airplay? As I once turned up only to learn that my laptop hardware was too old to work with it. Meaning a rushed borrowing of another laptop. Which leads me onto the next step...

Prepare a backup

...of course I was prepared and had a backed up version on a memory stick. So always have that in your pocket, along with a version online somewhere. So you can react when technology fails you.

On the day

Take water

It’s always worth having plenty of water with you. Take more than you might need. Of course most places you're likely to teach will have running water but don’t leave yourself at the risk of there not being any.

One time, on a nice summer's day, the very kind organiser went and bought some beers for the group. Great idea, I thought, having one of those will take the edge off any nerves and help things flow a bit easier. In fact I found myself suppressing burps every few words. Not appealing to anyone in the room, or good for my delivery so avoid beer and fizzy drinks.

Of course, definitely don’t get drunk.

Snack stops

Make sure to give your students a break. When I’m doing three hour workshops I like to give them a couple and tell them at the beginning when they’ll be. This helps so they know there’ll be time to visit the toilet rather than interrupt your talking.

It's also worth anticipate that you might get a bit peckish when you deliver your class. I teach workshops in the evening when I'd normally be eating dinner so I have a snack in my bag to stave off any stomach rumblings.

Taking a break in a workshop

Be flexible

If the immediate feedback from the group is that they want to hear about something else then don't be afraid to tweak what you’re saying midway through. Even if you don't have slides, if you can talk on something then do so, that's just as valuable. Also be flexible in the tasks you have prepared. Once, in realising I'd made a task too complex for the group, I dropped that slide so I could spend more time on the next section.

Take notes

Make sure to note down any questions the students ask, this will be very useful later...

Getting ill

Talking for several hours straight can give you a sore throat and I find its common to feel a bit physically drained. So be prepared to rest up afterwards.

After

Get feedback

Your teaching is nothing without reactions from the people who were there. Especially for the first few times you do a class, you’re never going to get it right initially. You’re bound to overlook important details or present something in a confusing way.

Write down their questions and feedback then later when you come to revisit it to give the class again you can improve it so you don’t make the same mistakes twice. On this front, General Assembly are great at giving feedback straight after the class from the students.

Always be iterating

The big investment in time comes from creating the class/workshop the first time. But when preparing to give it again I always line to crack open the Keynote a week to two before to check it still makes sense. Perhaps update old examples and tweak things based on any feedback I received the last time. It keeps things interesting for you and means you never give the same talk twice. It evolves. This also helps you relearn the contents.

Then when it’s done always date stamp the start of the presentation with the correct date/month of the class you’ll be giving. This way the students know it’s fresh and current. And allows you to keep versions of your old presentations.

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My class and workshops

Find out more about each of them here:

Data-driven UX on a budget

Key UX principles for ecommerce sites

Desiging your first wireframes

Published on 4 February 2015

ux / workshops / classes / teaching / general assembly / preparation /

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