Death by PowerPoint

Numb bum

Information overload

OMG, where’s the door?

We’ve all been there. That workshop experience that we just want to forget … or the one we already forgot, five minutes out the door. And we don’t want that for our people.

We want our people to remember their experience with us not just positively, but enthusiastically. We want them to be able to easily identify the results they got from their experience with us and to share our message with their friends. If we do this work well, our people will love working with us, come back for more and become our ambassadors.

But how do we do that?

1 – We design for our people;  and 2 – We design for adult learners

Designing for our People

I’ve talked in previous posts about designing for our people. We know that we MUST talk to our folks in order to get really clear on what they need and how we can be of highest service to them. If we want to make sure that our content will be relevant and valuable, we need to know our audience well enough to choose content they can relate to and apply meaningfully in their lives. Most coaches and holistic professionals do a pretty good job of this. They choose their workshop topics based on the issues their clients are already bringing to them and meet those issues with their gifts and expertise.

Where they fall short, however, is often in the second part of the equation: designing for adult learners. Because the art (and science) of designing learning experiences is its own craft; it’s a skill set different from coaching, counselling or the many other gifts you might be bringing to the process.

Designing for Adult Learners

While far from comprehensive, these four key strategies will help you design for the needs of adult learners and make your workshops engaging and memorable (in a good way!):

1)  Make it safe

Learning can be a really vulnerable process, especially for adults who have so much ego / identity and self-esteem wrapped up in feeling, and being perceived as, competent. In order to create the space for your people to take risks and stretch themselves, you need to establish a strong sense of safety. (Also know as the ‘learning container’ which I will talk about in another post).

There are many ways to establish safety – both through your design and how you facilitate. Strategies range from establishing group agreements like confidentiality and being on time, to ensuring that folks can participate in a number of different ways (ie not all ‘large group discussions). I find it also really helps to talk to folks about what they need from the learning experience and the environment in order to feel comfortable participating and stretching themselves.

2)  Make it interactive

Nothing is worse than being talked at and the reality is that we don’t learn that way. If you want your people to have a transformative experience or, at least, to learn the things you’re there to teach them, then your program MUST be interactive. We ALL learn best by doing, but we also have different ways we learn best, so providing a variety of activities that enable your participants to interact meaningfully with your content will enable them to stay engaged and integrate the learning, regardless of their learning styles.

For instance, while large group discussions will work well for some, others will learn better through pair-shares, or individual written reflections. Others will prefer case studies and yet others will learn best by moving their bodies and really appreciate an experiential simulation or learning game that involves moving around the room or taking things apart and putting them together.

3) Ask, don’t tell

One of the most common traps new (and sometimes seasoned) facilitators fall into is thinking they need to provide all of the information that they want folks to learn. This can show up in two common ways: 1) They answer every question from the group and 2) they try to ‘teach’ everything and provide all of the ‘theory’ up front. You may be wondering why this isn’t exactly the right thing to do – isn’t that the facilitator’s job: to teach the content and answer questions?

The answer is – sort of. Our job as educators / facilitators / workshop leaders (whatever you call us) is to provide an opportunity and the necessary ingredients for folks to learn. When we’re working with adult learners we need to remember that they come in already carrying a wealth of knowledge. We do them a disservice and disrespect them if we don’t draw on the knowledge, experience and wisdom they already have. We engage adult learners far more effectively when we invite them to answer each other’s questions (at least some of the time) and when we provide them with enough information to deepen into an activity and learn through the doing, rather than through our telling.

4) Less is more

The research says that adult learners generally have an attention span of about 10 -20 minutes (max). What this means for us is that any time we plan to do the talking, we should keep our speech bubbles to 10 minutes or less, with perhaps an extra couple of minutes for giving the instructions for the next activity folks will move into. Our workshops should have enough rhythm to gently shift folks attention every 10 – 20 minutes. Which doesn’t mean we can’t plan 30, 60 or even 90-minute activities, just that we need to ensure those activities have enough components to naturally keep the engagement up within them. For example, we can do a case study activity that is an hour-long but includes several steps within it that move folks from big picture to details, small group activity to large group debrief, generating ideas to synthesizing and preparing to report back their analysis.

When we plan our workshops to be highly interactive, it also means that we just can’t include as much content. And that’s a good thing – because our folks can only take in and integrate so many concepts in a period of time. When we reduce the amount of content we try to deliver, and instead deepen the learning on key pieces that we include, we provide a much richer opportunity for learning and transformation – instead of just information overload.


End-note on Death by PowerPoint: It usually happens because the facilitator forgot the less-is-more rule and tried to jam ALL THE INFORMATION into their presentation… and they don’t know the difference between a workshop and a presentation. PowerPoint can be an effective tool when used properly, but the key is to stick to the learning principles we’ve already covered and keep the information (telling) minimal and visual. And whatever you do: DO NOT READ YOUR SLIDES. Unless your audience is blind or illiterate. Really.


  • What’s the worst workshop experience you’ve ever had?
  • Which of these strategies did they miss?


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Have you got a workshop you’re almost ready to launch, and you want to make sure that it’s rave-worthy?

Consider booking a Once-Over with me: I’ll review your design thoroughly, give you kudos and key pointers – and you can launch with confidence.