Monday, March 29, 2010

Jim's perspective on workshops and rockstars!

There’s been a lot of twitter on the airwaves lately about the value, perceived value, or lack of value or workshops hosted by and for photographers. In my position at Pictage I actually get to attend a bunch and here are my thoughts. Since Pictage sponsors a number of these, this is also sort of an open letter to those who host workshops for us, and, of course, it’s an invitation to comment as there are a lot of opinions.

Jim’s Rules for Successful Workshops (and observations on what is not successful).

1). Respect your attendees. They spent money, and in some cases real money, to come to hear you speak. That, and the time and travel, etc., are their sacrifice. Yours is preparation. Nothing gets my attention quicker than a tweet the night before a workshop that you’re just starting to think about what you’re going to do. That’s disrespectful to your attendees and if you don’t see it that way, then you should read the email they send me!

2). (This one may hurt a little). Make sure you have something to offer. Are you doing a workshop because you are compelled to teach and share or because you want to supplement your income? If it’s in your heart, then I’m not going to stop you, but make sure you are sharing about something that you are qualified to share about. As an example, I recently attended a workshop where there was a challenge related to a lack of light. When asked, the leader said, ‘Oh, that’s easy to deal with, you just either increase your ISO, or open your lens or decrease your shutter speed,’ and then went on shooting. The person who asked the question turned and looked at me and during a break I found myself explaining to her the very distinct difference between these three options. That would have been fine if the workshop was a business workshop. It wasn’t. It was a photography workshop. If you aren’t the master of the subject you are going to teach, don’t teach it. Bottom line, if the sole reason you're doing your workshop is because you aren't really making it in your business, then get a job at Starbucks instead. You do a disservice to the industry by doing these badly. (how's that for blunt!)

3). Prepare and follow a lesson plan. What are your attendees there to learn? How do you know? Do you survey them ahead of time? Make sure your agenda and your lesson plan are inline with what their expectations are and make sure you are disciplined about following it. (If this sounds like work, that’s good!)

4). It’s not enough to be nice, successful, sweet, experienced, a rockstar or a successful startup. Your attendees are only sort of coming to meet you. They’re also coming to learn (and that’s how they’re going to justify the time and money afterwards!). I love to cook and I go to cooking classes hosted by celebrity chefs. The best one I’ve been to, by far, was one done by Michael Chiarello a couple of years ago. I met the chefs at all of the seminars, but Michael actually went out of his way to teach. He had prepared, planned, and practiced. His Q&A was detailed, but not belabored. His knowledge of the subject was detailed and based on vast experience. Some others I’ve seen sign lots of autographs, cook something fun, are short on answers to questions and more or less run out afterwards. I wouldn’t go see them again or recommend anyone else does either. I went home from Chiarello’s workshop with recipes, techniques and a broader framing of the entertaining experience and I heartily recommend it. (though he doesn’t teach many anymore!)

5). Remember that workshops are different strokes for different folks! Different people like different workshops. That’s the way it is. To avoid a situation where someone comes to yours and their expectations aren’t met, make sure your workshop has a clear purpose and that everything you do is toward that purpose. If you have killed it on marketing and promotion, make your workshop about marketing and promotion and then have lots of marketing and promotions oriented hands on exercises. If you’re an incredible portrait photographer and your workshop is about portrait photography make sure there are opportunities for people to watch you work with clients and make sure you also take the time to explain the post production workflow, business model, etc. You get my point but for the sake of clarity here’s the counterpoint: If you’re a marketing and promotions expert don’t lead a shooting workshop. (Some of your students will know more than you and that’s usually not good).

6). Do a survey after the workshop. Make sure your folks got what they came for and if they didn’t, endeavor to understand why. (I always tell people to discard the “happy” surveys and focus on those who were not happy). Was it up front messaging setting the wrong expectations? Was it lack of preparation? Was it lack of knowledge of subject matter? Was the attendee a wacko (which also absolutely happens!).

As to whether one person is more qualified than another to do workshops, I frankly have little opinion. That’s up to the attendees. If they’re happy, great. If they’re not. Not so great. Pictage MAY promote workshops for people whose attendees are generally happy (we do a lot of surveying ourselves) and we are not likely to promote workshops for people whose results aren’t so great. But it really comes down to whether or not the folks who go get what they wanted and are pleased. That, more than any other measure, is a good measure of whether a workshop was worthwhile.

By the way, one of the things I think is interesting is that so many people gripe about the various workshops, etc., but tend to do it back-channel via email (I get these all the time). In a couple of cases people were really nervous that the person who led the workshop would find out they were unhappy because there is a fear that if the “rockstars” see you as a “grumpy” then you will be blacklisted. That’s a little unfortunate and a little curious. It’s unfortunate because it means that diverse opinions are not heard. It’s curious because I have to wonder just exactly what a “rockstar” might do that could hurt? Are you worried because you are hoping that someday you too will be a rockstar? If that’s the case I’d say let your work and your business speak for itself. If you’re a rockstar based on what you do in your studio, there’s nothing that anyone can say that will take that away. However, if you’re a rockstar based solely on your affiliations, watch out, the seas are forever changing.

BTW - for what it's worth I've personally met and spent time with lots of these folks and I've almost exclusively found them to be genuinely terrific people who have a lot to offer and whose talents are well worth tapping, given the opportunity. Some of those folks need to take some of the prompts in this message, and the greater unrest in the space, to heart, to make sure their offering is as good as it can be, but that's not a comment on their character, motives or experience. Just my NSHO on their workshop offerings. (If you're wondering if I'm talking to you I don't think that's a bad thing!)



Carlos Baez said...

Great info Jim. This is why people like you, straight to the point, and blunt when you have to be.

Carlos Baez

Jason Aten said...

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I definitely agree about the surveys, and as an attendee, you owe it to yourself, the workshop presenter, AND future attendees to both take the time to complete these AND to be brutally honest!

Gwendolyn Tundermann Photography said...

A great read! I've attended a few workshops (mostly about business, not technique). Pictage PartnerCon has been by far my best investment for workshops/conventions. Really looking forward to next November!

Kricia Morris Photography said...

Your post is fantastic. I personally have several friends who have attended some big name workshops and walked away disappointed and often confused. Do your research, make sure the workshop is for you, and if it's great, sing it to the world. Thanks for the honesty Jim!


Thank you Jim,
Very well put.
There are some great workshops, seminars and conferences out there.
I highly recommend Partnercon for a virgin photo conference attendee. It has a wonderful diversity of speakers and subjects. Also the smaller size has a great community feel. I love WPPI, I have gone for 14 years straight. It is getting a little crazy though with 14,000 peeps. It can be overwhelming for a first time buyer.

Dante Williams said...

Very well said.

Nicky Last said...

Thank you for the information. I normally don't post comments but I too love Chef Chiarello.

J Sandifer said...

Excellent insight into workshops and seminars...just like everything else, buyer beware. I too have experienced many workshops and have been to all the Partnercons(agree with JLG--great introduction in an intimate environment). I would say that if you are going to hear something that will revolutionize your may be disappointed! Go with an understanding that if you can take one thing away that will help your business..then it was worth it.

One of the best things that I have taken away from workshops is relationships! Make sure to take advantage of being in a room with others that are passionate about their businesses!


Anonymous said...

Great read Jim.

Every workshop that I have ever presented that had some form of sponsorship (college, workshop program, etc.) did have an evaluation form that was filled out at the end of the workshop. The instructors were not directly involved in handing out or collecting those evaluation forms so no editing out of bad ones could happen. They went directly back to the sponsoring party and a few weeks later they were mailed to the instructor. I learned more from the rare criticism than I learned from the positive evals. I see that WPPI just emailed out a lengthy evaluation form which asked for reports on the speakers you saw and for ideas on how to make WPPI better. Praise to them!

Unfortunately, many "rockstar" workshops are self-sponsored so there is no accountability to an outside sponsor. In that arena it is definitely the attendees responsibility to look beyond the "name" and research the value. Sadly there is no place to do that other than asking former workshop attendees and if you get those names from the one giving the workshop obviously they are suspect. If there is a sponsor but no formal evaluation process then each attendee who felt it was a good or bad experience should take the time to email that sponsor's marketing department.

kennykimdotcom said...

Thanks for a great post Jim. I just mentioned some that I plan on attending this year on my blog - including PartnerCon! :)

Studio Foto said...

Amen!! Jim, you hit the nail in the head. Workshops are about teaching not about just suplemental income. I was at WPPI this year and don't think I will go back next year, why because most of the classes were horrible! Teach what you know, not what you think you should teach. Thank you for truley being real and saying how it is. I sense a real change coming in our industry, the popularity contests are about to end to some degree. Btw I truely hope we can make partnercon 2010!!

Thanks Jim:)

Rnormfoto said...

Ahhh - a breath of fresh air! This line really says it all: "if the sole reason you're doing your workshop is because you aren't really making it in your business, then get a job at Starbucks instead. You do a disservice to the industry by doing these badly."

Sadly I think that is too often the case; people scrambling to assemble some sort of rinky-dink 'workshop' because they think they can make $500 a head because their business is failing.

As an aside - this whole 'rockstar' concept is rather sickening and confusing to me. When did making images warrant such status? I see it as simply another temporary bandwagon, a marketing ploy ... a self-given moniker- to lure the unknowing into believing you're much more than the billowing bag of hot air you really are. Filling at room at WPPI means very little in the end if you have truly nothing to offer those who have paid to see you.


Hey Jim,

I twittered this. It's right on. I've been focused on this as well because recently I've gotten a lot of FB messages from people truly truly sad that they went to a certain person's workshop, and yet they don't feel like they can say anything because of the dizzying fervor from other workshop participants, and like you mentioned, they were afraid to say anything not "amen"-ish.

It is very rough on people when they pay a lot of money to attend a workshop (some have to take a year to pay off that charge on their credit card just to pay the fee) only to hear a bunch of fluff, exaggeration and lies.

It's heartbreaking to hear. And the chatter is ablaze with unrest, so I'm sure the few speakers that are taking the heat will need to re-evaluate.

Onward ho! :)

Daniel J. Watkins said...

I don't have anything substantial to add. I just want to have my name posted alongside all the cool people...

Vu Bui said...

Great post, Jim... I was trying to think of something to add... but you summed things up quite nicely and covered pretty much all the right/most important things.

I understand some of the reasons that people use as to why they avoid giving honest opinions about a workshop they attended but didn't feel they got their money's worth... either on their blog or directly to the workshop instructor. Some of it is due to fear... fear of being ex-communicated by someone they obviously look up to... fear of being the only one with negative criticisms, which makes them the "wrong one"... fear of being considered a "grumpy".

As humans we also find it hard to admit when we are wrong or duped. People are often upset about things they spend their hard earned money on... but are quick to change their own minds about whatever they were upset about before they say anything to anyone about it... because it's not easy to admit that you were wrong enough to spend $2,000 on something that wasn't at all worth it (in your opinion). Just try to talk to someone who has just signed themselves into a crappy timeshare... they are going to defend it even if it's obvious it was a bum deal.

I think if they really thought about it, though... they'd realize that they are doing a disservice not only to themselves but to all future attendees of that same workshop. Without real feedback even the instructor might not know they aren't offering what would be considered "of value" and will continue to do the same thing. NOT speaking up could actually be considered a rather selfish thing to do.

This huge wave of discussion, communication, anger, accusation, fear, lies, bickering and unrest will likely end with the industry in a better place. I may not at all agree with a lot of the methods of some of the new anonymous twitter accounts and blogs... but what they are doing is SO extreme and SO out there... that it's allowing people with legitimate gripes to feel more comfortable to finally come out and speak their minds... because honestly a minor complaint about a workshop seems like such a small thing once you've seen some of the outrageous images and posts that have been going around.

Change isn't always good... not at first... but it usually comes around until things are in a better place. Eventually.

kimbova said...

Thank you for saying this, I have stopped going to workshops! I do hope this will change in our industry, there are many out there who have much to offer, share and know how to teach.

Megan LaBarbera said...

Thank you SO much for posting this! Seriously it is something I often think about and I truly couldn't agree more. I myself have invested hard, well earned money on workshops and have mostly been pleased but have walked away before completely disappointed. Photography is something I am passionate about, not just weddings but photography in general, and it is disheartening and down right makes me want to gag when I hear the word Rockstar anywhere next to wedding photographer. I enjoy what I do fully and I think there are a lot of photographers out there that are equally passionate and just do it because they enjoy it. However, to see other's in the industry use their name as an advantage in holding workshops to make more money and not putting education as the emphasis of the workshops, but rather boosting their egos and fattening their wallets, is just really a shame. To hear the word Rockstar next to wedding photographer has begun to make me cringe. It is disheartening that (nicely stated by Studio Foto) that it has become very much so a popularity contest. I thought that stuff ended in high school. I too hope that time will weed out the Rockstars and bring the industry back to one that is based on truly helping others and truly photographing weddings for the pure enjoyment of it, not for a Rockstar status image. If you're going to do a it right...make it about helping someone who once was where you used to be.

Corey B said...

I am one of the emailing people that really didn't like a couple workshops I've taken. One was recently and if I had known it was going to be mostly about god, I would have never gave money to 'learn.' I think a lot of the problem is misrepresentation and honestly one of my workshops was somewhat ruined by a budding rockstar taking another rockstar's workshop. It was somewhat catered to her and by the end of the week I was sick of feeling inferior because I didn't have my own cult. I am a nice person but I missed the sucking up class so when I don't kiss ass I feel that my workshop experiences have suffered.

It'll be interesting to see if the truth movement will help people find their voice to say what they think about workshops and their experience. Or if they'll still be worried about what the speaker will do in retaliation.

Rnormfoto said...

In response to Coreys statement: 'One was recently and if I had known it was going to be mostly about god' The topic or religion, should not be utilized as a marketing tool - nor should a workshop become a pulpit. I attended a photographers talk once (at partnerCon, sorry to say Jim ) who , in 60 minutes, said the word god over 50 times---enough that i started counting! It felt to me inappropriate and not why i was there to be lectured about. That of course, was interspersed with a talk about the importance of buying $500 sunglasses.

Jim Collins said...

No reason to say you're sorry at all. To be honest, that actually kind of bugs me sometimes, too. I may espouse the viewpoint, but have always been very careful not to preach my views in any way. Frankly, for me, it's because I just don't think I'm anywhere good enough to do so, but sometimes for others it feels disingenuous.

So by all means, speak up!

Megan LaBarbera said...

Corey...Couldn't agree more. I also have missed the kissing ass workshop, and although I have my own beliefs in religion I disagree with using it as a marketing tool as well. Seriously?? What ever happened to photograph's selling themselves? Why must one rely on religion or a rockstar image to be successful. So true!

Larry Reeves said...

very well said, jim. thanks for sharing. it's refreshing to get someone's take who is very 'third-party' about all the stuff that i've been reading on twitter and elsewhere. thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jim! This needed to be said (but the Starbucks direction really made it entertaining). I hope there is a new day dawning in terms of lectures and workshops. It seems like attendees are looking for speakers who have a teaching or inspire message rather than the commerce that goes on in the back of the room. As an "outsider" the business courses at WPPI seemed very single minded. "Do things exactly my way and you will be successful"...huh? Everyone talks about outsourcing yet all the classes are taught by photographers. Doesn't make for a very well rounded education. What about bringing experts in studio management, sales, seo, website development, marketing, finance to speak about these subjects and letting the expert photographers teach photography?

BeyondTheLens said...

thanks so much for being real. It's not a matter of whether I agree or not (although I do). It's just that you say it!
On that note, I have to say that in general, I think everyone is fed up with the "rockstar" image right now, yet they complain and continue to attend. The industry took some kind of turn in the last year or so where the photographer became the consumer do to the "rockstar" image. If you are attending these workshops because you think sharing the limelight with these people will make your craft or your business better, than it's no wonder you leave unsatisfied. There are 100 different ways to do something successfully. Take what you feel you can use and leave the rest, but don't be stupid enough to continue to go back if you're constantly unsatisfied. In part.... We are all responsible. If we weren't buying, they might nit be selling! I personally have become a lot more picky with what I attend a pay money for!

Kristi Crosson said...

I love how thoughtful this is. It really brings home what is important. I went to a workshop in August with one of the so-called "rockstar" photographers. It was amazing and worth every penny and more. It completely changed the course of my business because of what I learned and implemented in my business. But this photographer had clearly stated what the intentions of this workshop were. This photographer was fully engaged throughout the whole thing, and this photographer held to their end of the bargain. They exceeded my expectations in fact. So all of that to say is that it really does have to be clearly communicated, and if the workshop leader doesn't hold to their end of the bargain, there should be some kind of recourse. We should be able to say to that person in private and in public, "hey you said you would do this thing and you didn't". It holds them accountable, and gives potential future attendees a broader spectrum.

Nicole Taylor Photography said...

This was a GREAT post and so many responses that I just sit here nodding my head YES to. SO glad someone FINALLY said what so many have been holding back on.

Corey... We must have been absent on the same day!

Jules Bianchi said...

Just wanted to chime in.... I just love that you are part of our industry now, Jim!!!