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!)