7 Deadly Mistakes to Avoid When Designing Your Next Seminar

Updated to Speaking on May 3, 2023.

My first experience leading a seminar was an unmitigated disaster. I was mid-way into my graduate studies (fancy name for don’t-have-a-job) and I’d been asked to lead a weekend seminar about marketing.

I didn’t have a clue where to start.

So, I said Yes.

The year before I’d sold my quarter share of Adventure Network International (the world’s only operator of climbing expeditions in Antarctica and flights to the South Pole). Supposedly I knew something about marketing.

Lesson learned: there’s a big difference between knowing your topic and knowing how to teach it.

At the first break I remember turning to my co-presenter, Dave Freeze:

Dave: This is great, they’re loving it!

Me: Yeah, I think the material is really hitting home.

Dave: Okay, so what’ve you got planned for the rest of the morning?

Me: Uh…nothing. I got so excited I’ve burned though everything I’ve got!

Transitioning from Stage to Seminar

You might be amazing on stage, a brilliant author – even stellar coach, but when it comes to preparing and delivering a world-class seminar you need to pull from a completely different tool box.

Here are 7 common mistakes (Yup, been there, done all of these) you need to avoid if you want your seminar to really work:

** WARNING ** Once I started writing I realized I couldn’t do this topic justice with a few off-the-cuff tips. So, my friend, grab your favourite cuppa – this is a biggie.

Enough of the consumer warning, let’s dig in…

1 –Don’t know your audience

When you lead your next seminar you’re speaking to each person—to their needs, pain, fears, hesitations, and aspirations. This is true for any audience: the more you know their pain, the better you serve them.

You can dial in on their needs before or at the start of your seminar:

Before: All the usual suspects work here: survey, focus group, individual interviews—all are better than going in blind.

I ask permission of almost every keynote client to interview a handful of delegates by phone. I only takes me about 2 hours and what I learn is worth gold.

At the start: I try to avoid ever asking an audience to vote by putting up their hand – it makes me look like an amateur and makes them nervous.

Instead, I’ll either ask them to vote on the objectives I’ve just presented, or I’ll give them a short, self-rating quiz.

2 –Thinking it’s a long keynote

We’ve all seen it happen – we love the speaker on stage and immediately rush to their breakout session only to discover…their seminar content is basically the same as the keynote, only slower.

Your keynote is about inspiration and motivation – your seminar should be about application. It’s a whole different ball game.

A simple exercise to start with – even before you use my template to design the speech  – is to ask: what do I need them to walk away with?

If I’m teaching time management, I want them to have a crystal-clear awareness of where they are failing (always start with their problem) and 2-3 specific actions they will take in the next 2 weeks. That’s it.

So, what is it for you: what do you need them to walk out of the room with?

3 – Doing all the work

I grew up serving clients in the tourism industry, so I assumed I should do the same in my seminars. Wrong.

Of course, you’ll set up the room and have what they need, but after that…make them do the work. Maybe it’s counter-intuitive, but folks will get more out of your workshop when they make some of the decisions and do some of the heavy lifting.

Even something as small as making them come up to pick up their handouts (hat tip to Bob Pike) gets them involved. Here are some other ways to make them do some of the work:

  • share case studies – ask for volunteers to share experiences when they have struggled with the topic you are teaching.
  • teach a subject – people retain more and learn more when they have to teach the subject. At the end of a lesson, I would ask for a volunteer at each table to teach the lesson to their table.
  • peer-to-peer coaching – super easy to set up: tell them who will be ‘coach’ first (like: person with shortest hair, person with birthday closest to today, etc.), tell them how much time they have and instruct the ‘coach’ to not give advice; only ask questions.

4 –Too much content

Just because you’ve got 3 hours for your seminar doesn’t mean it should have 3 times the content of a 60 minute keynote (even double is probably excessive.)

Your job is to create results, not do a brain dump on your audience. If you’ve used a template, about one half your time should be dedicated to delivering the solution. You should also allow time for: discussion, group work, individual journalling and Q&A.

5 – Bums in seats

The old adage “The brain can only absorb as much as the bum can endure” is a good reminder to get your audience moving. I plan some kind of movement exercise every 10-15 minutes—your students will be more attentive, their retention will be better and it gives you a moment to gather your thoughts.

Try these 3 easy ways to add a little wiggle to your jazz.

2-person dyad – First, I have them stand and find a new partner. Next I give specific instructions, like: discuss how this lesson relates to your work, discuss one challenge you’ve had in this area, or discuss how you could introduce this lesson to your staff/team (see my post about “How to get powerful audience participation every time”). Then I tell them how much time they have (keep it short – they can cover a lot of ground in 90 seconds each), and say “Go!”.

Small group discussion – same instructions as a 2-person dyad (stand and form a group of 4-6 people). After, you can invite a volunteer to report on the conclusions their group came to.

‘Art gallery tour’ – this only works if you love flip charts: as you create each flip chart, tape them around the room, going clock-wise. When you return from a break, form groups of 3-6 people and position each group at a flip chart. Next, give them 3 minutes to review, amongst their small group, the lesson on the chart before asking them to move to the next one (hat tip to Harv Eker).

6 – Great theory, no action

The goal of a seminar is not for you to look smart, but for your audience to be smarter and take action. So, keep fancy theories to a minimum and learn how to translate academic research into action.

And the key ingredient to helping your audience move to action is application.

First, all good lessons need an anchor story and context. Build the set-up well (read how my SLAP formula will help you deliver more powerful lessons) and even a ho-hum insight like active listening, or thanking a customer becomes a brilliant, slap-on-the-forehead moment (the late Stephen Covey was brilliant at using stories to immortalize simple ideas like: sharpen the saw and start with the end in mind).

Once you’ve delivered the Story and Lesson, it’s time for Application (Participation in the SLAP model is explained in the next point, below.)

If I’m teaching, for example, a section about creating time boundaries , I’ll give a handful of examples of how they can apply boundaries in their day. For example, a morning boundary for exercise, the first 90 minutes at your desk for the hardest work of the day, etc.

The more examples I give for how to turn a theory into application, the more likely each person will find one that works for them and be ready to commit to action.

7 – Boring, boring, boring

Let’s face it – most workshops are boring, boring, boring. The instructor mumbles on about some obscure theory, gives a lame example, asks you to complete-the-sentence, sighs and moves to the next lesson. Ugh.

Not only do you need to make people move (see “Bums in seats”, above), you need to sweeten your seminar with some juice.

Maybe you teach customer service, or leadership, or change management—it doesn’t matter—with a bit of forethought you can make any seminar more engaging, more memorable and more effective with some stories and learning activities.

By the way, if you get hired to lead seminars, this is how you get your fees up.

Stories: Stories are the glue that make your lessons memorable. Create and build an inventory of your best stories and use them to anchor every lesson. Replace boring content with a well-told story that relates to your lesson and you move to the top of the pack.

Games: A word of caution: adults don’t like “games” but they love activities that keep them entertained while they’re working toward a solution. So, not only will you never announce: “Hey everyone, I have a game we’re all going to play!”, you’ll be judicious in your choice of activities: no purpose – skip the activity.

Quizzes: You can get miles (kilometers?) out of a simple quiz (see ‘self-rating exercise’, above). No need to ask Mr. Google – make up your own. Just think of problems your audience faces and write one question about each problem.

  • Struggling with time management?: Q: Do distractions frequently pull you away from priorities?
  • Have procrastination habits?: Q: Have you procrastinated on an important task in the last 72 hours?

If you want to always hit a home run with your seminars, your job is to avoid these mistakes and master delivery. Just like a meal at a restaurant; the delivery is often what makes the meal memorable.