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The Difference Between Speakers and Workshop Leaders by Jill Chivers

Jill Chivers
Jill Chivers

Note: This is a guest blog from my dear Australian colleague, Jill Chivers, who excels at both speaking and leading workshops!

I meet many people who have attended a speaker skills training program and believe, or hope, that by attending a speaker course, they are now at least somewhat equipped to be a workshop leader.

In my experience, being a great speaker doesn’t automatically translate into being a great workshop leader or vice versa. Sure, speakers/presenters and workshop leaders both require outstanding communication skills – but they are not the same skill set.  Here are a few key differences:

Where the Spotlight Focuses.  This is one of the biggest differences between a speaker and a workshop leader – where the spotlight is focused.  When you’re a speaker, you’re often standing on a stage with a light or set of lights on you.  The spotlight is literally on you.  You are what we call “the sage on the stage” and the audience has its full attention on you.  Really great speakers know that even though the spotlight is on them, it’s always a dance with the audience but the fact remains that when you’re speaking, all attention is on you.

Contrast that with being a workshop leader.  There may not even be a spotlight, but if there is one, it’s definitely on the participants.  The most effective workshop leaders park their ego at the door and are in complete service to the participants.  It’s not about them – it’s about the participants.  In this way, workshop leaders are “the guides on the side” and their full attention is on the participants.

Energy flow.  In workshops, the energy flows between the participants, with the workshop leader providing guidance, input and support to that energy flow.   Contrast this with presentations, where the energy emanates from the speaker on the stage (and in the spotlight) out to the audience.

Another reason that energy flow is different in workshops as opposed to presentations is because of the purpose and nature of these two events.

Purpose.  The purpose of a workshop is for participants to learn a new skill and become more confident and competent in a particular area of learning.  This can sometimes be a measurable skill shift (they knew and could do X before the workshop and now, after the workshop, they know and can do X, Y and Z) but it’s a shift in their ability to DO something, whether it’s measured or not.

Outstanding workshops have a lot of participant activity in them – there are exercises and activities (with insightful debriefs to draw out the learning’s) and a whole lot of doing.  Workshops are not lectures where the students are passive recipients of information being dispensed from the lecturer at the front of the room – they are active learning environments where the participants co-create the learning experience through interaction – by doing.

In contrast, the purpose of a presentation is often to entertain, inspire or motivate, or perhaps lightly inform the audience.  The audience is often passive, or at least relatively passive in contrast to a workshop.  The audience is sitting, listening to and watching the speaker on the stage (and in the spotlight), usually not doing much, or at least nothing that is directly observable.  Perhaps they are nodding their heads, smiling and laughing at times, and hopefully they are thinking about what the speaker is saying.

In contrast to the highly active nature of workshops, presentations do not engage the audience in a highly active way (or at least, not for very long).  Most if not all of the action and activity is happening on the stage, being done by the speaker.

Specific vs. General.  Presentations and speaking gigs are often more general in nature – speakers often talk on topics with wide appeal with little specific information that is targeted to a particular or niche audience.  An example might be “how to have red hot relationships”.  This is a topic that almost anyone in any field of work and with any type of personal life arrangements, would find something of value or interest in.

In contrast, workshops are often very specific in nature.  Workshops are about exploring a particular topic and providing the participants with an opportunity to learn more about it and become more skilled in it.  Extending the example above an example of a workshop might be “how to improve your marriage” or “how to heal from painful past experiences”.

The People.  In a presentation, the people listening to the speaker are called the audience.  Audience is sometimes defined as ‘spectators’ or ‘those who watch and listen’.  There is a passiveness to the word audience.   This relates to the above point about energy and where it emanates from – the speaker on the stage (and in the spotlight).

In contrast, the people attending a workshop are called participants, meaning they participate in something – the action taking place in the workshop.  Participants are defined as those who ‘take part or shares’.  There is an activeness to the word participants.  This also relates to the above point about energy and where it flows from and to in a workshop – between the participants, guided by the workshop leader.

Summary.  Presenting is a wonderful calling.  Great speakers have the power to transform our perspective, temporarily or for a lifetime.  Great speakers are great storytellers who inspire us on an inner experience of thoughts and feelings which could take us anyplace.

Workshop leadership is another wonderful calling of a different nature. Great workshop leaders create the space for impactful learning experiences that engage and empower.  Great workshop leaders are great tour guides, holding the light and map steady for those taking the journey.


Jill Chivers is a speaker, writer, coach, creator, designer, professional facilitator and workshop leader and avid movie watcher.  She works with individual and groups, designing and delivering work that inspires real and lasting change in how people think, feel and behave. Learn more at

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