How the Whisper Workshop works

Image courtesy of @kimtairi

Recently, we ran the first Whisper Workshop. It came about like this: one of our colleagues couldn’t find a conference that was quite right for her needs. I said, “No problem – we’ll create a workshop specifically for you.”

And we did.

It was great! We brought together 25 of the best people we knew to talk about creating links between universities and galleries, libraries, archives, museums (the GLAM sector). We got to meet a whole lot of people that we only know from Twitter, geek out, and chat.

I really enjoyed it because I met new people and heard about new ideas. People talked about doing eye-tracking studies in airports, and how this could be used in museums. They discussed crazy projects to automagically detect job advertisements that could be asking for PhD graduates. Most importantly, there was a lot of discussion during the breaks, which meant that people were making connections and catching up with one another. Not only that, the day became self-documenting. Joyce Seitzinger led the charge by setting up a Google Doc that lots of people contributed to. Tseen has created a Storify record of the tweets during the day, then @michaelcollins created another one that also captured the discussion that happened afterwards.

As Linda Kelly said:

I’m a big fan of workshops like this. They are a great way to lift your eyes from your day-to-day work and consider the bigger picture for a moment. We don’t do that enough.

In 2011, I wrote Run a workshop, build a network. It set out some simple suggestions to make the organization of a workshop as simple as possible. My five recommendations were:

  1. No cost – Find a free venue and avoid working with university finance. It will make your life infinitely easier.
  2. Know your limits – Work out how many people you can comfortably work with.
  3. Know your audience – Make sure you get your theme right, and make registration as easy as possible.
  4. No program – There is a lot of expertise in the room, so set your program on the day, rather than trying to set it all up beforehand.
  5. Know your internet – Make sure that you know how to make the internet work, or just tell people that you won’t be providing internet access.

I used that structure to organize the Whisper Workshop, but I found two more ways to make the process even simpler. I think that they also helped to make the workshop stronger.

In the past when I have run workshops like this, I’ve run into a couple of problems:

  • People find it hard to come. Without a program, and without a set group of key speakers, they don’t have the usual ammunition to convince the powers-that-be to allow them to attend.
  • I’m always scared that people won’t come. Registration is always a bit of a nightmare. Nobody does it until the last minute. You need to deal with queries and cancellations. Because there is no payment involved, it is easy for people to cancel at the last minute.

This time, I found a way to effectively get rid of both those problems. Rather than run the whole thing myself, I turned it into a pyramid scheme. I outsourced it. I contacted the four best people that I knew and asked them to invite four of the best people that they knew. With five of us inviting four people each, we had a workshop of 25 people.

Together, the five of us became the ‘key participants’. That meant that my program immediately had five names on it. Five names that would give people a sense of what the workshop was about.

I wrote to the five key participants and asked them if there were topics that they need to have on the program. Effectively, the five of us each nominated one topic. These became the key themes of the workshop. Even though we still used the unconference system to organize the program, I was pretty confident that all of these themes would be covered in the discussion, as they were topics that the key participants really cared about.

All of a sudden, I had a program that people could really get enthusiastic about, and I had no worries that most of the people would turn up. Both of my key problems were taken care of, right at the outset. This is effectively how conference committees work, but on a very small scale.

There was still a niggling issue, though. My new process had turned the workshop had become an ‘invitation only’ affair. I couldn’t work out how to combine the idea of people inviting other people with an open invitation to attend. This meant that, when three people contacted me to ask if they could attend, I had to say ‘no’.

I think that I have worked out a way to do it better.

Next year I’ll offer the key participants a choice – they will still be only able to invite a limited number of people, but they can use one of those slots to invite someone they don’t know. We’ll put out a call for participation and the key participants can chose from the responses. This will give us a way to add back in some of the open, random goodness.

If that works, I think I’ll make one of the key participant slots available via an open call. We’ll see how we go.

Next year, Inger Mewburn has offered to host the Whisper Workshop at the Australian National University in Canberra. That sounds great to me. I’m not at all fazed by the idea of organizing a workshop 600+ kilometers away. This formula is so simple that I think that I could organize one of these gigs anywhere where I had a network and a venue.

This is something that you can do yourself. The recipe looks something like this.

  1. Choose four or five colleagues who share a common passion.
  2. Decide how many people each of you will invite.
  3. Book a venue that will comfortably hold that many people.
  4. Decide on a date.
  5. Invite people.
  6. Choose someone to keep people to time on the day.

It really is as simple as that. Simple and powerful.

Working together, your group will invite a lot more interesting people than you can attract if you are working alone.


  1. What a brilliant event! This sounds more like the small scale old fashioned ‘conferences’ I attended as an undergraduate student and Union rep, and then as a new academic decades ago. In those days there was virtually no funding or institutional incentives attached to conference attendance or giving papers. They were often bespoke events, sometimes crazy and disorganised (unlike your event) – but always energising! Good on you! Claire.


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