Organising an Event that is NOT a Waste of Time
This article first appeared in Business Times on 13 March 2020
Organising an Event that is NOT a Waste of Time
By John Bittleston, Terrific Mentors International
Everyone has attended an event – from a cosy tête-a-tête to discuss a looming project, to large seminars where thousands gather to hear industry gurus speak. These are the places to make the right connections, receive latest updates, to see and be seen.
However, over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed audiences for such events are changing – in their willingness to attend, as well as expectations and response when they do turn up. This is not surprising. Most do not want to risk wasting an evening of possibly disastrous boredom, when a skim of the internet or browsing through LinkedIn could provide the information and networks required. Time is, as it always has been, our most valuable asset.
But we are social beings, and attending a get-together is something most people enjoy. I’ve made new contacts, re-established links with old friends and made some of my most successful hires (sometimes on the spot) while attending random gatherings. On the flip side, I’ve also been to events that were a complete waste of time – where the speakers rambled on without any direction and the discussion dried up 20 minutes ahead of schedule – the audience showed no interest in asking questions. Such a fiasco could have been easily avoided if the facilitator had met the panel thirty minutes before they went on stage to discuss what they would talk about – with clear time limits. The organisers could also have planted a few thought-provoking questions amongst the audience. A little planning goes a long way.
What type of planning ensures a successful event instead of a flop? How can organisers ensure their event is not going to be a waste of time? Given the current COVID-19 situation, what needs to be done organise a virtual event?
Purpose and Priorities
The first thing to decide is the purpose of the event. All subsequent planning depends on this purpose. Common purposes include:
• Providing new ideas and approaches that help participants become more effective
• Sharing information on the latest research
• Promoting new technologies, solutions, products and services
• Inspiring and motivating the audience
• A mix of all of the above
If you have multiple purposes for your event, prioritise them. Sometimes, different purposes can be in conflict with each other, so prioritising them helps you understand which to focus on first. Typically, each purpose comes with a few challenges you need to address. Listing them helps you to see what needs to be done, in order to achieve the event’s purpose. Furthermore, once you’ve achieved the first priority, the rest of the event management will fall into place.
As an example, Terrific Mentors International organises an annual Drink & Think event, which has two purposes. The “Drink” part of the event is for social networking amongst our contacts, who include a myriad of individuals, from business people to academics, entrepreneurs and civil servants. And the “Think” part of the event is for participants to discuss an interesting current affairs topic, led by a relevant Guest of Honour. While both these purposes are important, needless to say, we prioritise “Think” over “Drink”, as we want to get our participants’ brain cells working. This is why when organising this event, our first challenge is to get the right Guest of Honour – someone who is not only well-respected and knowledgeable, but is also thought-provoking and able to stimulate the guests. Once the Guest of Honour has accepted our invitation, we work together with him or her, to select a suitable topic that has a wide appeal. In the past, we have covered topics such as environmental issues, business ethics, social media, Trumpian politics, and the technology of business. The speaker and topic usually help to attract our participants and this strategy has ensured we’ve had a full house every year.
Divide and Conquer
Organising an event is a team effort, so assemble one with the right event management experience. I find it useful to put one person in charge of each of the key areas in organising the event. Depending on the scale of the event, this individual could be supported by other colleagues. By looking through your list of priorities, it should be clear what are the key areas of your event. Then have regular team meetings (monthly, fortnightly or weekly, depending on the scale of your event) to provide updates on what has been accomplished and what still needs to be achieved. Collaborating with the team is easily done via emails, messaging apps or shared documents in the cloud.
For our Drink & Think, we usually aim to fix the Guest of Honour (GoH) and topic first. Our first team meeting involves brainstorming suitable GoH and possible topics. As I have a wide range of contacts, I usually handle securing the GoH, who then makes the final decision as to what s/he would like to talk about. I then assign different team members to handle invitations and registrations, managing the event venue and layout, catering and liaising with various suppliers (for sound system, videography/ photography).
With governments around the world currently advising people to stay away from large gatherings due to the coronavirus, more organisers are turning to virtual events. Virtual events have other advantages, including significant cost savings (for both participants in terms of travel and accommodation costs and organisers in terms of costs linked to venue rental, catering, administration and logistics). When organising a virtual event, the other advice in this article still apply, such as deciding the purpose and priorities or setting up a team to manage the event. In addition, other considerations are required for organising a virtual event, including:
– Define the format of your virtual event, which could be a seminar with one person taking the stage, which is webcast to the audience or a more hands-on, experiential workshop. The format will likely depend on your earlier identified purpose and priorities
– Your organising team requires a technical expert, who is able to set up the software and network infrastructure capabilities, to meet your virtual needs, including live streaming, multi-party video conferencing, webcasting, real-time Q&A and other engagement tools using smart-phones
– Experienced facilitators, who not only are familiar with the topic, but can also deal with spur-of-the-moment problems, such as handling lag, covering for a late speaker, fielding an unexpected question and engaging with a virtual audience.
– Selecting a time and date that suits your audience is particularly important for those events that will be live-streamed. Check that your virtual event does not clash with another relevant event and make sure the time is appropriate depending on the time-zone of the majority of your audience.
– Engage your audience. As a virtual audience can log off at any time, virtual events need to find a way to keep the audience interested. Talks need to be short and focused, with speakers have significant stage-presence.
Once the event has concluded, it is not yet time for organisers to heave a sigh of relief and take a break until planning for the next occasion starts. Gathering feedback while the event is still fresh in everyone’s mind is critical. Feedback should come first from the organising team. Hold a debriefing meeting within two weeks of go over what worked well, and more importantly, what didn’t. For items that didn’t go so smoothly, explore what could have been done to ensure it worked better. Make sure minutes are taken, so that everyone knows what to do next time.
The second feedback should come from the participants. For small events, like our Drink & Think, where we have 100-120 close contacts attending, this feedback is usually informal, consisting of emails, phone calls or messages from participants telling us what they enjoyed (or in rare cases what they didn’t like) about the event. For larger events, a survey will gather attendees’ feedback. This could be a physical survey, put in their conference welcome pack, or an online survey emailed the day after the event. Members of the organising team should also chat to attendees during the event, soliciting direct feed and checking what could be done to improve their experience.
The first time you organise an event is usually the most difficult, so if you have time on your side, start your planning early. Subsequent events can then look at the timeline and challenges of the first event, to rectify any mistakes. And as the mistakes get fewer, your attendees will thank you for that.