Friday, 13 December 2013

Organising or Attending an Event? How to get the most out of it...

By Hannah Corbett

I had a long wait in the cold to get into this year’s European Development Days in Brussels, a two day conference that brings together NGOs, political leaders, academics and bureaucrats from across the globe to talk international development. Essentially, the computer(s) said “no,” throwing the registration process into disarray. So I had some time on my hands to think about why people bother attending and organising events – over the years I’ve spent a lot of my time doing both.

Attending and organising events – the pitfalls

So from the glass half empty point of view, here’s some reasons why not to attend and organise events:
  • They’re expensive.
  • They’re not always the most effective way of reaching your target audience.
  • Everyone’s doing it – there’s so much going on (particularly if you work in the small world of development) it can be difficult in terms of choosing what to attend, and also organising something that people actually want to come to.
There is a risk that you can come away feeling that you’re no wiser, no better connected and frustrated at the lack of tangible progress.

But that’s enough of the negativity. There are plenty of positive reasons for attending and organising events, and they can prove invaluable in helping to achieve your communications, engagement and influencing objectives.  

How events can help you achieve your communications, engagement and influencing objectives

One of the high points of my event organising career was when one delegate, so inspired and motivated by the day’s proceedings, was moved to play the spoons on a colleague’s head. While I’m not advocating that spontaneous spoon playing becomes an indicator of success, here’s some tips (a lot of them common sense) I’ve picked up along the way to getting the most out of events – whether you’re a participant or an organiser.
  1. Fun – just because its ‘work’ it doesn't mean that you can’t interject the serious stuff (e.g. addressing global poverty) with something a little more light-hearted. Including activities such as ice breakers, speed-networking sessions or a bit of role play can pay dividends, and can also help people interact and look at things from a fresh perspective. Although I realise the words ‘role play’ or ‘networking’ can send shivers down the spine of many a conference attendee, try to put your preconceptions aside and get involved. It’s usually worth it.   
  2. Purpose - if you’re organising an event, make sure the purpose is clear. So you know what you’re trying to achieve and those attending know what they’re signing up to from the outset. Having a tangible event output such as an action plan or report can help. The same applies to attending events. Do your homework beforehand and have an idea about what you want to contribute or get out of it.
  3. Realism – achievable objectives are essential in making sure that people go away with a sense of the conversation having moved on. Building a new consensus for world peace in a day is going to be difficult but bringing relevant colleagues together to discuss how you might influence a specific governments contribution to a forthcoming international forum on peacebuilding will be much more achievable. 
  4. Interaction  - building momentum and discussion before, during and after the event is essential. Social media has made this a lot easier, and is critical in reaching out to audiences who won’t be able to attend in person. Live streaming, event hashtags, video contributions, Facebook polls and Storify are just some of the tools out there to help increase opportunities for interaction. It’s something we’re experimenting with at IDS – you can see an example of our recent Storify efforts around an event that we held with Bond at which Justine Greening spoke.
  5. Venue – boring but true, having the right venue with the right facilities, especially technical ones, is critical. This ensures people can spend more time listening and talking to each other rather wondering the corridors looking for Workshop A or staring at a blank live streaming screen.
  6. Format – getting the balance right is important, and it’s something I often grapple with in terms of putting together an event that a) communicates our latest research findings in an accessible and engaging way and b) allows enough time for the ‘so what?’ discussion. High profile key notes are always a draw (although can sometimes be a let-down in terms of hearing something new) but they need to be balanced out with more practical and interactive sessions. There’s nothing worse than being promised a day of interaction which in reality turns out to be a token 10 minute Q&A session stuck at the end of a series of complex and technical presentations. Refer back to point 1 – fun – extremely useful in trying to break things up and bring life to the notoriously difficult after lunch slot.
  7. Chair – a good chair, moderator, facilitator can make or break an event. And they need a good brief (same goes for all speakers) to help them make sure the event fulfils its aims and objectives.   
  8. Evaluation – asking people to provide feedback or taking five minutes to provide some constructive feedback (although try not to obsess about the quality of the mid-morning biscuits) is really important to enable organisers to improve the quality of their events moving forward. It also provides a valuable opportunity for participants to reflect on what they took away from the event and what they might have done differently.
  9. Opportunism – the great thing about events – whether you’re organising them or attending them – is they provide endless opportunities. Inviting people who you want to engage with to speak, putting a copy of your latest policy briefing under the nose of the relevant minister who just happens to be on a panel, signposting people to your latest work through a tweet using the conference hashtag…it’s a potential gold mine. You just need to have an open mind and an eagle eye.
But these are just some of my thoughts. Often organising events can be quite a lonely task especially if you’re the only person in your organisation or team doing it, so it would be great to hear from others about their event triumphs, nightmares, challenges, solutions, spoon playing anecdotes, and top tips for success. 

Hannah Corbett is Public Affairs and Policy Officer with the Institute of Development Studies.

For a related post about managing events and discussions, see: