Rule 1: Spend as much time on logistics as on content
Most events run by amateurs are “amateur” because they fall down on details. They have a great idea, or a great speaker, but the event turns out mediocre because the sound system doesn’t work or because there’s no parking nearby. It’s more fun to focus on the big stuff, but getting the little stuff wrong will kill you just as dead as getting the big stuff wrong.
Now, it might seem like you need a lot of money to pull off professional logistics, but you can make up for a lot by investing time and effort in the details. Take A/V as an example. It helps to have the cash to pay experienced A/V people, but you can ensure things go smoothly by communicating with presenters well in advance about their tech requirements, arranging enough time for a thorough tech check before the audience arrives, setting up a simple back-up system, etc.
The best piece of advice I can give is to imagine your way through the event, blow-by-blow, examining each potential failure point and eliminating it if possible. For example: I was once helping organise an event with 3 performances and a party on a boat. To prepare for this complex event with extremely tight constraints, we worked our way through the day, taking detailed notes on actions, and circling back as necessary:
- First, we arrive at the boat to set up. How early can we arrive? We should check that with the boat operator. It should be at least 4 hours early. OK, X will check on that.
- Wait, what needs to be picked up before we go to the boat? How long will that take?
- OK, once we arrive at the boat, what should be set up first? Where will the performances be? What furniture is needed? What needs to be plugged in? How many plugs will we need? Do we need extension cords? How many? How long? What if you’re missing a piece of equipment?
- What if it rains? What if people are late? What if…..
We did this for several hours, weeding out problem and problem.
Next, imagine the event from the perspective of your different stakeholders. What will it be like for your presenter? Will they have rushed to the event from somewhere else? Are they likely to be hungry? If so, have some fruit or granola bars on hand. What about your sponsors? What do they want to get out of the event? This might lead you to remember that your closing remarks should include a special thank you for their support, or remind you that you need to plan a hanging mechanism for their banner.
One of the best ways to learn to do this is with someone else – preferably someone experienced. Get them to ask you critical questions.
And if you ever catch yourself using the words “I assume” then you have to stop right there and ask yourself what happens if the opposite of X happens. I learned this from the producer for a large festival, who drove me crazy by doing that again and again…. but it was the right thing to do. It’s especially useful in bringing out conflicts over who’s doing what when. For example, at a meeting:
Producer: Who’s picking up the speakers at the airport?
Jen: I assume that would be our shuttle as usual.
Producer: You assume? Who else has plans for the shuttle?
Other person: I’ve already booked it to be on call for the exhibition….
Jen: Uhhh…. right. I guess I’m booking some cars for the speakers….
After your event’s over, if you can’t see flaws in the execution then you are probably deluding yourself.
Rule 2: Spend an hour on promotion for each new attendee
This sounds insane, but it’s not.
It applies most when:
- Your event is new or changing. Well-established, successful events often have their own promotional momentum through word-of-mouth.
- You don’t have much cash to promote your event. If you can’t buy ads, you’re relying on friends, colleagues, social media and mailing lists. Suppose you want to promote your event on several mailing lists. For each one you have to find the right contact and craft an email for them, then respond to follow-up queries, often asking for specific formats. Most people won’t send your email out, so if you do this 10 times you might get your message on 3 mailing lists. Response rates are pretty low for such mail-outs. So, that’s an hour’s work for between 0 and a few people.
- Your event is unusual and needs explanation so that people “get” it. This means you have to tailor your messages for different recipients. “Film festival” is a concept people get across most societal and cultural boundaries. “Unconference” is not.
It’s not as important if:
- Your event caters directly to a well-defined group of people. “Well-defined” means you can communicate with them through a small number of effective avenues (e.g., their professional association).
- You’re offering something free that people normally pay for. “Free beer” does not require one hour per person.
Promotion is one of the most striking areas of delusion. First, people overestimate how well-known their organization is, how instantly interesting their event will be to large groups of people, how easy it is to understand, how good their promotional materials are. As a result they do way less promotion than is necessary.
Second, people tend to amazingly overestimate the number of people who actually show up. This is so prevalent it can cause serious disadvantages to people who report honestly. Very common: “the room holds 300, and it looked pretty full, so I’d guess there were 250 people there”. In fact, rooms look “pretty full” at 1/3 to 1/2 capacity. You have to actually count.
Third, it’s tempting to assume that the audience that comes is the one you want. But it’s rarely the case. For example, “public” lectures run at universities often have healthy attendance, but if you look at who’s actually attending, it is often mostly academics from other departments rather than people from outside the university. If the goal is to reach outside, people from inside shouldn’t count towards your attendance. You can easily make a very rough assessment of the audience demographics by (1) estimating the range of ages, genders, job-types, and so forth; and (2) by talking to random audience members before or after.
- Track the hours you spend on promotion, the number of emails you send, etc.
- Set up a registration site, even for a free event. The conversion between registrations and attendances can vary a lot, but if 0 people sign up, you’ll know you have a problem.
- Accurately measure your actual attendance and estimate the demographics that are relevant to your goal.
Rule 3: Every compromise lowers quality
Insidious compromises arise from conflicts of interest. You’re putting on a lecture about genetics. A university is providing the venue. They want you to feature their top geneticist, but your first choice is the founder of a local bio-tech start-up. You have a conflict between your desire to have the best speaker and your desire to appease your benefactor.
People succumb to these pressures way more than they think because they are usually subtle and easy to argue away: “Now I think of it, it’s better to have an academic rather than a business person because it’s more relevant to students.” I know that I have succumbed often, and I suspect there are even more instances that I don’t know about.
Other sources of such pressures include colleagues who want you to show their work, your own desire to include your friends, and unexamined assumptions (“such and such is famous, so he must be good”). Issues to watch for include anything to do with prestige, money, seniority, fairness (“it wouldn’t be fair to show X’s work without featuring Y’s work too”). Keywords to watch for are “ought” or “should”. You only say things like “we really should include such and such” when you’re reluctant for some reason. Often the reason is that you unconsciously realise that this is not in the best interests of your goal.
Don’t underestimate the importance of this. Anything that causes you to include certain people or topics for reasons that are not directly related to your goal will damage your event, even though each individual compromise may seem small. The best events are run by people who monomaniacally focus on their goal, and fight tooth and nail against anything that takes away from it.
Here’s some things that help guard against these problems:
- Be clear on the goal. If it’s a reading series to promote a publisher’s authors, fine. If it’s to bring the best writers to town, that’s different, and the two shouldn’t be mixed up, even if the publisher is paying.
- Be clear with the people who pay. They have the right to know what you’re offering them, and what you’re not. This helps you stay aware, too. The best idea is to be creative in finding mutual benefits. For example, a public lecture series I ran guaranteed a certain percentage of speakers would be from the university that was paying for it. I could do this while presenting the best speakers possible, because I knew that a fraction of the best people I could afford to bring would in fact be from the university.
- Cultivate a prickly attitude to content suggestions from people who have agendas. It doesn’t make you popular, but it helps bring the subtle, insidious pressures out in the open.
- If you have to capitulate, be extremely clear with yourself about the fact that you did so, and why. Tell your family or friends about it or write it in your diary. Cement it into a story so that you know exactly how it happened, and don’t delude yourself out of the recollection later.
Metarule for execution: Stop deluding yourself
You have to be insanely optimistic to start something big or new or creative. But when it comes to the execution, you have to be your own harshest critic. You have to shift from assuming difficulties can be overcome, to assuming everything will go wrong. You have to stop being excited about what’s good about your plan, and focus on how to fix what’s bad about it. That’s the only way you’ll pull off something that validates the insane optimism you started with.
This is the first in a series where I will be asking various people to share their 3 rules for doing something that they do well. This “3 Rules for X” heuristic was developed in conversation with Hassan Masum and Michael Nielsen, and formed the basis for a session Michael and I held at Sci Foo Camp in July 2010.