Excellent Events with The Design Dozen: Twelve prompts for perfect conference planning

You may know the alliteration attributed to the military: "Prior Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance".  

Taking the spirit of those six P words, here is a checklist with double the number of Ps. Each idea is a practical prompt for use with any group* designing a conference or large event. They can even be used as a personal aide memoire when organising a smaller meeting or workshop. They can be addressed in any order.

1. Personal preferences: Think of great large events you have been to (from festivals and weddings to work ones)…what made them special? This thinking limbers you up, broadens your perspective, gives you ideas for answering the other Ps - and coming up with the answers and sharing them with each other is always fun! 

2. Past: What is the context, history and story-so-far for this meeting? Recalling what has happened before and what people coming will have been told - and will probably be assuming - is important, and easily forgotten.

3. Purpose: questions, aims, outcomes….what is the unique purpose? Being clear on the task of the meeting helps focus all subsequent planning - and ensures a match of expectations in all communication.

4. Potential risks: What possible problems might there be…where might it go horribly, horribly wrong? Surfacing fears and even nightmares (as well as hopes in P3) is useful, cathartic - and bizarrely enjoyable.  

5. Pre-ordained: What is given by any leaders…what is non-negotiable? What must you do (or not to do)? What is your freedom to decide as an event organiser or design team? Also, how will those that have commissioned the meeting judge Return on Investment (ROI)?

6. People: Thinking of participants, who is coming (or who would you like to come)?  What are the best ways to communicate with them - social media, email, post etc?  How affordable will the event be? Even 'free' sessions have a cost in terms of time and travel.

7. Place: What is the venue, date, day of the week…what are the logistical options, costs and fixed points? How can you work around what you have if not ideal? You may have had to compromise the month or day of the week to get your preferred venue. See this for seating and other options.

8. Pre–work: How will you link with people in advance? What sort of survey, interviews or vox pop would research the range of opinion efficiently and clearly? How will you use this insight?  How will you share it with those coming?  Do you need to do more work searching for speakers, consultants, a better venue and thinking of how you use social and other media? Are there things you want everyone to have read, watched or considered in advance?

9. Principles: What is the preferred style of the event? How much of the meeting should be familiar – and how fresh would you like the experience to be? What is the degree of fixed structure and/or open flexibility you are looking to provide?

10. Process: Only now come to planning the agenda, including online elements.  Do resist the urge to jump to here at the start! In my experience, there is so much that design teams members have experienced or can imagine. The usual problem is deciding what not to do, not discovering some bright, shiny new thing. There are loads of things you can read online to give you ideas, for example. I enjoy working with groups to agree the best blend of experiences, including: various seating options such as cafe/cabaret/theatre; different speaking formats (plenary, pecha kucha, TED, soapbox); various ways to promote interaction (voting, video, self suggested sessions, parallel meetings) etc.

11. Practice: What new elements are important to rehearse; are there any speakers to prep? This is often overlooked. Doing this simply adds an easy 10% to the positive ratings of a day.

12. Post-event: What sort of record, gift or keeping in-touch strategy do you want…plan this from the start (like how the best hospitals plan discharge – from the moment someone knows they will need to be admitted!). How will you evaluate the meeting? When will you meet to review? How will judge the ROI and log the 'lessons learnt' for next time?

This Design Dozen will help you juggle three important things: the views of those commissioning or underwriting the event, the wishes of those coming and the opportunities and limitations of any venue.

Other 'Ps' can be added! For example, if you or the design team are hosting sessions or facilitating activities, do check the Personal Skills and Experience within the group. This assessment might be of use.

*  I am a big fan of design teams. If you get this first step right, then delivering a well evaluated large meeting is a cinch. I find them invaluable, especially when they represent a diversity of perspectives: senior, junior, different functions, enthusiasts…and also cynics. Their role is to work in the space between what is ‘pre-ordained’ by the sponsoring leader and make the best recommendations/decisions to improve the experience of the group that will meet in the chosen venue (or online space).  A great way to kick-off the planning process is to book a meeting for a couple of hours with this ‘max-mix’ group.  At the meeting, ask: what are the best meetings we have ever been to and why; if this meeting goes really well what will happen; if it fails miserably why might that be? If you are planning an event for a group that has regular meetings, it is worth reviewing the last or previous meetings with the After Action Review or the six thinking hats (page 15 here). You can then carry on working through the 12Ps - at this and all subsequent meetings…


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