Today I’m finishing up a three-day youth leadership event. I did not plan the event but helped facilitate six young adults who were workshop assistants and presenters. Since I spend the time as both a participant and a presenter I want to share some thoughts that can help you plan an event that your attendees evaluate highly!
Typically when I’m involved with planning a conference I consider the following things:
- Registration – Open or Application; Online and/or Paper
- Medical & Media Release Forms
- Format & Schedule – i.e. Plenary, Workshops, etc.
- Speakers – Invitation, Availability, Bios, etc.
- Technology – i.e. Website, Facebook, Twitter, Streaming, Video/Audio recording, etc.
- PR/Marketing – i.e. Press Release, Media Advisory, Interviews, E-Alerts, etc.
- Evaluation – Web and/or Paper
- Conference, Workshop, Speakers, Amenities
- Transportation & Lodging
While this list is not exhaustive, if you plan things out properly you are more likely to get positive evaluations. The best way to ensure this happens is by
1) Address an important topic in an innovative way.
As a person who attends and presents at all types of conferences, I complete ALL my evaluations! I want you to know how I felt when I left your event. As an attendee I can say most conferences are boring. The information is usually good but generally speaking, most conferences I attend are not interactive, they are too long and they do not incorporate new ways of thinking or doing. As an attendee I expect to leave a conference informed but I want to leave there motivated. Trust me, there is a real difference between the two! Leave the lectures behind and start using data, dialogue, personal stories (case studies), and technology. Apply the principle – educate others as you would have like to have been educated! In order to leave motivated, an attendee needs to feel engaged, validated and empowered. Don’t forget to bring some hands-on tools or resources that attendees can use.
2) Give yourself adequate time to plan.
A good conference cannot be planned in a few weeks. If you know you are working with a skeletal staff or volunteer staff, you need to give yourself several time to get things going. Lead time for larger, multi-day conferences can take up to a year to plan. Small-one day conferences can be planned in several months. Still, the more time you give yourself the more likely you are to identify potential challenges and create effective solutions. Any seasoned expert will tell you that your plans never go exactly as you envisioned. This means that when you construct your run-of-show (yes, you should have a timeline that includes roles and responsibilities), you should also have a backup plan and point people. Doing so will help eliminate the panic that often sets in when the first snafu unfolds.
3) Develop a working host committee.
Try to pull together a team of volunteers who will work with you to make your conference a success. They should be people who are passionate about your issue. Include people from all aspects of the issue – those directly impacted, those providing services, those who advocate around the issue, etc. Some groups pursue high-profile people to serve on their planning committee. Usually these people are very busy and have little extra time to assist with the nuts and bolts of conference planning. Passion is more important than fame. Be strategic and think of people that you know are committed to the issue your conference is addressing. Trust me, they are out there. You can always use your high-profile people to serve as honorary chairs or keynote speakers. Give everyone a role.
4. Promote your evaluation from the start.
Never wait until the last session to tell your attendees about the evaluation process. From the time the attendees register you should highlight the importance of their responses. Reassure them that their comments will be used for future planning. While most conferences ask you to complete an evaluation, input from the conference planners is sometimes overlooked. It is vitally important to incorporate the feedback from planners and presenters into your next event. Finally, give them multiple ways of submitting the information – paper, online, email. One multi-day conference I attended asked you to complete an evaluation at the end of each day to ensure you did not forget to submit feedback. Another conference distributed their toolkit only after they had received your evaluation form. Of course my favorite was the conference that held a raffle for the first one hundred participants who completed an evaluation form!
No matter how you market the process, focusing on these three areas will be key to your conference receiving positive evaluations from both attendees and presenters.