Prior to joining the National Convergence Technology Center (CTC) to help manage its special events and meetings, I spent several years helping organize educational seminars for UCLA Extension. Out there in California, most of my event attendees were international executives from Asia in black suits learning about marketing and media rather than professors from America in jeans learning about IT and convergence. But it’s been interesting to note that what I learned (the hard way, at times) at UCLA about planning a successful event I apply all the time here at Collin College. No matter the audience or event or topic, the challenges and strategies remain the same.
My colleagues and I at UCLA Extension eventually developed a seven-point “manifesto” that we thumbtacked to a bulletin board. We tried to boil everything down into just a few pithy phrases that we would invoke as we were planning and running our events.
1. Manage the expectation gap
Attendees will come to events with certain expectations. And your event will have certain limitations. The gap between what they think you will do and what you can (or will) do can undermine your event’s success. You don’t want your attendees – or your instructors and event partners, for that matter – complaining and grumbling. And so you must be proactive and think through the event from the perspective of everyone else. What will they want? What will they need? What will they expect? Try to anticipate problems. Be clear with your group in advance on what will happen, what you can and cannot deliver, and what everyone can expect.
2. The first day theory
It’s essential that the first day of your event go smoothly. Once you’ve “proven” to your attendees (who sometimes come to an event with arms crossed and a “show me this is going to be worth my time” attitude) that you know what you’re doing and that everything is well-planned, they will relax and have a good time. It’s all about instilling confidence. Too many times, I’ve had a big logistical problem on the first day (a late instructor, a bus going to the wrong place, a faulty AV set-up) that’s spoiled an entire week. The attendees sensed the program wasn’t organized, became convinced the whole thing was going to be mess, and started looking for things to prove their assessment correct. Put another way, groups will be far more forgiving if something goes sideways on day four rather than day one.
3. Smiles, everyone, smiles
This one is a customer service basic. I always think of Mr. Roarke on the old ABC show “Fantasy Island,” fruity cocktail raised, lei around his neck. No matter what fires may be raging behind the scenes with dead laptops or missing instructors or misprinted handouts, don’t let your attendees know. On the outside, remain calm, cool, and collected. There’s nothing you can’t handle. Your smile will reassure those around you. Freaking out in front of your attendees will just ratchet up everyone’s anxiety, which will only add to your own anxiety.
4. Why double-check when you can triple-check?
There’s a certain obsessive-compulsive streak any good event planner must have. It’s always good to double-check certain elements to make sure everyone is on the same page and to avoid problems before they happen. This might mean double-checking to be sure the caterers know the delivery time, the instructor knows where to go, or the classrooms are all still properly reserved. But in certain situations, it’s also a good idea to triple-check. I often send one final foolproof confirmation e-mail a day or so before the event to all involved parties to be sure everyone knows what they’re doing when and where.
5. It’s the presentation, stupid
This should probably be a corollary to rule #3 above. Appearance is everything. From the appearance of the staff to the format of handouts, event attendees crave a professional atmosphere. They want to feel like you’re in control, every detail’s been considered, and they can just sit back and enjoy the event. So make everything look good. Dress nicely. Hide the AV cables. Make the handouts and PowerPoints uniform and easy to read. Straighten the chairs before everyone arrives. Take a moment to properly arrange the catering (you are using a tablecloth, right?). Remember that the most amazing event can be undermined by a poor, sloppy presentation.
6. Assume nothing
This one’s easy. Make no assumptions about anything. If you’re ever unsure of some detail or element, ask. If you ever suspect a message hasn’t been received, send it again. Close the loop. Don’t assume your colleague will bring the extension cord, that the caterers included serving spoons, that your attendees know where to park, that the laptop will work with the classroom projector, that the bus knows where to drop everyone off, that your instructor knows what time he has to be in the room. This will require a degree of suspicion and paranoia on your part, a sense that no one can be trusted. That’s okay. Embrace it. It will make your life easier during the event.
7. Instructors cannot wing it
At UCLA, most of our guest speakers weren’t teachers; they were industry professionals we’d bring in to talk to the attendees about their perspective on the industry or about their company’s business model. More than once, though, some executive figured he could just walk in, sit down, take a few questions, and talk off the top of his head. It was always a complete disaster. Here at the CTC, thankfully, we use speakers and instructors with lots of lecture experience, but the point remains: speakers should never think they can improvise. They must prepare. (Ideally, this means they send you an outline, handout, or PowerPoint in advance, although in practice this doesn’t always happen.) Attendees rightfully expect organized, focused, detailed presentations, not extemporaneous rambling.
Would some of these rules be effective in the classroom? What lessons have you learned the hard way in planning events? Do you have a “manifesto” item of your own?