How to produce a public event

10 December 2014
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

This is not a subject I am necessarily an technical expert on. But I have been to enough events to know when one is going to turn out to be a waste of everyone’s time (and the funders’ money). Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been to quite a few such events as part of the COP20, taking place in Lima. Like never before, the public events agenda in Lima has been full. Climate change (and more generally the world of natural resources and the environment) is not a topic I tend to follow much but many friends and colleagues work in it and so I think I am sufficiently well informed to attend and understand (and enjoy) a public meeting on it. This is hard, however, when little attention is given to the production of the event. And this gave me the idea to write a blog post on how to produce a great public event.

If you are interested in evaluating the impact of your events read this excellent article by Caroline Cassidy.

A typical think tank public event

More often than not, think tanks allocate most of their effort to finding the right speakers. Too often, this means that they go for big names rather than great public speakers. Too often, as well, this means all-male panels. Once the speakers have been lined up, think tanks then focus their attention on protocol. Protocol, if you ask me, is the number one cause of boring events. It is not uncommon to sit through 3 or 4 speakers welcoming the participants and thanking the panel (and the funders) before the actual event gets to start. I once sat through 45 minutes of welcoming remarks before the first researcher (for whose work we had all gathered) got a chance to speak. And she only had a 30 minutes presentation. I remember having a conversation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Peru about this. They had asked me for some advice on improving the events a new think tank they had set up and I suggested that they should do away with protocol. (Silence.) It is not that their events were complete failures, it was that they failed to take full advantage of the opportunity. The focus of their efforts were on making sure the speakers felt extra-special by including unnecessary people in the event’s party, spending an unnecessary amount of time introducing them, arranging the room (and the panelists’ table) as if it where “the event of the year”, etc. A not insignificant amount of effort also goes into inviting people directly, by phone, letter or a personalised email. I understand that this is necessary for some people in some countries but it is increasingly harder to defend. Tools like Eventbrite make this process so much easier and everyone is able to follow basic instruction. In fact, COP20 has used it rather well. Also, this approach of direct invitation is sometimes intended to exclude people from the events. This may work in some cases but it is increasingly going to be challenged and challenging to sustain a full agenda of private events. If think tanks are dealing with issues of public interest then they ought to be public, themselves. The events themselves tend to be led by the project cycle (a project is over and it is time to launch the final report), the visit of an esteemed and well-known scholar, a celebration, the publication of a book, etc. As a consequence, at the time of the event, this is what the participants tend to experience:

  • There are many precious minutes wasted in welcoming remarks and introductions
  • The speakers/panelists talk about their work in a way that is unrelated to each other’s presentations. They use completely different presentation styles and tools (some use Power Point, others talk without any support, others read from a script).
  • If there is a keynote speaker then it is quite normal to expect the unexpected -he or she may go on a complete tangent
  • They often talk well beyond the time that was allocated to them. And then, with little or no time for questions, participants are all dismissed. If there is time for questions, they are just as unrelated to the focus of the event. Often they are cut short by the moderator weary of time and concerned that the speakers may be made to feel uncomfortable.
  • There is often a nice spread and, if it is an evening affair, even some wine. If it is early in the morning, there is likely to be breakfast, and if it is a lunch time meeting, well, lunch is served.
  • Most documentation or supporting materials available tend to be old publications. The events are often intended to launch a report or a book which is not yet for public consumption or is only available for purchase.
  • The event report is rarely ready within days and it is hard to get hold of the presentations or publications shared.

This is not to say that these events cannot turn out to be excellent. A great speaker can save the day. And even if the event has not been properly produced it is possible that the structure of the  event helps to saves the day. But I think that this leaves too much to chance. Events are an excellent communication channel for a think tank. They can help bring together all the content generated in a project (or programme) but are also an excellent opportunity to generate new content.

A think tank event with production value

I take my hat off to Liam Sollis (and the comms team) who presided over an incredible number of public events at ODI when I worked there. He, supported by a very competent communications team, often managed to organise more than one even per day. In fact, go ahead and check out ODI’s event’s page: There were 7 events in November alone. This should not be impossible for any think tank, even small ones where there aren’t dedicated events managers or even communications staff. A public event at a British think tank is not what people tend to expect. They are not laden with protocol. They are not soaked in tradition (maybe with some exceptions but even then it is not taken too seriously -except for Chatham House Rule). And they are more often than not, quite fun. They are a form of entertainment (a play or a movie) for the policy-research community. I should note that tradition is not necessarily a bad thing either. The Mesa Verde model at IEP in Peru provides a sense of ease and is inviting to a conversation. Tradition, here, like ceremonial rites, can help to encourage an active participation. Producing (I take this notion from the Battle of Ideas approach to events) an event demands a different approach to their organisation. Here are some tips:

Assume you do not have any cash to spend

Before I get into the detail of the event let me suggest a good mental exercise to guide us through the process. I expect that a first response to my tips will be: this is too expensive. Let me suggest, instead, that it doesn’t need to be. You definitely need people. One full time person in charge of events if you are planning to organise lots of events every week. But if not, each researcher could act as producer of their own events (or even delegate to their assistants). Everything else:

  • Venue: If you have space in your centre to sit 40- 50 people then that is enough and it should be free. Do not judge your event by the number of people who show up -many in fact could follow online. If you don’t, then before you go out looking for hotels, ask other think tanks and NGOs if they’d lend you their venues in exchange for participating in your events. Ask your funders, too, they often have large meeting spaces and they are not going to charge you to use them. Universities, as well, have empty classrooms that you could use. A local coffee shop could be a great location to convene people -and they may let you use it for free after hours in exchange for some ‘publicity’.
  • Catering: Water, coffee, tea, soft-drinks, and biscuits is all you should be expected to provide. The chances are that you are a charity and, in my view, you should not be spending money in fancy buffets or drinks. You can buy decent coffee, soft-drink and biscuits/nuts for less that USD50 at a local supermarket; and that will probably be enough for a few events, in fact.
  • Technology: Nobody expects a think tank to broadcast at TV station quality. Your web-cam will do if you want to stream the event; your phone’s camera will do for short videos and photos. If you have better equipment then by al means use it; or borrow it.
  • Publications: Don’t print if you do not have to. Give people a link to download the publications from (the event’s page) or print on demand. Or just print some of the key publications you want to share. But print in black and white, only. USD50 for printing should be more than enough.
  • Useful materials: What may be useful to print and few do, however, is a list of those attending (or who signed up to attend) -this is what Eventbrite is useful for. People will want to be able to approach each other while they are there. But again, this should not be expensive and could be included as part of the USD50 for publications.
  • Additional support staff: Work with who you have. Researchers (from the most junior to the most senior) should be able to help people to their seats -actually, you should not have to help people to their seats at a think tank event. Setting up the room should be easy, too. There is no reason why a researcher cannot spare 5 minutes of his/her day arranging chairs and tables.
  • Invitations: Tools like Eventbrite should be enough to manage your invites, registration, and communication with the participants. If you need to send some invites in the post the cost should be negligible.

What about pens, notebooks, folders, and a brochures, you may ask. My advice is that you don’t produce any of this. And in any case, your should not dismiss the possibility of getting sponsors for your events.

Get the argument first; then the speakers

Whereas the typical event tends to put the speaker at the centre of the event, a ‘produced event’ puts the argument or the idea at the centre. The speakers/panelists are there to help tell a story; not the other way around. The first thing that an event producer (a communications officer or a researcher or administrator in charge of the event) needs to have is the key argument or idea that is going to be presented. This is not something that we tend to think much about. We are usually satisfied with knowing what the topic is; but that is not enough. When discussing the argument to be presented, of course, you’ll have to ask about the audience for the event. This is even more important than the speaker, in my view (more on this below). Now, when choosing the speakers you should take some of the following things into consideration:

  1. Are they good public speakers? If they are not but their ideas are central to your event then maybe you could use their research to frame the session or share their work during the event. You may also want to give them a role as a moderator or a commentator. Do not force them onto your audience just for the sake of having their name on the billboard. Your audience will always remember if the event was interesting (whoever the speaker) or of the speaker was a bore (whatever the message).
  2. Will they all talk from the same perspective? You do not want this. You want to have speakers who arrive at a subject from different points of view. Get a policymaker, a researcher, a journalist, and a practitioner; a civil servant, an entrepreneur, and an NGO activist; etc.
  3. Are they all men? Are they all privately educated? … you get the point. Mix it up because your audience is likely to be just as heterogenous.
  4. More is not better: 3 or 4 speakers is enough for a 1.5-2 hour event. 1.5-2 hours is enough, too.
  5. Are they the right speakers for your event’s audience? Don’t assume that everyone trusts your favourite researchers or experts. Different groups ‘look up’ to different people and they award legitimacy to different organisations.

Make the speakers talk to each other: make them tell a memorable story

There is nothing worse that listening to 3 or 4 presentations that all say pretty much the same thing (even use the same data and references). Or, maybe, it is worse when not a single one of the 4 presentations relates to any of the others. It is the responsibility of the producer to work with the speakers/panelists to make sure that they (and their ideas) engage with one another. This does not mean that everyone should meet before hand -who has time for that? But there are other ways to do this:

  1. Make sure they all answer the same 1, 2 or 3 questions. The producer can ask the speakers to answer the same questions in their presentations. This way, the audience will get three or four different views on the same issues. You could think of a good news programme where an event or story is analysed by the political editor and the economics editor separately, and then brought together by the host.
  2. Ask them to address different parts of the story. For example, one speaker could talk about the origin of an idea, while the others can talk about how it was implemented in different contexts.
  3. Give them very specific guidelines about their presentations. Do not be afraid of telling them what you want them to say. Most speakers/panelists would welcome this input because it is always a struggle to second-guess who will be in the audience, what the organisers what one to say, etc. Clarify the format, the length of the presentations (e.g. 1 slide per question, more pictures and fewer words, etc.), describe the audience in detail, explain what you want to get out of the event, etc.
  4. Make sure you get the presentations before the event -alongside with any other accompanying materials so that you can upload them to the website as soon as the event is over (o, better yet, before).

If you want to make the speakers/panelists happy, forget about unnecessary welcoming remarks, drinks or special attentions; simply give them the chance to participate in an interesting and engaging public event. This is more important than all the protocol you could throw at them. They have enough of it in their every day life, anyway.

Do not forget about the moderator

Great moderators are hard to find. Think tanks should pay attention to this and make sure that they have a small but reliable group of moderators to draw from for their events. Moderators do not need to be subject matter experts but it helps that they are sufficiently versed in the issues being discussed. Heads of communications tend to make excellent moderators as they are often aware of most of the research done in the organisation, and understand communications. Most importantly, moderators need to be good at conversation. Events are just that: a public conversation. But the conversation is not just between the speakers. The conversation is between the speakers and between the speakers and the audience. A good moderator will:

  1. Make sure the argument/idea is clear for everyone throughout the event.
  2. Keep the speakers/panelists on message
  3. Keep time without any shame of telling the key-note speaker off if he or she takes longer than planned.
  4. Understand the audience and actively engage with it and incorporate participants’ views into the discussion.

The moderator and the producer should work together in the production of the event. Showing-up at the last minute won’t do.

The audience is more important than the speakers/panelists

I want to reinforce this point. Your audience is more important than anyone else in the room. They are the reason your think tank exists. You must excite them with great ideas; you must entertain them. You may think that a think tank is not there to “entertain” but that is exactly what they are there for. When you read The Economist or a great academic paper you are also seeking entertainment. When you watch a great documentary, the same. When you choose to go to an event you do so because you expect to have a good time. And you will judge that by whether or not you found the event interesting and engaging. There are a few things you can do to make your audience feel special:

  1. Provide them with as much up-font information as possible. Don’t tell them that you will let them read the report when it is done “in a few weeks.” If they are suffering the mid-day traffic or staying out late before going home at night to go to your event then make sure they get the report and the presentations before they get there or at the event.
  2. Don’t make them feel “less than” the panel. For example, don’t sit the panel on a raised-stage, don’t separate the panel and the audience by a large gap between them, leave plenty of time for questions, etc.
  3. Let them ask questions and share their own views. In my experience, unfortunately, there is nothing think tanks dislike more than an audience member that challenges a speaker (who they see as their guests). But that is precisely the point of a public event. Events’ producers and their moderators should make sure that the time dedicated for Q&A is sacred. It must not be eaten up by the speakers. Also, please let people ask questions directly; asking them to write them on piece of paper suggests that someone else can decide whether their question is worth being asked or not. This is not in the spirit of public events.
  4. Report back right away. Few think tanks do this but ODI had (and I guess it still has) a 48-hour rule for reporting back. Now that all events can be webstreamed and immediately uploaded this can be relaxed a bit. But I would argue that 72 hours, provided that the video is up a few minutes after the event is over, is OK.

Contrary to popular belief, a generous spread, fancy coffee, wine and other expensive ‘extras’ are not valued as much as an interesting discussion. And if food is the reason why people attend your events, well, you certainly have another problem to deal with.

An event brings everything together; and is a great launching pad for more

Another piece of advice is that one should never forget that an event is a great convener, not just of people, but also of other research and communication efforts. Events are a perfect opportunity to:

  1. Share everything that has been produced thus far:
    1. Publications should be on the event’s website and, if this is the think tank’s policy, printed out and handed over at the event
    2. The event’s website should include all digital content generated so far
    3. It should be linked to past events (and even events by other think tanks in which the idea has been discussed)
  2. Generate new content by:
    1. Web-streaming (to upload right away) and recording (to produce short films later on) the event
    2. Filming the speakers and the participants to produce short clips (e.g. talking heads)
    3. Tweeting, tweeting, and tweeting and encouraging others to tweet (using a predefined hashtag), too
    4. Collecting and sharing the presentations
    5. Producing blog posts or opinion pieces on the event or on each of the presentations (they do not need to be long)
    6. Registering new contacts for future research and dissemination efforts.
    7. Producing an Event Report; or an Event Series Report if the event is part of a series.

If planned properly, none of this is extra work. It is simply a case of making public what is going to happen anyway.

A series is better than a single event

Finally, a series is better than one-off events. Few think tanks think beyond a single event or a project completion event. It is not hard, however, to turn a single event into a series:

  1. Link-up existing events with a common theme. You could put together a series by looking back at events that have already been staged. Look, for example, for events on or around a given topic that the think tank has organised over the last year or two. Then add a label: “The future of agriculture series,” for instance, to each event (and tag them accordingly).
  2. Link-up existing events without an obvious common theme. You could also create your own connections. You could create a series out of events that focus on a particular group of the population or that relate to a certain research approach.
  3. Break-up a long event. I was invited to a rather long event the other day. It was scheduled for the whole morning and there were 3, 1.5h to 2 hour, sessions. Instead of trying to keep everyone focused for about 6 hours early one morning, the think tank could have organised a series of three events over a period of three weeks. Breaking up an event also lets you focus on different aspects of a problem or solutions. It makes it possible to reach different audiences, too: day 1 could be targeted at technical experts, day 2 at policymakers, and day 3 at the general public.

An event series is better than one-off events for several reasons:

  1. They help you to keep an issue on the agenda for longer. An event can get an issue on the agendas of those who participate. But it will soon be replaced by the issues or ideas presented in the next event in the policy calendar. Well, what if the next event is also ‘your’ event?
  2. They help to tell complex stories. Think tanks often complain that new forms of communication do not work well with complex arguments. Well, one event is unlikely to be the best way of communicating a complex argument. But 3 or 4 might.
  3. It builds up momentum: If the argument is a new one (and it is likely to draw attention and criticism) you want people to have time to digest it. You want to give them the chance to go home, think about it, come up with good questions and comments, and come back to engage with your argument. Cramming everything into a single event can reduce the quality of the conversation, rather than improve it.
  4. They help get funding. Funders, especially corporate funders, are more likely to sponsor a series of events than a single event. They will recognise that a series increases the exposure of their ‘brand’ and the potential for impact.

One more idea: you do not have to be the centre of attention

Think tanks do not have much of a problem hosting guest speakers from abroad. In fact, they tend to seek them out. It gives them an extra bit of legitimacy. But they are not too keen about hosting their intellectual competition, unless they are there to play supportive or secondary roles to their ideas. This, I think, is not always a good idea. A think tanks does not just want to be the source of good ideas. It wants to be the place where good ideas go to be debated. So hosting others to present their ideas, even if they are your local competitors can be an advantage to your think tank. Your can include them as part of a series, for example.

Are there any great events you have been to lately? Please share your views, videos or photos on them.