Foo session: Event organizer self help group

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First thing Saturday morning I ran an intimate little meta-session, the not-so-serious Event Organizer Self Help Group. We were a small, but wow, what a group: Maker Faire producer Louise Glasgow, O’Reilly’s own Julie Steele and Sharon Cordesse, William Etundi Jr of Artists Wanted as well XOXO organizer Andy Baio. Combined, there was a tremendously deep knowledge of the ins and outs of putting together kick-ass events.

Instead of re-hashing the session, let me try to jut down just a few of the key take-aways that might be useful for any person organizing events.

  • Let the doc do the thinking! At the very beginning of the project, make sure to set up a spreadsheet (gDoc is recommended) and cluster all tasks by “department”, ie “tech team”, “speaker handling”, etc. List absolutely every task including the time frame (4 weeks out, 2 days out, 1 day after, and so on). Color code if possible. Then sort the spreadsheet by that time, so you get a time line of everything that has to happen. Make sure everyone has access to that. It’s important to do this at the beginning, when you can still think clearly. Later on, when stress and sleep deprivation clog your brain, rely on the doc to do the thinking for you.
  • Related note: Plan for some down time right before the event, even if it’s only for a long walk, to clear your mind and keep you as sane as possible.
  • Wifi is notoriously tough for larger crowds. Make sure to get someone good involved if it’s not provided by the location. (If it is, make sure it’s free for the participants – negotiate if necessary.) If you run a non-profit event, see if there’s a local activist group that can help, in many cities there is.
  • Volunteers can be great, but make sure to coordinate them well. If working with volunteers works out or not depends on the kind of event you run, and on how good a raport you can establish upfront. Also, pick the tasks you give to volunteers with care. If you run a commercial event you might want to not go with volunteers and instead actually pay everyone on the team.
  • Mailchimp or similar newsletter tools can be very valuable leading up to the event to coordinate and communicate with speakers, your team and the audience. Use lists smartly. Make sure to communicate all the truly relevant stuff, and absolutely nothing else so it’s not too much to process.
  • Think in domino effects. As the lead organizer, you’re the only one who has the absolute overview of what’s going on at which time, and how things are connected. Think in these connections, collaterals, dependencies – domino effects, basically. (“If this thing doesn’t happen as planned, how does that change everything else?”)
  • Use sign-up forms for speakers. In these forms, speakers can input their correct links, bios etc. This reduces friction and makes sure you always have the correct data.
  • Build teams & delegate. Everyone should clearly know their roles, and know who to report to whom. It should also be clear who can make autonomous decisions about what, and who they have to include in the communications if they do. As the lead organizer you won’t be able to handle the main coordination leading up to and throughout the event (again, sleep dep, and other things will need your attention). There should be a point of contact for all the teams who coordinates and can decide what to delegate to another team lead and what needs to be decided by you, then communicate your decision back to the relevant teams.
  • If possible, even in a smaller event, get an event manager to help. Early on, so they have a chance to get acquainted with what’s going on. They don’t necessarily have to be involved full time from the very beginning, but do take their advise serious.
  • Before the event, make sure to do a mental walk through of location and program from the point of view of an attendee: What would you see when you arrived, how would you find the things you needed, are there enough signs etc? Put yourself in the participants’ shoes, and in the speakers’ shoes.
  • Work carefully with sponsors: Both sides want this to be good and create value. Work with them to make it good.
  • Bonus: If you expect a large crowd, and the location doesn’t have enough bathrooms, talk to your porta potty provider of choice – turns out they really know how to calculate the exact amount of mobile toilets you need. (I had no idea!)

In the end, though, it’s all about trusting your instincts and staying true to the soul of the event you’re running. So pick the elements that work for you!

Update: You can find a growing list of session notes from Foo Camp here.