Tagevent planning

Event Planning Rule 6 – Organize Yourself

Rule 6. Organize yourself.

Event organizer is a misleading name. It’s their event and they should have it together and be the expert on their own event. But, they often offload that work on to the person supporting them.

This means you have to be organized, whether the people you’re working for are or not. It’s your job to make everything work. It’s your job to assure success as much as possible. It doesn’t matter if you’re planned and scheduled if you don’t have the information you need.

If you write down the information but leave it behind, it can’t help you. If you need a specific link and don’t have it, it’s as good as never scheduling it.

A practice I adopted early on in event planning was coming up with a list of questions. My first reply when was this list. It gave me everything I need to know to be successful. Some of them were basic. What is this event? Where is it? What time? How many people are you anticipating attending in the room and online?

Are we recording this session? Do you need Closed Captioning? Will there be a sign language interpreter present? What about a photographer?

And others were just for me. Is this date and time firm? Do you have a slide deck? If not, when will it be available?

Asking questions finds weakness in plans. Once we find the weakness in the plans, we can plan around them and be successful.

Organizational Notes

Time

Rushing leads to disorganization which leads to forgetting which leads to failure. Always arrive early. The quiet time before an event starts is for you to prepare yourself and organize your space. Organization is about making time to be successful.

I was always the first person to an event. I had time to get my computer and camera setup. I verify the links I need and content (slides, videos, audio) were available and working. The extra time is for troubleshooting. Links break and computers crash. Time is the different between success and failure.

I open the slides and go through them all one last time. I open the video and play it straight through. I listen to the audio over the sound system in the room. I had already done all this before. But everyday is a new day and failure always possible.

Space

Setup what you need where you can get to it. I setup my notebook and post-it notes so I could see everything without flipping pages. I like using a notebook because it gave me space for new notes or updating what I thought I knew.

If I was in a conference room in front of a laptop, I kept it all on my lap but still had it open and available if I needed it.

Having the information does you no good if you can’t find it when you need it.

Event Planning Rule 5 – Write Things Down

Rule 5. Write things down. (You think you can remember everything. Right up until you can’t.)

Every event has some details I need to remember. I started out thinking I would always know have them at hand. But the more events I ran and the busier I got, I was forgetting things. Every event is the sum of its parts.

The Parts

  • Event Date
  • Event Time
  • Local or Remote Event
  • If local, room number
  • Which account was hosting the event? (Of the four WebEx accounts I had)
  • Phone number for teleconference
  • Host Access Code
  • Participant Access Code
  • Closed Captioning link (optional)
  • Is the event being recorded?
  • Are we using a webcam?
  • Are we including remote video?
  • Is there a slide deck? (Do I have it?)
  • Is there any video or audio content? (Did we test it?)
  • Will there be a Question and Answer session?
  • How will remote participants ask questions?
  • Is anyone from senior leadership going to attend?
  • Is this event open to the public or agency-only?

I had to remember everything I needed to run the event successfully and answer questions the organizers would ask as we were starting. I also needed to work around any late changes or additions. Which included saying no to people who weren’t usually told no. (Which is a whole different topic in itself.)

Writing Is Remembering

I always carry a pocket notebook for any note-taking on the fly. But I also kept an event notebook with pages dedicated to the current events I plan. And yes, there was always more than one. Sometimes in the same day I’d have three or four to manage. From running the meeting to starting and handing it off, each event needed time and attention.

I also make good use of Post-It Notes. They were easy to keep phone numbers and codes on. I could jot down which camera angles I had preset to this particular event. I could write notes to people helping me. Those little sticky notes are a vital part of my work.

When I forgot something, the event suffered. If I needed a webcam and didn’t have it we’d have no live video. If we needed closed captioning for a transcript or reasonable accommodation and I didn’t book it, someone who needed it wouldn’t be able to enjoy the event.

Memory Fails

It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you’ll remember anything. I won’t forget the phone number. I will remember to make the change you asked about as I was leaving my desk? Sure, I’ll take care of that edit to your slides and fix that typo?

But I won’t. I’ve forgotten to fix your typo on every version of the slides we used. I forgot you were going to have someone else speak mid-way through the event. I didn’t remember to book closed captioning despite you requesting it. Were we recording this event? The last thing I have in my notes was wrong. I’m sorry.

Memory is fallible. I write everything down I want to get right. And I want to get it all right. I want to get it right every time. I’ve talked about all the ways you can fail. I don’t want to be the source of failure.

Little Book of Event Planning

I’ve spent the last two years running WebEx events for the US Department of Labor. I learned in a trial by fire with large, national events being normal. I worked with the Secretary of Labor, the various Deputy Secretaries and I assisted with software rollouts, policy changes and training initiatives.

I ran meetings for small groups of high-level officials and large sessions with hundreds of members of the public attending from all across the US. I facilitated some international VOIP calls putting people in as many as four countries together virtually.

In that time, I’ve learned some rules of event planning. They served me well and in my time running events, I can count on one hand the number of failed events I had. And in all of those situations, one or many of the things we planned for went wrong.

There are some issues you can recover from and others there is no coming back from. Sometimes an issue can be as unforeseen but fairly minor as a speaker putting the clicker to advance the slides in a pocket which caused the slides to jump sporadically around in front of a packed Auditorium.

There are other, bigger issues such as a phone line dropping mid-presentation or a computer rebooting due to a crash or software installation. The world of event planning and tech support mean never assuming you have everything under control.

I have 10 Rules for Event Planning Success

  1. Expect the unexpected. (And have a backup plan.)
  2. Test. Retest. Re-retest everything.
  3. Be ready to fail. (You will. It is inevitable.)
  4. Know your trump cards (who can push meeting or take scheduled space.)
  5. Write things down. (You think you can remember everything. Right up until you can’t.)
  6. Organize yourself. (Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.)
  7. Be flexible. (Things will change. Usually on short notice.)
  8. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. (You will be wrong. You will make mistakes.)
  9. Be honest. Never lie. (The truth will come out. Don’t let it contradict you.)
  10. The microphone is always hot. The phone line is always open. (Be careful what you say. Private is public.)

Not everyday is a success

I pride myself on success. I want every event I lay my hands on to be a success. But some days, you lose. This is one of those days.

Just as every win is made up of all the parts going right, a loss is made up of parts going wrong.

Here’s what went wrong today.

Unclear Information

First, there was unclear information available on the Intranet. This information led to an event being created and overbooked. The site can support 200 people and over 500 registered.

I found this out the day before the event was scheduled to start. In an effort to avoid disaster, I worked with the organizer to set up the event on a site that can accommodate 1,000 people.

Even with 500 registrants, my rule of thumb is about 3/4 at most actually take part. So the new site was setup, but this meant new information had to be sent to the 500+ registrants late in the day before the event.

I was able to get the registration list from the organizer and reformat it to import the list into WebEx. When I setup the event, I had WebEx send all of them an updated invitation to the event.

In addition, another email went out advising everyone of the change in web link. I also answered about a dozen emails from people who understandably had questions.

350 People on a Party Line

Second, due to the event’s size, the organizer had booked a phone line to handle the large number of people. I didn’t think anything of it, as I’ve worked with this group before and they knew what they were doing.

The moment the event started, I knew we were in trouble. I was hearing people. A lot of people.

The large phone line should have been booked to allow anyone with a Host code to speak, but to set everyone who dialed in with an Attendee Code to Listen-Only mode. I should not have heard anyone but the presenter.

I heard everyone. And everyone heard everyone else. What happened next was 20 minutes of:

  • Babies crying
  • Hold music
  • People talking over each other
  • People yelling at those people to be quiet
  • People asking everyone to mute their phones

It was a disaster. There’s no civil way to handle 350 people on an open phone line. We were handling questions over a text-chat in WebEx so there was no need to have the attendees be audible.

We got an operator on the line and she informed me she could not mute the participants as it was not setup for her to do so. She pleaded with the mob to mute their lines as well. And most people did. She was able to silence some hold music from two lines and find a line causing static.

So eventually the presentation began, 25 minutes after it was scheduled.

Poor Planning

Third, there was poor planning between myself and the person presenting. I should have contacted them beforehand and made sure they were comfortable with what they needed to do. I should also have reminded them about a bug with our WebEx setup cause by a Microsoft Patch which broke Application Sharing.

I did not. And they tried to share the PowerPoint slides, a new wave of I can’t see. Can you? and “Where are the slides, all I can see if a green screen? Is something wrong? Along with the people who knew what needed to be done providing advice.

Meanwhile, in an effort not to talk over the people on the line, I had emailed the organizer and was using the WebEx chat to relay instructions on how to solve this problem.

The presenter did figure it out shortly and shared the slides by uploading them straight to WebEx and the event could begin.

Timeliness

The organizer gave me the name of the person who I would turn the event over to. We agreed to get dialed in no later than 15 minutes before the event was scheduled to start.

I started the event 20 minutes before the start time and waited. And waited. 20 attendees. 50 attendees. 100 attendees.

I emailed the two contacts I had, including the person I was supposed to turn the event over to, no response, which didn’t surprise me since they were preparing for the event.

Finally the presenter logs in, about five minutes before the event was set to begin. There were over 150 people on the line when she did. Any hope I had of talking things over with her were already drowned out by the people having problems.

I tell everyone I work with to give themselves extra time before their event. And if they’re unsure of any part of anything, to allow even more time. There are a lot of things we can do to troubleshoot an event, but the options narrow drastically without time.

I made too many assumptions.

I do this all the time. I spend my days planning, scheduling and supporting events and meetings. I forgot about all the things I know and take for granted.

I assumed a level of knowledge that wasn’t there. I assumed I didn’t need to remind the organizers of certain things. I should have.

This failing was a group effort. Though the event did eventually started and the people on the phone quieted down. There was some great information shared and good questions asked.

So in the end, the event did take place and did end somewhat successfully. But it wasn’t something I want to replicate.

Fixes

I’ve gone over what went wrong. Now here’s what I did the prevent this from happening again.

  • I located and updated the information on the Intranet which gave unclear information.

The information was all correct, but it was unclear and I saw how people were assuming they could host large events themselves. I rewrote part of the page to make it crystal clear how to requested a large event and who to contact in for scheduling and help.

  • Next time I work with someone to book a large phone line, I will make sure they’ve set it up as an Operator-Assisted call.

This gives us the benefit of having Host codes that presenters can dial-in with to discuss and plan the event prior to the start. This also allows us to mute all attendees by default. If the organizer wants to have a verbal Q&A session, it can be conducted with the operator managing the phone lines and opening lines upon request and muting them again.

It’s how we’ve setup other large events and it works very well to keep the event quiet, focused and without the crying babies and hold music.

  • I won’t assume the presenters or organizers know what I know. I will review with them best practices and stress the importance of showing up early.

I need to be more proactive. I need to remember to approach every event as if its my first one. I need to look at it with fresh, beginner eyes and not assume things or overlook details. With a little extra planning and if I had been more proactive, this meeting could have been more successful than it was.

The Balancing Act

Balancing Act

This is my work life now. I run. I run from event to event. I try to squeeze in lunch. I try to rest for a moment in-between events and obligations.

I have no idea where I am going. My calendar is my Sherpa guide. I go where it tells me. I go when it tells me. I show up. I hope I’m ready. I hope I have everything I need.

I usually do. And no one notices. No one complains. No one cares. No one takes note of me when I show up ready to make their event great.

But the moment I let something slip.

I fear that moment. I fear the failure. My failures are public. They are quite literally broadcast in front of people, to people all across the country.

If I falter, it will not be in private.

But I do not often falter. I work twice as hard and I
spend double the time preparing. I practice. I practice and I practice more. I work hard to assure my events succeed. I delight my customers.

When an event I run succeeds, it fills me with pride. When I am able to do a great job, it makes me happy. And when I do an almost-great job it bothers me.

I notice the little things. No one ever mentions these things. No one ever complains or asks about them. But if I notice them, other people have too.

For instance, running an event recently, the slide deck was excellent. It looked perfect to our 131 remote participants. It looked excellent to the presenter. It looked good on the two large LCD screens for the local audience. But the projector was slightly cropping the right side of the slides. It did not cut off any words, but parts of some letters were lost. And it bothered me.

Most of the events I run use a webcam. I have access to a pretty good one that will allow for some panning and zooming so I can set up shots. I like to get a tight-cropped view of the presenter at the podium. I like to have my view of the panel nicely framed. I think about the camera angles. I think about remote participants and what their experience will be during the event.

And that’s the biggest take away I have for running events. There are two audiences.

The first audience is sitting in the room. They’re the ones who see me. I see their quizzical looks when something goes wrong. I can see their dismay when there’s a hiccup. I can see them and they can see me. I need to keep them happy because they’re in the here and now.

The second audience is not in the room. They’re around the country or around the world. They are everywhere. And they can often outnumber the people in the room. Their needs must be considered. Their experience is just as important, if not more important, than those in the room.

It’s a balancing act. To run a great event, both audiences must be not only appeased but delighted. That means thinking about everything. Or as much as I reasonably can.

Before I started running events full-time I had planned and executed a few of them in my time. But this is a whole new level of detail.

Before an event, I start out with a simple list. The basics I need to know before I can even plan the event.
Here is my short list.

Name of Event:
Date:
Time:
Duration:
Will you be using a Webcam?
What will you be sharing? Video? Slides?
Will you be taking questions?
Remote participants?
Local participants?
Are we recording the event?
Do you need Closed-Captioning?
Approximately how many remote participants do you expect?

This lets me know not only what options I need to enable in WebEx, but what will be presented. This informs any recommendations I make.

I do not only need to know the technical requirements for an event, but to be an advocate for the platform and consult on events. I have experience running events large and small for all sorts or audiences. Most of the time I am working with someone who has been tasked by their office to put on an event.

When they come to me, my role is part technical, part advocate for the platform and part consultant. I play the role I need to in order to help my customer the most.

The biggest hurdle to a successful event is behavioral.

The presenter of the event needs to set expectations. Will there be a Q&A session? How will questions be asked, both in the room and remotely? The presenter needs to set any expectations before the meeting starts. That way, the audience knows what to expect.

Dry Runs are practice

For every event I run, I recommend doing a dry run before the event. This serves two main purposes. First, it’s to allow myself and the Events staff to work out any kinks in the setup. We can test our audio and video setup. We adjust the microphone levels. We make sure the video is clear and the angles are good for everyone who will be on camera.

Second, it allows the presenter to get a feel for the space. Where will they be presenting from? What tech is in place to help them? Will they be driving their own slide presentation? Will someone else do it for them?

How is the lighting? Does it wash them out on camera? Is there a light shining in their eyes? There are tons of variables which can make or break an event. The goal of the dry run is to practice.

What about sound? How many microphones will be used? Will they be wireless, wired or a lavaliere attached to the presenter? Once I know what how many people need to be heard, then the I need to test the sound levels on the microphones.

The microphones need to all be loud enough to be heard. Both for the people in the room and the people out in the field. If the sound is poor, the event is going to be a mess.

Acts of God

No matter how much practice I have or how many things are considered, things can still go wrong. At that point it’s not a matter or how well I prepared. It’s a matter of how I respond to the problem.

What could go wrong?

  • Phone lines can drop
    When we’re not using VOIP, we a teleconference line which can support a few hundred people. Sometimes the phone drops. In those situations, I dial back into the meeting. The only times it has happened, has been in smaller sessions with under a dozen remote participants. I was able to dial back into the conference line in a few seconds and we were back up and running.
  • There can be noise over the phone line
    I work very hard to offer alternatives to a wide-open conference line because even when lines are muted, people can unmute their phones.

    Dogs barking, typing, papers rustling, hold music and other phone conversations broadcast to a couple hundred people can be a disaster.

  • Presenters can put remote controls in their pockets
    I was running an All-Hands meeting for a group at work. We had a couple hundred people in the Auditorium and a few hundred more online. Everything was going well, then the slides up on the projector screen and LCDs in the room started changing randomly.

The person running the slides locally turned to me in confusion, I realized someone had the remote for the slides and was pressing buttons. So I unplugged the USB dongle from the laptop and for the rest of the event, we manually changed slides.

Afterwards, I learned one of the presenters put the remote in their pocket, and it was there, where the buttons were getting pressed causing the slides to dance.

These are both good lessons. No matter how much you plan, something can always go wrong. Communication can be missed or forgotten, something can make a mistake. I can forget to schedule closed captioning. The webcam can malfunction and refuse to work. The information received from the event organizer can be incomplete, or plain wrong.

Perfection is never a guarantee. It is a goal to strive towards.

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