I have absolutely zero formal training when it comes to planning events. Before this became part of my job duties, I hadn’t planned so much as a birthday party for my child.
Of course, I have zero formal training for a lot of the things I do in my job as a marketer and communicator. About the only thing I was ever formally taught to do was write, and so much of that came to be seen as good simply because I did it so often that I was bound to get better.
That said, I now have some pretty deep and wide experience planning events for the various companies that have employed me over the years. From 1,500-person electric cooperative annual meetings that brought in an audience so diverse that some arrived in Jaguars and other arrived via horse-and-buggy, to legislative seminars and prayer breakfasts and client appreciation events — I know what I’m talking about when it comes to planning.
I’ve learned a lot of things about event planning. Here are John’s Top 3 Super-Secret Event Planning Tips:
The first event I was ever tasked with planning was what was then an annual meeting for the rural electric cooperative I worked for as marketing and communications manager. To say such a task was overwhelming at first is an understatement. Somehow, I had to find a way to welcome, feed, entertain and inform more than a thousand people from vastly different walks of life.
I learned to delegate real fast.
The most important thing about delegation is finding the sweet spot between remaining in control and accountable for the overall success of the event and letting talented co-workers do their thing without you breathing down their neck.
When you’re faced with planning an event, break it up into its individual pieces. Then, find the best people in your organization to lead and assist in each piece. Your job is to remain as the chief executive and lead problem solver. Their job is to figure out how to turn what they are responsible for into the best part of the event.
You want your food/catering people to want to shame the door prize/raffle people, your entertainment committee to want to laugh at whoever it was wrote the speeches.
Competition is a healthy thing. Incentivize it by offering a reward for the committee whose section scores highest on the feedback forms (more on that in a moment). Then let those people do their thing and help them by clearing their paths so they can be successful.
2. Practice, practice, practice
“Excuse me, sir. How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Have some skill, son. Have some skill.”
Of course, that’s not how the popular saying goes. Having talented people helping you execute and having good leadership skills and grace under pressure yourself is essential to planning a successful event. But so is practice.
It astounds me how many companies will spend months planning an event without leaving any time for dry-runs of the entire thing. So let me state this clearly: The day of the actual event is not the first time you should see, hear, taste or experience anything. If you’re serving chicken and haven’t at least sampled a piece prepared similarly to what you’re going to serve, you’re dumb. If the featured speaker is part of your organization and you haven’t heard her deliver her speech, you’re dumb. If your entertainment hasn’t actually hooked his equipment up to your sound system before, you’re dumb. If you haven’t driven a whole bunch of cars toward and out of the parking area at the same time before, you’re dumb.
You get the point.
Practice is the only way for you to discover what’s going to go wrong at your event. And trust me, things will go wrong. They always do. But practice helps you cut down on the number and severity of things that will go wrong.
Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it’s hard to build time to practice into an event schedule when it feels like you’re going crazy just to get everything done the second before it starts. But if you’re not practicing everything and insisting that everyone involved is practicing with you, your event and company’s reputation are going to suffer.
When I find myself bored during the actual meeting, I know I’ve done a good job. That happens because of practice. Make the time. Take the time.
3. Guard the feedback forms
I call it the post-event high. Finally being done with something you’ve been planning for months and months and months feels good. I often celebrate when I get home with a cigar, a glass of the best bourbon and a pile of feedback forms tightly in my grasp.
I’ll state this plainly: Nothing ruins that post-event high faster than the higher-ups reading the feedback forms.
I think feedback on events is great, especially if you’re going to try to do a similar thing in the future. But feedback taken as anything other than in aggregate is an annoyance. At one annual meeting, we once received more than 400 feedback forms rating the various parts of the event. On one form was there a complaint about the chicken. But because I hadn’t learned this lesson and the higher-ups saw this particular form, there was a move afoot the next year to change food vendors because “We received complaints.”
First of all, no you didn’t. You received complaint. Second of all, the average score on the feedback forms, with 1 being lowest and 5 highest, was something like 4.85.
The next year, I made sure I was the one who collected and guarded the feedback forms. I tallied the scores and presented the averages to the team. When leadership asked for the verbatims, I gave them a select representation of the dominant feedback themes. Never did they hold the actual forms again. (Yes, there might have been an actual burning party of the forms once I’d tallied the scores.)
Needless to say, we never talked about the chicken again.
So there you have it. My Top 3 Event Planning Secrets. None of this stuff is revolutionary. It’s just stuff that’s often overlooked. So go forth and plan with these things top of mind, and here’s to extending your own post-event high!
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