So you want to put on your first event, or you want to make your events run more smoothly?
I’ve been running SheSays Brighton and other events for women in the tech and creative industries for a decade now.
SheSays Brighton grew from 50 people, meeting in offices after work, to 150 people in hotel function rooms. Now we hold regular events in purpose-built venues with as many as 300 women attending. I’ve learnt a lot of things along the way about planning and managing events, so I thought I’d share some tips.
Tip 1: know your purpose
Where do you start? Before you do anything, have a clear-headed think about why you want to put on your event. Who is it for? What need will your event serve? Is there already a group or meet-up that exists in the area you’re looking at? Are you planning a one-off, or hoping to develop a series? Is your goal to make money out of this project, or is it for fun, or a branding exercise? If you’re a group of collaborators, have a meeting about purpose, to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
Here in Brighton we’re spoilt for choice; with a thriving scene built around our tech and creative industries. You can go to a different tech meet-up every night of the week, with conferences and events for all kinds of digital folk, including in web development, virtual reality, digital marketing and more.
So if there’s already a group that serves your needs, go along and check it out. You’ll make new connections; get a picture of how your event will fit; while later on they’ll be a crucial part of spreading the word. If you decide to organise your own version, consider how you’ll do it differently. Connect with organisers, to co-operate and not clash events.
When I first started the Brighton chapter of SheSays, as an industry we were only just beginning to acknowledge the need for support for women in tech. Now, there are so many groups and meet-ups, we have enough events to curate a month-long festival in March, Spring Forward Festival celebrating women in digital culture.
Tip 2: secure your date and venue
Pick a date that suits you, before you approach speakers or start to build your team. It may seem obvious but securing a venue that works – and is available – can be the biggest headache when planning your event.
So make sure you’ve got the date and venue booked and only then move on to the fun stuff!
One exception to this is if your event is built around a famous, important speaker. In that case, it’s fine to work around their calendar. But normally, your venue and date (and start/end times) come first.
Tip 3: give yourself enough time
Give yourself enough time to organise everything properly. Many first-time organisers are so keen for their event to happen, they’ll announce it for just a few weeks (or even days!) before, long before they’ve sorted out all of the details. From that moment, every aspect of organisation has a tight deadline, so corners get cut and there’s no leeway if something goes wrong, or takes longer than planned.
And things will go wrong. Every single event has had something go wrong during the run-up, and probably on the day too. A good organiser has enough contingencies in place that when something goes wrong, it can be worked around. And the single biggest factor in managing this is time.
Schedule your event giving yourself at least twice as long to organise it as you believe you need. Don’t leave anything until the last minute.
Now you’re onto some fun stuff. Designing and curating your event.
Choose your format
Get clear on what sort of event you want to create. What’s the vibe? Is it a party, a panel or speaking event? Is it a workshop or an all-day conference? What sort of experience do you want your audience to have? How do you want them to feel when the event is over?
Before you get into marketing or selling tickets, consider: who is your event for? When I first started thinking about launching SheSays Brighton, I talked to as many women as I knew, who worked in digital. I asked them what was missing, what was needed. Everyone was so enthusiastic and encouraging, this helped spur me on. When fifty women came to that first event and I knew immediately there was a real need for it.
Pick your speakers
The most fun part of all is choosing your speakers. Now that you’ve got your venue, date and a clear vision of your event and who it’s for, you look professional and organised when you approach potential speakers. Make sure you give them clear instructions and details, make them feel welcome and safe to speak.
Where possible get slides in advance and always be clear if you’re paying them or covering travel expenses.
A speaker wants to know you’ve got everything under control, so that they can concentrate on their talk and trust they will be treated well and looked after.
Tip 4: every moment matters
Once you’ve completed your event schedule, it’s important go through it – and think carefully about this – to take account of every moment of time (and every physical space) – that your event occupies.
For example, you have a speaker lineup and you know how long each talk is meant to be. But have you accounted for the time in between each talk; getting people on- and off-stage; how long will your audience need to get back from breaks?
Or, you’re running a workshop with gaps for group discussion. Have you allowed the right amount of chat time? Your groups will need enough time to get to the heart of what they’re chatting about – but not so long they’ll start to get bored. It can be a fine balance.
I run a program of evenings called Refigure, designed to help smaller groups of people reflect and strengthen their wellbeing and resilience in their work lives. These events include group conversations, self-reflection and guided meditations. When I launched Refigure I tended to over-deliver on content. I wanted everyone to get the best value out of the evening. But I had to learn to leave gaps – to include enough time for people to just chill out, chat and work through insights.
I’ve learnt that sometimes a schedule may look a little thin on paper, when in reality it’s a good balance of content and breathing space.
Similarly, if it’s a conference with speakers, I prefer to leave a little space between speakers at events. It never feels empty. You have to balance the need for a lineup to appear valuable in promotional material, yet give your audience enough time to process between the talks – and when this works, your event doesn’t feel rushed or chaotic.
And of course, plan for your speakers to over-run slightly (while working hard to keep them on schedule): if you give them 20 minutes to speak, factor in 25 minutes.
Tip 5: it’s a team game
You need a team of reliable, trustworthy people, who you get on with. You also need each person in that team to be very clear of their role and goals throughout the event. At any moment in your event, every person on your team needs to know where they should be and what they should be doing. That includes you, of course!
A common mistake for organisers (that can make a big difference to an event running smoothly) is to believe they can personally cover more than one role on the day. In fact, if you are the event main planner – or the person in charge on the day – reduce your actual specified roles as much as possible, because you will be needed to troubleshoot. Learn to delegate.
Pick a host who is welcoming to the audience, as well as charming and naturally good at keeping things running, when introducing speakers.
Schedule in breaks.
And it’s done! What a success!
Finally, after it’s all over, review what went well and plan what you can do better next time. Be honest with yourself about how it went, what may have gone wrong, and what could be improved for next time.
Enjoy your event!