In the early days of the pandemic, one of the most common questions we heard from our clients, prospects and colleagues was…
How can we get through the next few months before things get back to normal?
This question included variations like:
- What tools should we use to help us work from home the same way we work from the office?
- Should we cancel our conference or move it online?
All of these questions assume working remotely or digitally is the same as working in person.
By now, most of us have discovered the truth: working remotely is different from working in person. Not better. Not worse. But different.
The same is true for conferences and meetings.
Over the past year, YesLMS has supported a number of single-day events and multiple-day conferences using our Learning Management System (LMS) platform. Most of our partners admitted they never considered using an LMS to support events - whether in-person, virtual or hybrid.
And to be honest, we didn't really think through the possibilities either until the opportunities presented themselves.
While we've been running successful webinars for years, attendance at these events has soared over the past several months.
And the conferences we have been supporting have seen the same - in some cases, attendance has doubled. Given our long commitment to increasing accessibility, this makes total sense in hindsight. And yet, we've all be pleasantly surprised.
STEP ONE: HAVE A DETAILED PLAN
Many plans come from the same place as policies: things that went wrong in the past that you don't want to go wrong again in the future.
As a team whose members have supported countless conferences and events over the past 20 years, we have seen countless things go wrong. Some of those things were from poor execution but many more have come from making what seemed like "reasonable" assumptions at the time. These often translate into questions that begin with "What do you mean…?"
- What do you mean we don't have any pens / chairs / microphones / batteries for the microphones?
- What do you mean nobody picked up the handouts / registration list / nametags / giveaways?
- What do you mean we didn't confirm with the speakers / venue AV team / catering?
Virtual conferences should be so much easier, right?
- What do you mean we didn’t test the speaker's internet connection / microphone / slides / comfort using Zoom?
- What do you mean we didn't confirm the schedule was Eastern Time?
- And on, and on, and on.
We've been there. And we've even made some of those assumptions and mistakes ourselves.
At YesLMS, we have a detailed plan with over 250+ items for events of all types: in-person, virtual and hybrid. This plan has 19 stages across 9 phases:
- 01 Planning
- 02 Promotion
- 02 Speaker Submission
- 02 Sponsors
- 03 Landing Page
- 03 Speaker Selection
- 04 Registration
- 05 Live Session Prep
- 05 Organizers & Co-Hosts Prep
- 05 Speaker Prep
- 05 Technology
- 05 YesLMS Site
- 06 CRC / Continuing Education
- 06 Pre-Session Communication
- 07 Evaluation
- 07 Live Session Facilitation
- 08 Post-Conference Communication
- 08 Post-Conference Review
- 09 Post-Production
Many of the specific activities are repeated for each session or speaker. For example, a four-day virtual conference with nine sessions each can have nearly 3,000 activities to complete! (A similar in-person conference has more than 3,100 activities).
Having a detailed plan doesn't mean we won't miss anything but our chances of success are much better.
STEP TWO: DEVELOP A MANAGEABLE PLAN B
If you have a detailed plan (like one with 250+ items) that means you have a LOT of things that could go wrong.
And some will.
Having a Plan B is a good idea. But having a Plan B for every possible thing that could go wrong is often worse than not having one at all.
Because over-planning often leads to overwhelm, unnecessary (and occasionally debilitating) stress and a failure to prioritize the primary outcome: creating a valuable experience for everyone including your attendees, your speakers and your support team.
When you think about this primary outcome, you can create a manageable Plan B for the most critical activities:
- Ensuring the attendees have everything they need to have a good experience (clear expectations, access to materials, comfort with the technology, etc.)
- Ensuring the speakers have everything they need to be successful (clear expectations, preparation of materials, comfort with the technology, etc.).
- Ensuring the staff have everything they need to support the audience and speakers (clear expectations, access to materials, comfort with the technology, etc.)
You probably notice some consistent themes across all of the key groups:
- Clear expectations (what to do when including registration, requests for accommodations and speaker submissions)
- Materials (including agendas, session descriptions, speaker bios, etc.)
- Technology (how to access materials, how to join sessions, how to get the most out of the experience)
This is where you can create a plan people can actually do.
STEP THREE: SIMPLIFY THE PLAN
Having a detailed plan is critical but that doesn't mean everyone needs to be aware of everything. If you've ever sat through planning update meetings that go on for hours with a cast of thousands, you know how incredibly frustrating and inefficient these meetings can be.
Your speakers don’t need to know if the connections between the registration software and payment system has been tested. Your attendees don't need to know the plan for prepping the speakers and testing the equipment.
In other words, most people don't need to know most of the detailed plan.
So, where do you start with creating a simplified plan?
The good news is you've already started by identifying Plan B. The items that make up your backup plan are the same ones most people need to know.
At YesLMS, we emphasize a plan for creating:
- Clear expectations for the audience, the speakers and the support staff starting with written guides for each group
- Materials starting with the agenda including the speaker schedule, "commercials" and other interstitial content for breaks, assignments of support staff to each session, and detailed checklists for each session day
- Technology Blueprints for cameras and microphones (including the audience, speakers and support staff), captioning and transcripts, spotlighting speakers (and ASL interpreters), session recording, storage and access to materials (including the agenda, session descriptions, speaker profiles, slides and supporting documentation), and a testing plan for speakers and support staff.
Your simplified plan is just the start. Next, you will need to connect with others to put the plan into action.
STEP FOUR: COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE
Finally, having a detailed plan with clear, actionable priorities is a waste of time unless you have a strong communication strategy to ensure all of the owners are clear about what to do when.
At YesLMS, we outline a schedule of Welcome Letters for attendees, speakers and support staff. These letters focus on the most important, actionable details at the time. For example, one week prior to the first session, we send a link to the agenda, clarification on the venue (or platform for virtual events), and instructions to access materials (we make all materials available on the YesLMS platform for the best attendee experience). We also send Attendee, Speaker and Support Staff Guides tailored to each respective group to help them have the best possible experience.
As with the detailed plan, much of the content in the Welcome Letters and Guides have come from mistakes we've seen or made in the past. And along the way, we've also learned that having too much information is often just as bad as not having enough.
So, how do you find the sweet spot re: the volume of communication?
In short, ask.
Real communication is a two-way street. If all of your "communication" is publishing messages to the masses, you are missing the chance to create a deeper level of engagement that can be the difference between a good experience and a great one.
For example, for all virtual events we do structured prep sessions with every speaker to ensure they know what to expect, answer any questions, provide support with critical technology that might be unfamiliar (don't assume every speaker is proficient with Zoom or Microsoft Teams), test their internet connection, and provide some recommendations re: microphones, lighting, etc. We also use these prep sessions to get to know each other - to help the speakers feel more comfortable asking questions.
Good two-way communication is essential for making even the most detailed and clearest plan a foundation for success.
STEP FIVE: HAVE FUN
Now comes the fun part. Or what should be the fun part but often isn't.
The Big Day! The live event.
Now is the chance to watch the results of your preparation unfold into the experience your team, your speakers and your audience have been waiting for.
Now is the time to show the world who you are.
If there is one simple way to make your audience more engaged and your speakers more confident, let them see your support team having fun.
We've seen countless support teams scrambling around with serious looks on their faces thinking this makes them look professional. In reality, the teams who look like they are enjoying the experience (and each other) are the ones who look in control and put everyone else at ease.
That doesn't mean the support team should be constantly in the spotlight. But when they are, they need to look like a team instead of a collection of stressed out individuals ordering each other around.
And when something inevitably goes wrong, most people won't even notice if you've done a good job with developing your Plan B. And if anyone does notice, make sure they see you acting as a team to get things back on track.
If you execute your plan flawlessly but look miserable doing it, your team isn't focused on the ultimate goal of creating a great experience for everyone - the audience, the speakers and themselves.
After the conclusion of each conference day, our team has a free form "dance party" where all of the support staff come on stage (or on camera) and dance to some fun, high-energy music. We encourage anyone left in the audience to join us. It definitely makes a difference for our team to release some of the stress of the day and it often leads to a different level of connection with the audience too (especially if they have been sitting in cramped seating or starting at a screen for hours). We usually have to playfully tell the remaining audience to "go home" (and often end up staying a little longer anyway).
STEP SIX: BRING YOUR CREATIVITY TO THE DEBRIEF
Over the years, we've found that having an event unfold smoothly (including the inevitable implementation of some Plan B elements) is exciting. And in that excitement, we often find a wealth of creativity unleashed in the form of…
Wow! You know what would be cool? We could do X or Y or Z!
It's easy to be seduced by this excitement and want to make changes on the fly. We recommend taking a deep breath and diverting that creative energy into taking notes for your next event. As a good rule of thumb…
Any change you want to try to make things in progress even better is worth proposing in the Debrief (and probably not throwing into the live mix). Even if the change is a great idea, making a unilateral change without input from the rest of the team can often be annoying, stress-inducing or even disastrous.
The Debrief is often one of the most valuable parts of any event. It's often easy to dismiss especially when everyone is tired or on enjoying the high of a great day. At the same time, we recommend doing a short (30-minute) discussion of what went well, what we can consider for the next event and to thank the team for their hard work.
The Debrief is often when the team feels the most like a team.
The mark of a great event or conference is not just the information or inspiration people walk away with. It's the overall experience and the quality of relationships that can grow stronger over time.
In other words, if things are going well, enjoy what you and your team have put in motion knowing you already have ways to take the next event to the next level. And to get the opportunity to try out those new ideas, you need to develop the reputation of a team who is always thinking of ways to create better futures.
In the best teams, the Debrief never stops and continues to unfold over time from one event to the next.
YESLMS, YOUR PARTNER IN CREATING POWERFUL EVENT AND CONFERENCE EXPERIENCES
Events and conferences can often be overwhelming. Finding the right partner to support you along the way is one of the most important decisions you can make.
YesLMS would love to be that partner.
We are excited to help create powerful, memorable experiences for your audience, your speakers and your team.