Improving Long Tech Events: #1 Priority

#1 Priority: Effectively Managing Expectations

priority 1Although “Expectations” may seem like a topic you didn’t expect to be the #1 priority for driving better long tech events, I put it at the top of the list of ways to improve long tech events.

Just about any event will be enjoyed by the people involved in it if they know ahead of time what to expect.If they’re not interested in what will be happening, they won’t register or show up. The people who do show up for an event that has established and communicated clear expectations will not be disappointed.

Everyone involved with an event needs to know what the expectations are. This includes speakers, participants/attendees, sponsors, vendors and media. If someone in any of these groups is unclear about expectations for the event, it will likely make the event less worthwhile for them and for people they interact with there. So don’t just make your expectations clear to the speakers, make it clear to all the groups.

There are several facets of expectations that need to be addressed. These are:

  1. Realistic
  2. Communicate
  3. Accountable
  4. Feedback

Create Realistic Expectations

realisticThe first step in managing expectations is to define what the event will be like from the point of view of each group involved with it. The expectations need to be realistic. Don’t tell your sponsors you’ll have 2000 attendees at an event the sponsors are funding when you have no way of knowing how many people will show up. Publicize who the speakers will be only after they’ve committed to doing the event. Let everyone know what they can expect if they get involved with the event.

Brian Chang suggests one way to have better expectations for hackathons: “…Currently hackathons are serving too many conflicting interests. A great way to start fixing this is creating specialized hackathons to separate out these concerns…What’s particularly alluring about this taxonomy is that everyone would have reasonable expectations for attending the events…”

Karen Rustad Tölva also feels hackathons have unrealistic expectations: “…although they may be fun, since nearly all hackathon projects are abandoned after the event is over they’re no good for creating startups, real useful products, or social change. All they might be good for is networking. Thus, these events are oversold. I think there is a point here, but I don’t think you can conclude from it that hackathons aren’t worthwhile to run or attend. Rather, attendees and observers should modify their expectations…”

David Sasaki point out how unrealistic it is for people to create solutions to complex problems in two or three days, especially if the people working to solve those problems don’t fully understand the problem: “…Evgeny criticizes the rise of ‘solutionism,’ which he defines by quoting Michael Dobbins: “Solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problem it is trying to solve, reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” Nowhere, it seems to me, is solutionism in fuller force than at hackathons and app contests. Without contemplating the origins, causes, and effects of the social problems they seek to remedy, these two- or three-day events bring together designers and software developers to “hack” together elegant solutions to complex problems….”

Clearly and Comprehensively Communicate

communicationIf you’re an events wrangler who has helped develop realistic expectations for an event, you need to make sure those expectations are clearly and effectively communicated to all those connected with the event. When speakers or session leaders are invited, let them know what the attendees want to hear and make sure they know all the logistics for their talk. All the marketing and publicity created to get people to register for and attend needs to have the right message and get to the right target audience.

Gus Andrews received this feedback which made it clear he did a good job on clearly communicating expectations: “…I am so impressed with everything you and your org has done regarding messaging to make non-techies, especially those who are women, welcome at your event. I am dying to go! And it’s torture because I’d signed up but am unable to…”

Mitch Joel points out that some long tech event organizers might choose to use deceptive marketing: “…This past month, I’ve seen a handful of events that are billing themselves as unconferences when, in reality, they’re just very shabby and cheap events…It saddens me to see how many people start with the right spirit of an unconference but quickly get stuck in all of the trappings of what they think will create a great event…”

Hold Everyone Accountable

accountableOnce you’ve established realistic expectations and communicated them, there needs to be follow-up to hold people accountable for those expectations. For speakers or session leaders, there needs to be a process prior to the event which helps them be adequately prepared. If vendors agree to provide necessary arrangements for a successful conference, steps need to be taken to get those t-shirts printed and delivered on time, the meals have to be tasty and served on time, and the WiFi and projectors have to perform correctly for everyone from start to finish.

Emma Arbogast says she left her long tech event early when it didn’t meet expectations: “I signed up for the Community Leadership Summit hoping to get some insight into how to build online (and offline) community…The conference was not what I hoped. I ended up coming home early because it was really draining…In both my morning sessions, the people who organized the session didn’t bring anything to present. They showed up and said, “I didn’t really prepare anything, I just wanted to see what everyone thought about the topic…” (But she also said, “…Of the unconferences I’ve attended in the past year, I would give WordCamp an A, Barcamp a B, and this conference a C…”

Get Feedback Regarding Expectations

feedbackFeedback is essential to make sure goals are met. Everyone sees things differently, so the events wrangler need feedback about the event to know whether expectations were well-communicated and met. Feedback doesn’t mean a ten or fifteen point online or paper survey asking whether the room temperature was acceptable and how you would rate the speakers on a scale of one to ten. Useful feedback is the only thing that will help you deliver top quality events and make each one better than the one before it.

It’s challenging to create and deliver on expectations. Especially when there are 87 other action items you’ve got to get done or some part of your event won’t work right. Expectations are a checklist item easy to overlook, but it’s critical to do a great job on them.

It’s the only way you’ll get the right people in the right place at the right time.

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Posts in this “Improving Long Tech Events” series:

Making Long Tech Events Better
Improving Long Tech Events: Priorities
Improving Long Tech Events: #1 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #2 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #3 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #4 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #5 Priority
#6 Priority: Follow-Up For Greater Impact
Priority #7: Storytelling & Documentation
Improving Long Tech Events: Priorities #8 – #13

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