Week 83

Both last and this coming week are all about events. Why and how we organize conferences, as well as notes on some events we’ve visited and that we’re currently working on.

This week it’s all about events: The why, the how, as well as some things we’ve attended and that we’re planning. Let’s start at the beginning.

Cognitive Cities Photo: Cognitive Cities by Tam

Why we organize events

Running events is, on many levels, exhausting. There’s an inherent chaos, time pressure, financial restraints, strong communication needs and demands.

Running events is also, on just as many levels, rewarding. The dynamics, the joy of putting something together that matters to people, that helps build connections and fosters collaboration and inspiration, is tremendous. Maybe even a bit addictive.

As you might know, we tend to go with the latter of these two ways to look at things. But why do we put the effort in? Usually, our events are not for profit. We might break even or even turn a small profit, but usually and across events we usually just about even out, and that’s not counting our own time. So these events are a bit of an investment of sorts, and one we’re happy to make.

First, you get to know a whole lot of smart, interesting people. Speakers, participants and fellow organizers, there are many good folks to meet, and organizing events is a pretty smooth way to do it. Giving someone a chance to speak at a big stage can also really be a bit of a leg up for those who are relatively new to the game, and if they’re good at what they’re doing then everyone will be happy for them to get some stage time.

Second, it’s a fantastic way to get inside a topic you knew little about. Doing the research, finding the right speakers and having plenty of conversations along the way, putting together the program for a conference is like a fast track to become a (meta-level) expert for something. Being in the business of helping people understand emerging technologies and behavior changes, running events has turned out to be a perfect vehicle for us. At these events, we explore new topics and help spread ideas from innovators in one field to the early adopter crowd. Then, one step later, we help larger organizations to understand the changes these emerging topics trigger, and identify new business opportunities for them and ourselves.

Also, if somewhat more fluffy, it has the side effect of being invited to other great conferences and parties, and who are we to complain?

How we organize events

Over the last few years, all of us individually and collectively have been involved in all kinds of events, from Barcamps, TEDx and Ignite to larger stuff like our own Cognitive Cities Conference or Next. We did this either as lead organizers, as part of larger collectives, as curators or advisors. We also speak a lot at conferences, and attend even more. In other words, we breathe these kind of events. And so over the years, we’ve learned a few lessons.

These notes go particularly for small to mid-sized events and those with a low or very low budget. If you actually have a fundraiser and a full-time team to throw at organizing something, this might not be the right list for you. That said, what are the tricks, the nitty gritty of how to put together something memorable while working full-time on something else?

  • Keep it simple.
    Experimenting with formats is ok, but the easier the better. Simple food and drinks are the best solution as full-on catering tends to use up a fair bit of both budget and time to organize (after all, you’d want to pick the best caterer, sample the food, sort out logistics etc). Make sure to have plenty of vegetarian food, too, as chicken sandwiches aren’t the most exciting lunch. Use simple, self-service buffets if possible, or even just book lots of tables in nearby restaurants. Don’t try to be too artsy about the sign-up process. Simple rules, simple tools.
  • Curation is key.
    Selecting the very best speakers, as opposed to the biggest names, makes all the difference. Numbers don’t matter much: Five top notch talks beat ten big names any day. And always consider younger, less experienced but eager speakers too. While it can be a bit of a gamble, the chances of them delivering some unexpected, kick ass talk are good. We always try to go for a healthy mix of more experienced and less well-known, emerging speakers, and our experience so far has been great.
  • Treat your speakers like the rockstars they are.
    Particularly if someone agrees to speak for free at your not-for-profit event, they deserve the best, most personal and warm treatment you can possibly give them. Just alright isn’t good enough.
  • Not-for-profit is OK!
    If faced with the decision if you should go fully non-profit or try to make a few bucks along the way, opt for the free way. As the saying goes, either charge fully or work for free, never work for cheap. The same goes for conferences.
  • Form follows function.
    Things don’t have to be fancy to be great. Get your priorities straight: Do you want people to connect? Provide areas with comfortable chairs or sofas and snacks. Want the speaker presentations to get the full attention? Put up a bigger stage and a big screen. Want to reach as many people as you can? Make sure you have the best documentation you can afford.
  • Involve the sponsors.
    If you take on sponsors, make sure not to pick the one that would just throw some money into the pot. While that might sounds tempting, it’s a bad idea. You need partners who want to contribute, and who commit. If you pay attention, you’ll notice early on if a sponsor really wants to help build something great or if they just want their logo up on the screen. If need be, help coach their speakers.
  • Communicate clearly.
    I can’t stress this enough: Let everyone know at any time whatever relevant information they need. For speakers, this means clear travel arrangements early on. Participants need to know the logistics and confirmation they’re in, and what to expect. Your team members and volunteers need to know things, too: When to be where, who to call, how much time to set aside at which stage.

What we attended this week

Look back at the week, it’s conference week craze. Under the umbrella of Berlin Web Week, Republica (rp12) and Next joined forces and now basically serve as anchors to a whole slew of smaller web-related events all over town in the past and current week.

We all spent some time at Republica, one of Germany’s first “blogger conferences”, as it used to be called. It’s grown up to be one of the biggest web conferences in the country with some 3-4K participants. If there is one place and time to meet up with half the internet scene in Germany, this is probably it. Timed around Republica there were a bunch of parties, meetups and soirées one or two of us joined for a bit, which leaves us in dire need of a break. (Kidding, keep it coming.)

At Betapitch, as a member of the jury I got to enjoy a fantastic set of startup pitches at Betahaus. The overall level of pitches, the energy, vision and ambition of the presenting teams was great and contagious. It was a particular pleasure to see two teams I know and respect tie at the top, and share the price. Congratulations, Knowable and Somewhere.

So which events are we currently involved with?

Tuesday & Wednesday (8/9 May), Next12 is on. Having put together three tracks as curators, we’re all looking forward to meeting face to face with the speakers and to learn how the audience enjoys our pick.

Friday & Saturday (11/12 May), the Quantified Self-inspired (free and in German) event Digitale Selbstvermessung (sign up here) should be good. With a maximum of 100 participants it’s much more intimate than Republica and Next, so that should be a nice change of pace.

A week later (23 May) Ignite Berlin will bring us an evening of quickfire talks, and I’m really looking forward to this one. We’ll have a speaker list up on the site soon.

Meet you soon, at an event near you.

Author: Peter

Peter is a digital strategist who enjoys connecting people, insights and ideas. Before founding Third Wave he worked as a freelancer with clients like ARTE, Wolters Kluwer, Bertelsmann Stiftung, Google, SPD, Tumblr and several public broadcasters. He organized events like TEDxKreuzberg, atoms&bits and Likemind. Peter holds masters degrees in Communications and Media from Freie Universität Berlin (MA) and The University of Sydney (MMP). Peter has lived in Berlin, Sydney and Washington, DC.