What’s the best event you’ve ever been to? That’s the question we asked folks at the wonderful WonkComms breakfast club on 5 September. WonkComms is a collaborative project bringing together communications staff working within research institutions and more widely, to provide a space to share experiences and learn from one another. With the promise of coffee, pastries and interesting chats we hot-footed it down to Soapbox HQ to join the conversation. The topic was events, why we’re so attached to traditional formats, and what an alternative could look like.
It was a great conversation, with topics ranging from diversity to the role keynote speakers play (for better and for worse). It also gave me the chance to reflect on our approach to running events at Kaleidoscope. And, in our usual open-source fashion, we’d like to share our thinking.
Using rigour and creativity to support collaboration is central to what Kaleidoscope does; or to put it another way, we don’t believe that simply plonking people in a room together equals success – connections need to be curated.
But all too often in the health world (and I’m sure other sectors), collaboration and the ‘softer skill’ of bringing people together are seen as things that can ‘just happen’, and happen well, at any old event. We disagree, and feel that engaging events play a key role in fostering meaningful collaboration. So, how do we do this? Four points.
"Our motto is 'only do face-to-face what you can only do face-to-face' (catchy, I know – t-shirts coming soon)."
1. Be ruthless about purpose. Work out what the event is for, then design your event as a means to most effectively meet that purpose. If your main aim is to pass on information to a group of people, then by all means stick with your PowerPoint presentation and panel of speakers. If, however, your main aim is to build connections, then adapt your event to suit this.
Let’s look at it another way: at your birthday party, your main aim (aside from having an excellent time), is likely to be to make sure your different friend groups all get along and have the chance to meet one another. The most effective way of doing this isn’t sitting them all in a row for a 45-minute presentation panel discussion with you and your mum on why they’re your friend (and you’d probably end the night with a few less…).
Clarifying that purpose steers you away from an unsuitable approach – it would be far more effective to facilitate one-to-one introductions, encourage mingling and be generous with the topping up of glasses.
2. Respect people's time. Our motto is “only do face-to-face what you can only do face-to-face” (catchy I know – t-shirts coming soon). Using mixed event methods like webinars can help with practicalities such as minimising participant travel, and can provide other benefits.
This ‘pre-work’ can help set the event tone and put participants at ease, while also providing a further opportunity to clarify the event’s purpose. We’ve also used content gathered during webinars as topics at our face-to-face events, which is a nice way to ensure that participants feel they’ve had a say in designing the event.
3. Keep the energy high. Information transmission before events in catchy and accessible formats can lay the groundwork for an engaging face-to-face event, and post-event comms can help continue the momentum – take a look at our write-up of Collaboration: Know-How? for more.
And be creative about ways to build energy on the day. You wouldn't have a birthday party at a crumby conference centre with no natural light - so why would you expect people to enjoy coming there for an event? We try and find venues which are fun, a bit unusual, and make people glad to be there.
4. Create spaces built for learning. We're slightly obsessed by the concept of 'psychological safety' - defined by the awesome Amy Edmondson of Harvard as an environment where there's a shared belief that it's safe to take interpersonal risks. In other words, you can show vulnerability or ask a stupid question confident that the others in the room will support rather than make fun of you. It's this safety which fuels the ability to learn from others, and is key if part of your event aim is any form of peer-to-peer learning and understanding. (Google also found it to be ever-present when looking at what made its most successful teams successful.)
We think we’ve gone some way to fostering this at our Melting Pot events, where we bring together diverse groups of people from across health and care. Proof is in the pudding and feedback from a host of attendees ranging from clinicians, to policy wonks, to the heads of major organisations, to politicians has been rather ridiculously positive to date. Our Melting Pot recipe takes you through our 12 steps to building this environment – and be prepared for some pretty specific timings.
These are our key event lessons learnt to date, but I’m sure they’ll grow and change over time - and we'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
From internal workshops to external jamborees, supporting events which people love is part of our Kaleidoscope offer; if you're interested in exploring with us how we could potentially help you, do get in touch, it would be great to hear from you.