One of the most experienced live business facilitators, Kate Sturgess has been “facilitating live events, conferences and awards ceremonies for longer than I’ll admit to remembering!” Covering a vast range of audience numbers, topics and countries, there isn’t much that she hasn’t covered.
Getting an insight into the inner workings of countless businesses and socialising with new faces on a daily basis, Kate is highly professional and personable. An expert in ensuring that things run smoothly, she shares with us her top ten tips for making sure an event goes to plan.
1. Avoid starting at the crack of dawn if people are travelling
It’s tempting to get going early when you’ve got an event planned, in order to pack as much as possible into the day. That said, you don't want half your audience to arrive flustered and late, having missed breakfast at home without even time to grab a coffee on their way into the main plenary. Not only will they have missed the entire introduction to the event, they also won’t feel settled enough to be fully ‘present’ for at least half an hour. My tip is that unless the session is on home territory, or everyone has arrived the night before, don’t start an event before 10am.
Kate advises against starting an event before 10am
2. Don’t overwhelm the audience with the minutiae up front
It’s natural, when welcoming everyone, to want to give them a blow-by-blow account of all the exciting things you’ve got coming up for them over the course of the event, right down to which floor the restaurant is on for lunch and all the speaker topics for the afternoon.
However, unless there is a major change in the agenda, you should confine announcements to covering the immediately upcoming ‘chunk’ of the day, up until the next scheduled break. Anything more will, firstly, be forgotten straight away and, secondly, take up valuable brain-space that you would rather they reserved for something else.
3. Keep it varied, keep it moving
The most successful, memorable events that I’ve facilitated, and the ones with the best feedback, have been a fine balance between presentations, ice-breakers, workshops and networking. Keeping delegates mentally and physically interested is also about encouraging their participation, so that they don’t simply feel ‘talked at’. That said, whatever mix of formats you come up with, always keep your objective in mind.
Delegates respond well to varied sessions
Remember to consider why are you holding this event? What do you want people to go away doing and thinking about differently afterwards? If you plan all your sessions and activities with this objective in the back of your mind, you’re already on the right track to a successful event.
4. Build in some ‘wiggle’ room
Even the best-laid plans of mice, men and event production companies can be challenged if things go a bit pear-shaped with the schedule. For example, a Q&A session taking up more time because it’s going too well to interrupt; a technical hitch meaning a longer-than-planned-for coffee-break; the CEO overrunning their allocated time-slot by 50% (N.B. It’s their company’s event, and they’re footing the bill, so it’s not good event etiquette to pull them off-stage!); or, as happened to me earlier this year, a fire alarm meaning the evacuation of the entire hotel where the conference was being held, resulting in the ‘loss’ of nearly an hour of Day One which we needed to catch up on during Day Two.
Answer? Always build 10 ‘spare’ minutes here and there into the running order. If none of it’s needed, you can re-allocate it to the coffee breaks or simply finish earlier than planned.
Fire alarm? No problem! Kate can handle it
5. Keeping speakers (other than the CEO) to their allotted time
As anyone who’s spoken in public knows, minutes become elastic when you’re on stage. You may think you’ve got all the time in the world at the start of your presentation… but then you realise you still have 18 slides left and the facilitator has risen to their feet, put their head on one side and is quite obviously signalling: ‘Come on, No. 42, your time is up.’
What can you do? Keeping a countdown clock in plain sight of the lectern, which flashes red when a keynote speaker is out of time, not only allows them to pace their presentation more evenly, but also make it very clear when time is up. Quite often, a speaker will say; “I see I’m out of time, so if, after my summary, anyone has any questions, do come and chat to me at the next break”. It leaves them still feeling in control without the facilitator having to cut them off.
6. Allow people to eat sitting down
It’s tempting to think people will do more networking if they move around while they eat (and from a budget point-of-view, food-on-the-go is generally the cheaper option) but it is a false economy in both senses. There are a few things that I can guarantee will always be given negative feedback, and having nowhere to sit down for lunch is definitely one of them.
Not only is that a takeaway (no pun intended) that you don’t want delegates to have from your event, it also actually stops people from interacting productively. Better to make a couple of useful new contacts over lunch sitting at a table, than 15 forgettable ones where the conversation revolves around the weather, techniques for balancing your plate while not dropping your fork, or the traffic on the M6 that morning.
Food goes down better sitting down
7. Build in enough breaks and make them long enough
It is a truth universally acknowledged in the event industry that you cannot get 200 delegates out of the main conference room, coffee-d, loo-d, email-checked and back in again, in under 15 minutes. Not without bull whips anyway. Which, quite frankly, isn’t polite. People need a few minutes to stretch their legs and rest their brains if you want them to assimilate what they’ve heard and be receptive to more. Moreover, you need to allow time for them to catch up with stuff going on back at their offices. If you don’t, they’ll be fretting about what they’ve missed during the next session, instead of participating.
8. Encourage Q&As at the end of a presentation
We’ve all experienced it. The speaker knows that the end is in sight; they gratefully see that last ‘summary’ slide appear and swiftly read through the bullet points; they turn to the audience and say, "Well, that’s my presentation. Any questions?" Nothing. Zilch. Tumbleweeds blow across the stage, and the speaker, crestfallen, returns to their seat.
It’s not (usually) because their presentation was so dull that no one wanted to prolong it by asking a question. It’s simply because the brain takes around 6 seconds to change from receiving information to formulating a question which arises from it. But 6 seconds is a loooong time for an uncomfortable silence! By which point, anyone in the audience who might have been tempted to ask a question is put off by the lack of anyone else doing so.
But you can start that 6-second countdown earlier: “We’re drawing to the end of my presentation, and I’ll be taking questions from you in a few moments, but first in summary… “
At this point, please resist the temptation to turn your back on your audience and read from the screen behind you. If you start catching people’s eyes, you’ll help to encourage their questions.
Avoid those awkward tumbleweed silences with Kate as your facilitator
9. Consider how you'll collect feedback
Always a tricky one! Everyone is brilliant at saying what they really think in the bar afterwards, but getting them to actually fill in the form at the end of conference? Like pulling teeth.
Two pieces of advice. Firstly, keep the form short, simple and easy-to-fill-in. Secondly, bribery in the form of a prize draw always helps to keep your delegates happy.
10. Keep your delegates happy
How to do this? Serve really good coffee and aim to finish 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
Kate’s top tips ensure that anyone will have a smooth running event, and, if anyone does have any glitches, she has certainly got them in hand.
Good Coffee = Happy Delegates
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