11 tips for organising an education conference

If you're thinking of organising a conference for teachers and other educational professionals, you can learn from the best – and the worst – practice. Here are 11 tips that you ignore at your peril!

Even great content may not be enough to counteract the effects on attendanceof poor organisation. Photo from Stencil. Licence: CC0

Even great content may not be enough to counteract the effects on attendanceof poor organisation. Photo from Stencil. Licence: CC0

1.      Have the conference programme sorted out before tickets go on sale. I do sometimes receive invitations to buy a conference ticket when it's not even clear what talks are going to take place there. Sending out invitations before all of the speakers have been confirmed isn't wonderful, but at least it indicates that the topics have been decided and appropriate speakers approached. Asking people to trust what is, in effect, a blank sheet of paper is really a definition of optimism.

2.      Have one website and login, even if better individual apps are available. Sometimes conference organisers have a website for the conference programme and updates, another one for the conference blog, another one where people can sign up and take part in discussions, another one... Well, you get the idea. Perhaps each of these uses the best tool available for the job, but that's at a huge cost of having to remember the details for multiple websites.

3.      Have passworded access to slides. Some people may object to paying for a conference only to discover afterwards that all the talks and presentations are available for free online. They may know that downloading a set of slides is not the same as actually being there, but when it comes to watching a video of a presentation that is often even better than attending in person (better view, no disturbance from people talking amongst themselves).

4.      Make Early Bird tickets available, and definitely not late bird tickets. I once attended a conference at which I was penalised, in effect, for buying my ticket as soon as sales opened. As an incentive to people to buy tickets after the virtual ticket office had been open a few months, the organisers offered a free subscription to a resource. I was told that I couldn't enjoy that freebie because I'd booked too early. That sort of behaviour is not fair on those who have supported you by purchasing a ticket early. It also smacks of desperation: why have you had to offer such a thing at such a late stage? Isn't anyone attending?

5.      Give attendees the opportunity to have their Twitter names on their badges. That really helps to facilitate networking, because people spot those they've been following and conversing with online. Being able to put a face to a name can be very powerful.

6.      To assist in this process, consider having a conference app which enables people to communicate with other attendees. This isn't strictly necessary – after all, there is always Twitter. But it may be a 'nice-to-have'.

7.      When organising the programme, please don't put the keynotes on at the same time as other talks. I attended a brilliant presentation by a young teacher at one conference. All six of us really enjoyed her talk – the other 150 attendees were at the big name keynote. I thought that was very unfair on someone who had clearly made a great deal of effort. It also meant that many people missed some very good information.

8.       On the subject of 'big names', remember that there are plenty of experts who have not become (nor wish to become) celebrities. Perhaps having a big name or two helps to attract delegates, but don't overlook experts in schools, universities and people you've met at other conferences.

9.      Remember that you don't have to pin down every minute. Why not have a slot (perhaps one of the parallel sessions) and a room available for people who wish to discuss issues that are not covered in the conference programme?

10.  Make sure the wi-fi is good, available everywhere, and that there are enough watering holes for the number of delegates you're expecting.

11.  Finally, devise (and promote) your conference hashtag. If you don't, confusion will reign ("is it Conference17, Conference2017, Conference_2017...?").

There's no guarantee that following these tips will ensure your conference's success of course. You also need great content that is timely, good publicity, a good location and the right slot in the calendar. But not following them will almost certainly affect ticket sales, maybe not this time, but next time.

My book, Education Conferences: Teachers' Guide to Getting the Most out of Education Conferences, is available on Amazon at http://viewbook.at/conferences

12 ways of Making an event successful

Parents' evenings, ICT open days, local conferences, "away days". As a leader of educational ICT you are bound to have to organise such an event at some stage in your career. What can you do in order to ensure that it is successful? Here are 12 top tips.

1: Know what "successful" means

At the risk of stating the obvious, every event should have at least one objective. Friendly get-togethers that are amiable but also aimless simply waste people's time. But even if they are not a waste of time, they may look as if they will be, and that will deter people from attending.

2. Limit the number of objectives

In my experience the most successful events have a limited number of objectives, no more than four or half-a-dozen. Having a relatively small number of aims means that the event is kept focused.

3. Choose the right time of year

OK, there never is a right time, because there is always something going on. So perhaps this should have been expressed as "choose the least bad time of year"! try to avoid obviously difficult times such as the very beginning of term, or examination time. But equally, the slack times, such as in the last week of term, can also be difficult. Often, teachers are too tired by then to want to attend something where they need to be creative, or they are involved in activities such as museum visits.

4. Have a variety of activities

See 21 Ideas for an ICT or Technology Co-ordinators' Day for some ideas that you can adapt for different types of event.

5. Plan ahead

People tend to be very busy these days, and so their diaries get full. If you are planning to bring in an external speaker, this is especially relevant. So book the event as far ahead as possible.

6. Tell people about the event

I can never understand it when I receive invitations for conferences with a week's notice. Since the event had obviously been planned some time ago, why didn't the organisers tell me about it ages ago? How can you maximise the likelihood of someone attending if you don't tell them about it until the last minute?

7. Keep reminding people about it

I do not mean send them spam. Sending them a reminder a week or two before the conference is fine -- it's when it's the first notification that I think it's unreasonable.

8. Give them reasons to attend

Not your reasons, but theirs: what will they get out of it, and why is that better than what they'd have gained by not attending the event? For example, how will attending help them address the new curriculum, a particular course, Every Child Matters or No Child Left Behind? If it's an event aimed at parents, how will attending benefit them and their child?

9. Bribe them!

If you can get funding, perhaps you could send each attendee away with a freebie of some kind, something useful to them -- such as a CD full of resources.

10. Feed them

People often judge the success of an event by the quality of the food they are given. Pay attention to this.

11. Park them

The other thing that people judge by is how easy it is to get to, and the parking. If possible, it's a good idea to arrange for some parking spaces or parking permits to be available, if this is a relevant consideration.

12. Create a community

This won't be appropriate or easy for all types of event, but sometimes creating a website or blog can generate and maintain interest. Before the event, it can help to generate ideas and anticipation, whilst after the event it can help to keep the discussions going, and keep the event itself alive in people's minds.

Over to you

Can you think of anything else that can help to make an event successful? If so, do tell -- make a comment in the area below.