I nipped on to the Convention website a week or so before the event only to see that it had “SOLD OUT” This is great news for the organisers and certainly highlighted a demand from the movement for an event like this. But a bit annoying if you planned to attend!
However, with a four month old and a twenty-two month at home in Barcelona, the chances of getting over to the event in Glasgow were always going to be slim. Over the winter months it is impossible to get to Scotland and back to Catalunya in a day: something I am sure will change once we welcome two independent countries!
So I watched the The Scottish Independence Convention Presents – Build, online (and you can still watch it!) courtesy of the excellent independence live. However, rather than just watch the event, I decided to review it. I would hope that my twenty years plus of organising events would provide an interesting and useful view for those in the movement who plan to run Indyref2 events.
Events like this will play an exceptionally important role in the Indyref2 campaign. This event, for many, marked the un/official launch of the Indyref2 campaign so it seemed like the best place to start.
I imagine that many people will comment on the content, choice of speakers and the politics of it all, so my review will focus on the area I specialise in: meeting design. Or, I suppose, the art of making meetings less boring and much more useful for all involved. I would strongly argue that better meetings for our movement can play a positive role in winning the campaign.
It’s worth stating that I have organised most of my events in a similar not for profit / charity environment, so I should be able to gauge roughly the constraints and difficulties of the organisers as well as the possible outcomes of such an event. I also have to say that my review is meant to be 100% constructively critical (because it is critical) and is made very much in the spirit called for during the event as those “with knowledge and experience” step forward and offer help. I imagine that many of the thousands of upcoming Indyref2 events can learn from some of the mistakes made by SIC.
What “Build” promised
The event stated:
“Speakers and interactive sessions will explore what the independence movement needs to do now to get strategy, policy and movement building in place to secure victory in the next referendum”
The programme (below) added some more detail.
The day was split into three distinct sessions: Policy, Strategy and Movement. Both of the first two sections would finish with one of the hour long interactive sessions, mentioned in the website blurb. These “Interactive Discussions” would follow speaker to audience style presentations of 1hr and 1hr30.
As a meeting designer, of some seven hundred similar conference style events, I couldn’t quite see how the initial programme could live up to the underlying idea of an interactive event. Of the 18 sessions, only 2 appeared to be interactive. If you are going to highlight the interactive nature of an event more than two of the sessions should be interactive. This is the type of thing you would expect a meeting designer to pick up and mention before the event.
Some delegates and speakers mentioned the other things the event should do, alongside the “exploring what the movement needs to do now” as outlined on the website. Tommy Sheppard called for “energy and substance” One comment on the Common Space website called for “comfy seats” Events, I thought, have to do so many things!
Logistics – the bread and butter
The Radisson Blu hotel in Glasgow seemed like the perfect venue (numerically speaking) for an 800 strong audience. Running an event on a Saturday, no doubt allowed the organisers the opportunity to step up from a church hall or similar lower budget space. It was a bold move and one that other events should follow if possible: the space for a meeting is very important.
Throughout the day there were many logistical issues (big and small) that a professional event organiser would have picked up on earlier, or would have totally avoided. It was clear that the team were doing a good job, but lacked a professional eye. Running events is pretty easy; running seamless events, that deliver maximum value to all, is very hard.
Watching online gives you a quite different view from an attendee as to the logistics of the event. Although not in the room (obviously) the online audience did have a nice little extra: a live audio feed in the run up to the event. This, accidentally, allowed us to hear some interesting, rather panicked discussions as the event rolled past its scheduled start time. However, after a 15 min delay, no doubt to register the 800 attendees, the conference was underway.
Like many events there was some initial communication issues (I can’t imagine Elaine C Smith being the easiest person to give a Chair’s brief to!) and some tech problems around the use of handheld mics, but these really were minor, and overall the onsite team did a good job.
Important as they are, I mention logistics in passing, it is the strategic stuff I am interested in: what the event set out to achieve, and how it attempted to achieve them.
What were the objectives of Build?
We’d had an overarching vision for the event as the “what we should do now” for the movement. That’s a BIG call for one, six hour event. So I had looked for meaningful and realistic objectives. This is what I would always do if I was supporting a client to run the best possible event.
It’s impossible to know if an event has been a success without an idea of the objectives for the event. Of course, without clear and shared objectives, how does an event know what it is supposed to do? Earlier this year I had a chat with Robin McAlpine, who’s Common Weal seemed to have been the driving force behind the event. I asked him, “What were the normal objectives for Common Weal events?”
Robin answered that he was a fan of simple objectives like: “Don’t lose money. Keep everyone happy. Be noticed. Get a crowd.” Simple indeed, but hard to deliver, hard to measure and hard to be of much actual strategic use. So I sought some clarity from Elaine C Smith’s introduction.
Elaine’s welcome identified the core (and eminently achievable) objective for the day: “we want to know what you (the audience) have to say” This backed up the “interactive” undertone of the conference blurb. We want interaction and we want to hear from you. Brilliant! What’s the point of gathering 800 campaigners in a room if you aren’t going to listen to them? Hold that thought.
Elaine noted that the audience was full of “big brained people” and now was their opportunity to speak to, rather than hear from, the “big table” of speakers that appear at other similar events. This was the one clear objective and the event failed to deliver.
Interaction is more than a word or a session; it’s an entire framework for a conference
Even if all of the interaction that was planned on the programme took place, the event would have never achieved the objective of “hearing from the audience” It’s pretty simple: if you want to hear from the audience, you do not have sixteen sessions delivered by speakers from the platform.
There are many tried and tested ways to ensure any event is interactive – even with 800 attendees. With some meeting design, “Build” could have achieved that objective. There are so many tips and techniques that I couldn’t even try to fit them into one post! If you are planning an Indyref2 event and want to know how to run a genuinely interactive event (even for 800) drop me a note.
So in terms of interaction, I think it would be best to cover what Build did, rather than what they didn’t. And you can judge if this was an interactive event.
- As I said above, there were 18 speaker led session and only 2 advertised as “discussion” sessions.
- There were very few opportunities for questions from the audience following any of the speaker led sessions.
- The audience gradually grew restless as the day went on and shouting disagreement became the only “interactive” outlet.
- Of the two “hour long” interactive sessions, one lasted only 48mins. The other managed the full hour.
- The session led by Lesley Riddock was exceptionally well facilitated and very professional. Lesley paced the floor. She was engaging, probed the audience and properly facilitated the discussion.
- The other sessions was different. Robin McAlpine spoke for 41minutes of the 48minutes “discussion” that he “facilitated”. I know this because I actually timed it. I’ve met Robin you see. During the session the audience voted on what actions, the excellent, Common Weal will take forward. I think this was what happened, as it was done at such a breakneck speed I can not be at all confident. The 800 were asked to vote (the 500 online didn’t have any chance to interact), on around ten of the most fundamentally complex and important questions facing our movement. That’s approx 4 mins per question! It is a stretch to call voting interaction, but it’s certainly better than nothing. As Peter Curran watching online said “If this is participation, I am Gordon Brown”.
- The second interactive session did include comments (around 7 mins of that in the 48mins) from social media and this did add some genuine interaction which was well handled by Angela the “Social Sidekick”
Can those who organise conferences really make such obvious mistakes? Unfortunately, it is easy to seek an interactive event, but much harder to deliver it.
To be interactive a conference has to be designed. Information has to flow between those on stage and those in the audience. And most importantly: that audience has to be redefined as “participants” In seeking interaction and not finding it “Build” will not be alone in the Indyref2 campaign. Unless we listen and interact with the event management profession.
How to run an interactive Indyref2 event
I’ve seen many events start with the genuine desire to turn the “audience into participants” but dole out the familiar roles on the day: speakers speak and the audience listen. To run an interactive event, those running it need an understanding of the rules of event management and experience or knowledge of how to support participation and engagement. Unfortunately for the 800 attendees and the 500 odd online, the event did not achieve this most crucial objective.
If this crucial mistake is made by other Indyref2 events it is the movement that will take the hit, along with the bored attendees. A movement is hamstrung if there is little interaction within it. We’ve got to build better events. The advice, knowledge and experience is out there, those in the movement just have to interact with it.
If you are an IndyRef2 minded organisation and would like some support to run better events then please do get in touch.
If you are a skilled and experienced event organiser who would like to support the movement drop me a note.