Challenges of Running an Educational Event

Running a solid and, dare I say, entertaining conference or course can be a challenging and daunting task. Whether you are in charge of developing and delivering a course or just someone who attends courses on a fairly regular basis, there are a plethora of things we all look for in a well-run educational event. So many things can go right, and then again, SO many things can go wrong.

After developing several courses in the US and abroad, and after talking to leaders in medical education and course directors from around the world, I decided it was time to write a simple blogpost about the essential elements of a successful educational conference. Some of them are obvious. Some of them not so much.

One of the most important components of delivering a great conference is developing something that makes it worth being there live in the first place. Sure, everyone enjoys an entertaining keynote presentation given by a brilliant speaker, but what people really want are the “extras.” Conference attendees want the networking, the social activities, and making connections that will help them build and enrich their lives and careers. You want people to walk away after the course and say, “Wow, that was an amazing course! I have to tell my colleagues about it.” A well-done course provides incredible growth opportunities for both attendees and speakers, and developing a solid event is kind of like an art form.

This post is meant to serve as a guide if you are starting down the path of designing and delivering a course or conference or if you have been at it for a while and want a fresh approach.

Robust Event Structure

Attendees want to be engaged and interact during the events that they pay for. The days of simply splicing together a several day series of Power Point presentations are over. In fact, if your current strategy is to sit down at your laptop and whip up a 3 day Power Point fest I suggest you close your laptop and start over. People simply don’t want slide presentations anymore. The modern day educational consumer is much more sophisticated, and they will just not like the delivery of your event if it is all slide based.

Developing a curriculum for your event takes time and effort. Most people (in the past this was definitely me) sit down and just make a list of slide presentations and assign topics to speakers. What ends up happening is that there is no “shape” to the event, no theme. It’s just a collection of presentations that have no real focus. Really well done courses have a theme, a theme that builds on itself, a theme with a purpose.

At all costs, find a way to make your event as interactive and hands-on as you can. Once again, adults will not enjoy sitting and watching a “Power Point Fest” unfold in front of them.

Think outside the box and develop sessions where attendees get to “do stuff.” If you want to present the topic of feedback in medical education then have attendees practice giving feedback to each other. If the topic is presentation skills, have them give a mini talk to the group. Always be thinking about ways to get attendees up and out of their seats and interacting.

Presentation on how to use podcasting in medical education was turned into an interactive session where attendees actually got to podcast and see the product of their work. MUCH more valuable and enjoyable than watching a slide set on how to do it.

The Attendees are the Most Important

The basic tenet of running a good course is to take care of your attendees. Plain and simple. Attendees need to be happy and have comfortable spaces to learn in (and relax). A relaxed vibe is a must. Special attention should be placed on making sure attendees are satisfied and having a really good experience. Basic rule: Take great care of the people who paid to be there.

Take Care of Your Speakers

Taking care of the folks who actually teach the course and do the majority of the work is paramount to building a successful course. Having a dedicated admin person to book faculty dinners and social events is critical, because you also want your faculty to have fun and be taken care of.

Bourbon tasting social event at Ikigai Med Ed 2018, Versailles, Kentucky

One thing to consider, in addition to dinners and social events, is a faculty development event (doesn’t have to be something huge) for the course faculty. Even teaching faculty need development.

Jon Bronner, course faculty for Ikigai Med Ed 2018, receiving presentation feedback from presentation guru and course faculty, Ross Fisher
Dedicated space for faculty to work on presentations and workshops. Ross Fisher looks excited to have his picture taken!

An admin person is essential to coordinate booking flights, hotels, and handling any honorarium and/or reimbursements. One key to running a great event is in considering “clumping” presentations for speakers to possibly minimize their need for hotel nights. As an example, try to have speakers give all of their talks on 1 or 2 days, instead of spreading out over several days.

Start and End Times

One key thing to consider is the start and end time of the schedule each day. You don’t want to start too late, and you definitely don’t want to end too late. The customary (i.e. old) way of doing this, in the past, was an 8am-5pm schedule. Avoid this if you can.

You can be really creative with this. You can have half days, days that end by 2pm, or any variation. Just don’t think that you have to stick to the 8-5 conference day that tends to drain energy from attendees. This is especially important if you choose a destination event at a beach or ski resort. You will have to account for social activities and rest.

Speaker Balance

Take my advice and make sure you have an equitable distribution of male and female speakers. People pay attention to this detail, believe me. I have been told by several people that they won’t even register for a course that doesn’t have a good speaker balance. Use common sense and aim for a 50/50 balance. My two cents.

Course Community

This is an optional component to designing a great educational course, but I have found it to be incredibly popular because ultimately people just want to belong. Starting a closed Slack group is a great way to build a community around your event that starts before the event, builds during the event, and continues on indefinitely after it is over. It is a great modality to post articles, web links, etc.

“Live” Feedback

Feedback about the course is always helpful and can be used to shape the future direction the next course takes. But that is the problem. The feedback is useful for the NEXT course. What about the course you are in now?

Be flexible and be prepared for things to go wrong….because they will. If attendees sense that you are trying to correct problems or make things better they will be appreciative. Running a good event takes constant, live feedback. Ask for it often and always be on the lookout for things that can be improved. Take detailed notes during the event on what is working and what isn’t.

Wifi

This is a bit of a tricky one. You may not have much control over this, but it’s worth investigating well before your course starts. Event attendees, in general, will go without almost everything, except access to wifi. If there isn’t wifi, there isn’t wifi. And if the wifi isn’t good there isn’t always something you can do about it. Do your homework and check with the venue, and don’t wait until you get there to find out there are wifi problems. If your course doesn’t rely on access to the internet then you should be in good shape. Just keep in mind people love their access.

Another thing you might want to do is check with the venue before the event to see what their wifi can handle. Keep in mind, the number of people in the room and devices being connected to the wifi will affect the connection speed. At one event I ran in the past we noticed that 50+ people were on 2 or more devices at the same time, and we actually had to ask attendees to only use one device to connect.

Electricity

Look around at any educational event and you’re bound to see people on multiple devices at the same time. At a minimum, many people will at least have out their laptop and mobile device. Want to be incredibly popular with attendees? Have charging stations for them. This small detail will pay off huge for you as a course director and/or organizer. Having stations like these shows people you care about the happiness of the folks attending.

Individual charging stations at a course I taught in San Jose, Costa Rica. Brilliant!

Daycare

This is one thing that is often forgotten, and it’s a huge bonus if you set it up. It’s another piece of the puzzle that shows you care about your attendees. There are companies that will come to your event to organize this for you. The cost is well worth it.

Food, Coffee, & Tea

This is one of the more important aspects of running a successful educational event: having decent food, plenty of coffee/tea, and snacks. I can tell you from experience that it takes time, effort, and patience to get this right. My recommendation to you would be to talk to people who have come before you and find out what worked and what didn’t. Related to food, caffeine, and snacks is the budget…the main thing we haven’t even addressed yet. If you don’t have a budget you may have to skimp on these items a bit, but be very careful. This is a huge happy factor for people.

There are just a few rules here to follow that will make your conference a success:

  • I recommend that you do all you can to have free-flowing coffee and tea. This will make people happy.
  • Attempt to provide morning snacks if possible and/or snacks during caffeine breaks.
  • Providing lunch can be a bit tricky, and it depends on if you have a budget for this or not. One pearl: ask everyone about food allergies and food preferences, and be aware of cultural and religious aspects of diet. Paying attention to details will pay off with happy attendees.

Do’s and Don’ts

  • I love this piece of advice from Fredrik Granholm (see below), who took a course I directed in Baltimore, Maryland several years ago: “Don’t run a conference to make a profit.” This is a brilliant understatement as many if not most events will not make a profit. If the event does make money, it isn’t much. Don’t have this as your goal as you will fail miserably more times than not, and you will lose site on the real prize: designing an event people will talk about for years.
  • Be flexible and realistic with what you can accomplish with your event.
  • Make sure you set aside enough breaks. This cannot be overemphasized.
  • Send out a pre-event survey to learn about the attendees (their backgrounds, dietary needs, etc) DO NOT skip this part.
  • Avoid at all costs the “lecture after lecture” event format that everyone still uses. People don’t like it. Enough said.
  • If you are having anyone give a presentation, make sure they are short talks and that they are interspersed with hands-on activities for the attendees.
  • Develop a theme for the course that builds on itself. This type of format is more interesting than having random topics scattered throughout the course.
  • Consider using spaced repetition to drive home the teaching points. You can be really creative with this. You could have an end of the day panel or even record a summary of the day as a short podcast.
  • Develop a system for making sure course faculty are mixed in with attendees and at least interact during sessions. I have made the mistake of having faculty sit in the back of the room while all of the attendees sit in the front. Anytime someone looks back at the faculty they are mostly working on their laptops or on their phones. I am guilty of this, believe me.

Dedicated Conference Coordinator

This seems like a no-brainer, but I have messed this up on more than one occasion: I have tried to play every role at the same time. Most normal human beings can’t design/direct/organize/deliver a course AND be a speaker AND collect registrations AND check on food AND….The list goes on and on. I have tried to run educational events and perform all of these roles, and it quite simply doesn’t work out.

I would highly recommend you have a dedicated person to take care of the attendees AND speakers. This is time consuming and requires finesse and a person who is very detail-oriented and creative. Talk to anyone who has tried to teach and lead a course and be the admin for that course, and they will tell you how impossible it is to do a great job at everything.

Social Media, Live Streaming, and Recording

One of the beautiful things about a live course is having the ability to share it with the world in real time. You don’t need to have a dedicated social media manager for your event, but it sure helps. For a course we had in November 2018, Ikigai Med Ed, we had a dedicated person for managing Twitter & Instagram, and it was incredible. Anyone can tweet or send out posts on social media, but having a dedicated person who really knows what they are doing is immensely helpful.

Capturing video is labor intensive. STRONGLY consider hiring someone for this if you have a budget for it.

A word of caution if you are considering capturing audio and/or video from the presentations at your event: STRONGLY consider getting a dedicated AV person to handle all aspects of this. I would recommend not trying to do this AND run the conference AND teach. It is way too stressful, and it is just not worth it.

Medical education is a global classroom, and people around the world will watch courses unfold in other countries. Live streaming a course can easily be accomplished by using Facebook Live, Twitter, or Instagram Live. Again, I would recommend having someone assigned to this task if at all possible. Be careful with using professional lives streaming platforms unless someone is assigned to run the equipment.

Translation Issues

If you are holding your course or conference in another country, be ready for any and all translation issues that could arise.

Some thoughts regarding translators:

  • Speak slowly so they have time to translate for the audience
  • Some translators prefer MORE text on your slides. This makes the translation process easier in some cases.
  • Check in with the translators frequently to see what you could do better/differently to streamline the communication process.

Take Home Points

Running a successful educational event is very time consuming and stressful. Following a few rules will allow you to design and implement an event that people will not forget.

Some final thoughts:

  • Constantly reevaluate your event and make sure you take plenty of notes.
  • Get feedback from attendees AND the faculty. This type of feedback will be very valuable as you strive to improve.
  • Remember, the event is ABOUT THE ATTENDEE. Do everything you can to make attendees happy and make the course memorable.
  • Be patient with yourself as an event leader and expect mistakes.
  • Make sure you rest after an event. You will be amazed at how tiring running an event can be! Just ask anyone who has done it.
Of course, don’t forget to have FUN while planning and running a course!
(Daniel Schubert is wearing the snowman mask)

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