We at MCFly are used to being accused of being “a tough nut to crack” or “impossible to please,” unduly “negative” or “expecting the moon.” We’ve even been called “unpleasant”! Pish. There are some pretty straightforward things that could be done, that would not have cost a penny. It’s merely a question of political will.
Ask the, um, stakeholders what they think should be discussed at a stakeholder conference, (the clue is in the name) and how it should be discussed. Most people are probably going to want some variation on “review progress, consider changes and improvements and agree targets for the coming year.” Most people are going to want to discuss what has gone well, what hasn’t gone well, what can be done better and how they and their organisations can link with each other and support each other and the steering group. Just sayin’.
Urge people to send in questions they want answered. If you can answer them before the conference, do so, you could even set up a faq (very Web 1.0, but still useful).
As a condition of attendance, get people to do “homework” – ask them to identify obstacles and opportunities BEFOREHAND, so that the conversation on the day can start from a higher level (hat-tip to Caroline Downey for this one)
Make real efforts to get a real mix of people. The first conference was not “first come first served”. It’s not clear why the second one was (to make sure all the seats were taken? Because any sort of selection process would have had “staffing implications”?). Make it clear that there will be a selection process, and what the criteria are. Make sure the criteria are abided to. Make sure that unsuccessful applicants are told that they are on a waiting list and that they may get a text on the day saying “come if you can” if spaces become available.
Try to create some sort of “buzz” about the event. Get some of the very large steering group to blog. Actually have some new blog posts on the official website in the 6 weeks leading up to the conference.
Ask people who are attending to blog about it before and after on their own organisations’ blogs, or their personal blogs, or both. Ask for (non-penguin) films to be made.
Send out a delegates list, so people can make contact with other participants. Pretty much every conference I have ever been to has done this. It needs to be BEFORE, not after.
Send out a short report (“mixed” or otherwise) about what had been achieved, what hasn’t and why?
How on earth are busy people who don’t read Manchester Climate Monthly unfortunately and the excellent Inside the M60 supposed to know what has been going on?
Produce a small booklet – Who are the steering group? Maybe a small leaflet/booklet with photos, biographies, links to websites etc
Make sure that the documentation you send out has been spelchecked. “Knowlede”?
On the day
Before the punters arrive
Make sure your facilitators have the answers to straightforward questions like “what will happen with the information you’ve gathered today” and “are members of the public able to observe Steering Group meetings”. Encourage facilitators to use the credibility-building phrase “I don’t know.” Nothing inspires aggravation like waffle.
Send out text messages to people on your waiting list saying “come” if there are last minute cancellations (see “name and shame” in the “immediately after” section.)
The steering group members in attendance should all have some visual form of recognition. If t-shirts with logos can’t be blagged, then at a push those bibs that sports teams use in practice could be worn. People can be encouraged to approach anyone in a bib and say “oh, you’re from the steering group. What the heck do you people actually DO?”
Before the formal stuff starts
Have BIG name badges. Printing them out on a label maker may look professional, but if it’s in 12 point font, people have to stare at each other’s chests, and the visually impaired are stuffed.
Have food for people. Or very explicitly tell people that even though the event is starting at 12.30, it is up to them to fend for themselves. I met several people who were ducking out to get themselves something to eat. (Though on reflection, that may have been a pretext to avoid taking a paper copy of MCFly…)
Have some comedy signs around the room saying “stand here if you want to talk about food/energy/transport/etc”
Have a comedy sign that says “I don’t know anyone and am too nervous to introduce myself. Please come and talk to me!”
Once it kicks off formally
At the outset, before you do housekeeping, show inane videos etc, have an “activation” exercise. Get people to turn to the person behind them (not the person next to them – they almost certainly know them) and find out who they are, why they’ve come, what they hope to get from the day, and what they hope to give.
If you must have a keynote speaker (and really, ask yourself why; and on the basis of that answer, who), then keep them strictly to time by the following cunning wheeze. Give them a one minute warning that their time is almost up, and then as soon as the clock has run down, start to applaud – others will join in and voila.
Only have a keynote speaker if they are going to be so relevant and so good that you want to go to the effort of filming them and live-streaming it.
If you are live-streaming it, then have the facility for people watching to tweet in questions.
At some point in the day, have everyone in the middle of the room (yes, there are mobility issues here, but hardly insurmountable) and get them geographically divvied out. You can have half the room set aside for Chorlton, of course.
Signs for clustering around where people live, in a map of (Greater) Manchester.
Give people five minutes to clock the fact that they live close to other people who give a damn and made the guest list.
Also get people mingling on the basis of what they do (public sector, private sector, or health, education, publicity. Er, that’ll about cover it) or if they’re retired, studying etc.
Explicitly encourage mingling based on what their passion is (food, energy, transport, education etc)
Have a big map so that people can put up things they are doing
Find out – without asking people to “stick up their hands if they don’t have a university degree” (possibly a bit alienating) – who doesn’t have a university degree. Using my patented BA/BSc specs, pretty much everyone in the room yesterday did. That’s hardly representative.
Have a “skills offered/skills needed” exchange board
Ask people this simple question: “who -specifically or in general terms – is not in this room having this discussion? If you have their email or phone number, please give it to us.”
Make some sort of tokenistic gesture to gender parity in your workshop facilitators and speakers. 3 to 1 male to female is pretty shocking.
Run the event under the “law of two feet” and make sure everyone knows what that law is;
The Law of Two Feet — a foot of passion and a foot of responsibility — expresses the core idea of taking responsibility for what you love. In practical terms, the law says that if you’re neither contributing nor getting value where you are, use your two feet (or available form of mobility) and go somewhere where you can.
Have lots of anonymous suggestions boxes “What is the Council doing well?/What could it do better”. What is the Steering Group doing well? What could the Steering Group be doing better?”
Publish every non-libellous suggestion you get (with a disclaimer, obviously, that says mere publication is not acceptance of the viewpoint or a commitment to do what is suggested).
Think about how having three large groups doing a lot of talking in one room is going to cause noise bleed. A gap of twenty feet isn’t really going to cut it. Just sayin’.
Under no circumstances show embarrassing, infantilizing and twee films. Just sayin’.
Make sure the printed (single-sided, naturally) agenda actually reflects what you are going to do. Sure, items may have to be cut, but if there ISN’T a video by local schoolchildren, don’t advertise it (twice). Don’t print the agenda (single-sided, naturally) until the morning of the conference.
That evening send out a thank you email that has;
* a couple of quotes from attendees and a photo or two (low res – not everyone has high-speed broadband)
* a timeframe for when the full feedback from the event will be posted
* a calendar of events – organised by the Steering Group and others – coming up in the next month
* a name and shame section, listing people who booked and then didn’t show up. (“Thanks to the following people, who didn’t bother to tell us they wouldn’t be coming, and so deprived other people of a chance to attend. Nice one, guys;….”) These people should then only be able to attend the next conference via the waiting list. [No matter how busy someone is, a text message saying "can't come, please give ticket to someone on the wait list" is hardly impossible, is it?]
Within two weeks
Publish all the information gathered
Publish ALL the (non-libellous) feedback. All of it, good, bad, indifferent.
Within four weeks
Publish a “lessons learnt” document of what went well in the organising and executing of the event
If you leave your debrief longer than that you will capture absolutely nothing, and so make the same mistakes over and over and over again.
And finally, on the immortal phrase “You have to start from where you are”.
It’s a bit glib, isn’t it? Because it hides the fact that you have to know where you are, and how and why you got to this place from where you WERE. If you don’t ask those questions, then what chance do you have of getting somewhere different?
All this said, the problems around climate change action (sic) in Manchester are more deep-rooted than any single conference – especially if it’s a half day one – are going to be able to sort out.