Tech Writing and Event Management

Several years ago, when I was a bit more foolish, I got the bright idea to run a conference. While I learned about a year or two into the process that running things was not something I enjoyed, a friend and I managed to assemble a team to execute a plan we’d proposed and I got up in front of a board and pitched. The event–850 attendees over four days, with 20 companies exhibiting–went off pretty well, despite tornadoes blasting through Alabama a month before and any number of little crises before and after that. The point here isn’t to brag, but to explain how the skills I need to do technical writing also can be applied to event management.

Managing Constraints

There’s really no way around this: a conference will have a deadline. You know it’s going to happen, and for how long (usually). This constrains your choices–do you want to bring in Celebrity X six months from now? Their schedule might be backlogged a year. Or they might charge a hefty speaking fee when you’ve got a nonprofit-constrained budget. You either have to pass on that idea or find another source of money. Or you might have visions of booking space at the fanciest hotel and conference center in town, but they might not have the space you need–or their rates might be too high.

Regardless of your specific constraints, time is non-negotiable, so you have to get realistic estimates for how long it will take to do something. For example, you will often have deadlines that hit before the event itself–deposits for floor space, food and beverage, or booth equipment (“pipe and drape”).

Event management is very much about constraint management–how much can you accomplish within a given amount of time, money, space, and personnel?

Working with People

Events–especially conferences–are all about people: what will they learn while they’re there? What will they experience? How will they interact? And that’s merely the “guest experience” side of things. Event management has an equally critical component, which is the staff side–everything that has to be done “backstage” to ensure that the guests have a great experience.

The dynamics of team management are much different in a nonprofit vs. a for-profit environment. I’ve worked in both, and I would say that nonprofit event and team management are much more difficult challenges than for-profit enterprises simply because the incentives are much different.

In a for-profit event, the incentives are very straightforward: everyone is there to collect a paycheck. Also, most of the time you are dealing with trained/experienced professionals who expect to do work to a specific level of quality or they don’t get paid. Management in such environments can be a little more top-down and uncompromising about getting work done on time or on spec.

In a nonprofit environment, you are dealing with volunteers, who might have any number of motivations for being there. They are not there for a paycheck, and most of them (up to and including the conference chair) are probably not getting paid. That means their stake in showing up and performing is often less because they can walk away at any time. This calls for leadership, which means inspiring people collectively and individually to do what you need them to do.

Another big task was recruiting people–and for that task, my co-chair and I did our best to find people who had actual or similar experience and a willingness to do the work. The result was a self-running operation that allowed me to hide in the office for hours at a time while the conference hummed along without me.

Having a Purpose or Theme

A theme isn’t just something an English lit teacher wanted in your early term papers: it’s a call to action for you and your team. What is the aim of your event? What is the message? What type of experience do you want your participants to have?

For example, the theme of the conference I chaired was “From the Ground Up!” The point of this theme was to focus on Huntsville, Alabama, as a place where all aspects of the space exploration enterprise could be found and done. I was gung-ho to show Huntsville as a place where the space industry could and should still “do business.” Because of this attitude, I placed greater emphasis than previous conferences on bringing big aerospace companies into the exhibit hall, something that hadn’t happened for a while.

ISDC2011_150x150dateThe branding carried over to things like the logo design, where a graphic designer friend created an excellent Art Deco variation of the NASA logo using non-traditional coloring (many space conferences use blue or black) and a rocket ship orbiting a giant cotton boll. All credit for the artwork goes to my friend Tina, but my Disney experience with theming resulted in insisting that the logo went everywhere–letterhead, website, event signage, etc.

The “businesslike” atmosphere meant that I tried to emphasize a professional attitude in the training and attire of volunteers. “We want to make Huntsville look good, like a place people can do business!” Beyond that, I left the details to darn near everyone else. We had higher-than-average attendance, which wasn’t bad for a recession and a time when NASA was undergoing budget cuts and other exciting challenges. The theme kept me (if not everyone else) focused.

Final Thoughts: Keeping Things Organized

The International Space Development Conference was a huge challenge, personally and professionally. It forced me out of my comfort zone, required me to acquire a smart phone to track all my appointments and to-do items, and gave me enough exposure to leadership to realize that I don’t enjoy it, but the results were good, even if the closing luncheon was interrupted by a tornado.

Is that a tornado siren I'm hearing? Yes, yes it is.

Is that a tornado siren I’m hearing? Yes, yes it is.

What kept me on task were the various tools and structures I kept in my head and computer to keep things organized and in balance when the unexpected occurred.

Bottom line? The same skill sets that allow you to organize large, complex documents involving multiple subject matter experts can also be employed in activities outside the technical writer’s realm.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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