[This post has been modified from the original version. My apologies for any ugliness in the original posting.]
I had this grand idea of starting this post by sharing how I got into the volunteer event management business. However, to keep things brief, I’ll just share with you some thoughts on how my skills as a technical communicator relate to event planning. You can decide for yourself whether this is a line of work for you.
Covering the who, what, where, when, etc.
Even if you’re running an event for actual aerospace engineers and astronauts (which I did in 2011), convention or event management really is not rocket science. It does, however, require an organized, detail-minded thought process, and working as a technical communicator can give you the skills to do that. As with any technical process or writing project, an event requires answering some basic questions:
- Where is it (place of performance)?
- When will it occur (deadline) and how long will it run (schedule/period of performance)?
- Who will participate (audience)?
- Who will help execute the event (team)?
- What is the actual content going to be (content)?
- What feeling or action do you want attendees to come out with (outcome/tone)?
Finding who’s going to help
I got into event organizing as a volunteer. Before I got into a position where people trusted me to set up and run events, I had to do a lot of other little things along the way to prove that I was a capable, responsible person. Few organizations–for-profit or non–are going to hire an event manager off the street. So as I was going along doing smaller tasks, including volunteering for conventions other people were running, I was meeting people, making friends and contacts, and getting to know who was good at or knew what.
This slow build-up of skills and contacts allowed me to learn how various organizations worked, prove myself, and develop a subconscious database in my head of who could do what. By the time I was in a position to be put in charge of things, I had also acquired a large network of people I could call upon to help me run the event.
Getting the event ready and operating on schedule
Like most projects, conferences and events have a known deadline–it will happen on a specific date or dates, which means all of the pieces of the puzzle must be in place by the time everything begins. If not, you start inconveniencing your audience, most of whom likely paid to attend.
Leading volunteer events is a lot different from running events in the professional meeting management industry due to one key factor: while people skills are necessary for both, they are critical for a volunteer organization, as you have to maintain good relations with your fellow volunteers and keep them motivated to participate without straightforward incentives like pay. This is why it’s good to make sure you have the most reliable people you can find on the front end and a common understanding about deadlines and everyone’s willingness to commit their time and efforts. Last-minute drop-outs mean more work for the existing team or going out and trying to find another volunteer.
Another critical skill in event management is calendar and time management–understanding what needs to be done by when and sticking to the schedule.
Delivering what you said you were going to do
In the end, you want your event to go off with as little friction as possible. If that means you and your team are running around like maniacs nailing down the last-minute details but the participants are enjoying themselves, you’re on the right track. Continuing communication with your team is essential to keeping things on schedule and on track. And yes, given that you’re dealing with people, last-minute requests and crises are often the order of the day, so it helps to have a good sense of humor and an ability to keep calm in the midst of chaos or sudden change. It’s not for everyone, and most of the skills necessary for handling event management are learned, not automatic (especially if you’re an introvert), but if you can plan a formal dinner party or a large family vacation, you’ve got the early starting points for a job as an event organizer.
Thanks, Bart. Having organized a couple of events in a former job, I have a deep respect for the people who can do it well. But I hadn’t thought until now that event planning and Tech Comm share a lot of skills in common.
Event planners also have to work with staff from hotels and convention centers. These people have well-defined sets of expectations and a vocabulary all their own. Working with them is a lot like working with subject-matter experts in Tech Comm.