Event Management: Brainstorming and Selecting Ideas

Following up on my Event Management post, today I’ll talk about brainstorming and selecting ideas for events. This is one of the more enjoyable parts of conference planning. This is a bit like brainstorming for vacation: with an unlimited budget in your team’s imagination, you can get creative and aspirational. Eventually, of course, you have to rein in the imagination a bit and start selecting ideas that are possible within a realistic budget, but the brainstorming process is your starting point for putting together a great event, and it is still useful.

The Sky is Not the Limit

Your event might be a one-off activity or a multi-day function. Whether setting up a one-off Science Cheerleader appearance or a full-week International Space Development Conference, it helps to think about the big picture first: “What are we going to do?” This discussion can include answering the following questions:

  • What’s the theme of the event?
  • What do you want your participants to experience?
  • How do you want them to feel or respond?
  • What sorts of tools or experiences will ensure that they respond the way you want?

The conversation could be two people or a much larger team. You could even do it yourself, but I’ve found it much more productive to include at least one other person in the discussion. More people = more ideas.

You might or might not have encountered a brainstorming session in the workplace, but  they are usually structured in similar ways, assuming you’re dealing with a group of 3 or more (two-person planning teams can have a conversation on the phone, online, or in person). The verbal version is a freewheeling discussion where people call out ideas while one person (“scribe”) takes notes on a dry-erase board or poster paper. A facilitator/discussion leader can solicit specific types of ideas or seek out details from individual contributors. The silent version is a quieter session where individuals are given packs of sticky notes and told to write down their ideas and place them on an easel of some sort for everyone to see. A third version could be a hybrid where you mix the two approaches, letting the extroverts throw out ideas aloud while the quieter folks write  down their ideas.

Regardless of your approach, the “rules” of a brainstorming session are relatively simple:

  • Come up with as many ideas as you can within the time limit.
  • Stay on topic–you’re there to brainstorm about that event, not come up with ideas for other issues.
  • Beyond that, don’t let anyone treat others’ ideas as bad, silly, wrong, or unrealistic. You’re just playing with ideas at first.

It’s usually best to limit the initial no-limits discussion to 10 minutes or so. Spontaneity usually runs out at that point.

Herding Cats

The next step would be to group the ideas by subject matter or similar content. Once you have a better picture of what everyone’s suggested, you can start reining in the imagination and start getting to practical matters, such as cost, level of effort, and realism.

For the 2011 ISDC, for example, our team proposed the following ideas in our bid to the national organization:

  • “Stardance” – A space-themed film festival and competition, which would include short features by local, national, and international amateur filmmakers – Stardance has the potential to become an annual event for the Huntsville area.
  • “Space Groove” – A musical café featuring local bands, filkers (science fiction and fantasy folk singers), and other musical acts.
  • “Bobby O’Heinlein’s Orbital Bar” – An opportunity for local and national restaurants and clubs, and ISDC attendees, to compete in a space-themed snack and cocktail competition – with ISDC attendees as the judges!
  • “Downtime Dock” – A break area in the hallway where attendees can play space-themed Nintendo Wii or other games to unwind.
  • “Kid Kosmos” – A series of space-themed essay, story, art, and Lego® building competitions for kids aged 6 to 18.

Did any of those happen? As it turns out, no. The reasons varied from lack of space to lack of budget to lack of interest. However, thanks to the presence of a lot of smart aerospace people in the Huntsville area, we did have a career fair, a science fiction book signing, and a space-themed band on hand for entertainment. We reached out to Marian Call, who is known for singing space-nerdy songs, but she was unavailable. Fortunately, Huntsville’s local geek-rock band, Foot Pound Force, was available, and they appeared a couple of different times during the conference.

Our brainstorming wish list also included tours of NASA and space company facilities in the Huntsville area, including Marshall Space Flight Center, United Launch Alliance, and Orion Propulsion (now part of Dynetics). We were more successful obtaining permission for these events, though they were restricted to U.S. citizens. Our connections with the aerospace community also enabled the conference to bring some of those companies into our trade show space.

Lessons Learned from Brainstorming

Not everyone will get what they want from the initial brainstorming session. Realistic matters will modify the original set of ideas, such as availability of time, money, or people. Priorities can shift. However, some ideas can be modified to fit within a given budget.

That’s not the point of the meeting. The idea is to get the team engaged and thinking creatively about the event. Have fun with the process…the work will come soon enough.

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About Bart Leahy

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