Open Thinkering


Tag: events

10 steps to running an event I’d want to attend

As I sit down to write this I’m aware of two things. The first is that I’m likely to sound like a grumpy old man. The second is that it seems extremely entitled to talk about how to run an event I’d want to attend.

However, this post is the outgrowth of an (online) conversation I had yesterday after an event I’d attended. It was a conference I used to go to every year which, for some reason this year mostly left me cold.

I’m not particularly interested in deconstructing that particular event, especially as everyone else seemed to love it. To be fair it did have some good sessions! Instead, it’s probably more useful to talk about what, after attending hundreds of conferences, makes for a good one.

1. Encourage participation

This has got to be number one. Without the event feeling like a participatory experience, I may as well stay at home and watch the livestream. Not every session needs to be a workshop, but nor should every session merely be someone talking from the stage without even the ability for Q&A.

2. Provide clear scope

I like an eclectic mix of things and to find out about stuff I didn’t even know existed. However, I want to know in advance what’s in and out of scope. In fact, I kind of want to know the principles of the conference organisers and what they’re trying to achieve from the event. Pro tip: sometimes you can work this out by who’s sponsoring it…

3. Ensure a diverse range of speakers/facilitators

Before I was a bit more enlightened, I would have rolled my eyes at diversity quotas. However, I’ve first-hand experience of how important it is to be exposed to as many different worldviews as possible. By diversity I’m talking here about both visible and invisible differences. For example, it’s no good in simply ensuring your speakers have a variety of skin tones if they all went to the same Business School for their MBA. I’m talking gender, neurodiversity, race, and everything inbetween.

Yes, this means less white guys like me on the stage. No, that’s not discrimination.

4. Challenge the audience with different views

Related to the previous point, within the scope of the conference there should be as broad a range of views on topics as possible. Panel sessions can be good for this so long as they don’t turn into speeches. Getting a proper debate going in a panel session takes a skilled chairperson.

In general, and I know this in itself is probably controversial, so long as people aren’t engaging in hate speech, I think it’s absolutely OK for the audience to be deeply challenged by what a speaker has to say. Otherwise, what’s the point of the event? To nod along with stuff that confirms your worldview?

5. Have tracks and/or themes

Depending on the size of the event, there may be conference tracks. This means that participants can choose things of interest to them in parallel sessions. If it’s a smaller, single-track conference, I’d encourage the event organisers to group sessions by theme. This allows participants to skip chunks of the day should they need to for whatever reason.

6. Provide space for chatting

It’s a cliché that the best parts of in-person gatherings are the conversations in hallways and corridors, but that doesn’t make it any the less true. This is a valid reason for skipping out on sessions (see previous point) and providing space for this should be something that responsible and forward-thinking conference organisers should prioritise.

7. Recognise off-stage talent

It may be that every single speaker or facilitator at the conference is a leader in their field and absolutely at the top of their game. However, this is unlikely, and the combined wisdom in the room far exceeds that of whoever happens to be on-stage.

There are many ways to capture this, including having backchannels, extending the session into asynchronous conversations, and providing ways during the session for feedback and pushback.

8. Provide a mix of session formats and lengths

One hour is a sub-optimal amount of time for which to schedule a session. It’s too long, really, for a presentation plus Q&A (45 mins max!) and too short for a workshop. An hour can work for a panel session, but only if the chair is good at keeping things interesting.

Instead, sessions should vary in length in a way that’s appropriate to their format. Having an unconference element to proceedings, even if a semi-official fringe event can add a lot of value for certain types of participants (including me!)

9. Get the food right

It’s absolutely crucial to ensure that the food you provide is portable and meets everyone’s dietary needs. Yesterday’s event actually nailed this through five different coloured bags: two were meat, two were vegetarian, one was vegan. They were in compostable packaging and portable enough to be eaten anywhere.

10. Build a community

If, as is likely, the conference is one in a series of events, then the aim should be to build a community around it. This doesn’t have to be a one where there’s continual interaction all year, but there should be some recognition that there are participants coming back every year.

Their expertise can be used to welcome newbies, establish positive norms, and celebrate the growth of the community or sector. In all of the events I’ve been to, there are only a few I’ve seen do this at all, let alone well.

So there we go. I’m sure I could add more if I spent longer thinking about it, but these are the 10 that spring to mind in the time I’ve set aside to write this post. What’s missing from your point of view? Feel free to add a comment below!

Update: some additional things I missed that others have picked up on…

Good post. Quick notes from the perspective of a speaker working against the grain of the mainstream:

– Point in #2 about sponsors is key.

– I’d add: pay your speakers (this will also help with the diversity bit)

– On debates: I’d add from personal experience that I have zero desire to be the token dissenting voice at a conference. e.g., If your event is 29 people from Silicon Valley people farmers, don’t invite me “for balance.” That’s not balance; it’s the illusion of balance.

Aral Balkan

Now that we know how, make all conferences hybrid in one form or another, and choose the location with good transport links in mind. Flying long distance to a conference is immoral anyway, but travel costs, disability, passport inequality, caring duties, and any number of other factors prevent really good people from participating in traditional conferences.

Two versions of this that I have participated in, both of which worked well, were:
a) Local nodes videolinked into the big gathering (this allows for locally negotiated childcare, disabled access, preconference planning, etc.)
b) Fully hybrid, with careful account taken of time zones, local languages, etc.

Will Tuladhar-Douglas

I’d put more detail into the diversity stuff you’ve already mentioned, including “have a code of conduct” and “make clear how accessible your event is to different demographics”. I wrote about this stuff at

Matt Cengia

I think this is a great list. AND (ahem) on point 10 (community) I have some thoughts. Sometimes an event is just great on its own even if it doesn’t generate or foster a community. Sometimes that’s because those communities already exist and people don’t have time in their lives for another community. I’ve seen it work both ways. When a community builds from or is fostered by a event or can be great. But it’s also ok if it just exists at that point in time I think.

Daniel Appelquist

That’s a good list, with some good additions too! I like to think Penguicon hits a number of those. I hope those calling for hybrid events understand the competing interests of cost and privacy. Also, as a non-profit event we get pros who are willing to share with the local community but don’t want to be broadcast to the internet.

Of course, lots of issues are solved with more money.


also see with @ada had to say about making sure events are inclusive:

Daniel Appelquist

It’s a good list, Doug, in theory. But there are big unsuspecting traps here that will not only reduce true accessibility for ND’s (neurodivergents -ADHD/autistic/trauma/etc). NT’s (neurotypicals) ideas of participation are often poorly-thought out things that serve to exclude ND. Similarly, often “community building” does the same. In my exp, the prob is worse w/ NT’s who believe themselves paragons of “open” and “critical” based on race or gender.

Jim Luke

Point in #1, encourage but don’t pressure or force people into participating


great post! I did think it interesting the suggestions are based on conferences. while a conference may have been the inspiration for the list, there are other types of events.

Expanding on themes, the way you design an event contains multiple opportunities to explore a theme. Make it fun/interesting – work it into your physical space and website.

creating smaller events around a larger one help foster community. For a conference, this could be a kickoff meetup

Andrew Woods

Where I’ll be at MozFest 2016

This weekend it’s the Mozilla Festival, an event that brings together everyone interested in the open web. It’s an event I attended as a volunteer before I joined Mozilla, something I was involved with during my time as a paid contributor, and now I’m back as a community member.

My We Are Open co-op comrades and I are running three sessions over the weekend. Unfortunately, Laura can’t make it, but either Bryan, John, and I will be taking the lead on the following. The idea is that they work in their own right, but we’ve also worked with the organisers to ensure they form a kind of ‘arc’ for those who want to attend all three sessions!

The Thinkasprint: the art of thinking sideways

Saturday, 11:15am-12:45pm
Open Badges, Floor 8 – 801

In this session participants will be taken through a modified version of We Are Open Co-op’s ‘thinkathon’ approach, to help people think about knotty problems in an open, inclusive, and participatory way. The process involves as much drawing as it does thinking and writing, and is solution-oriented.

We use the wealth of experience that participants and facilitators have to take apart a problem and look at it from a different angle. We will go off at tangents and down rabbit holes, but that’s all part of the process!

Our starting point will be whatever issues participants bring to the table after our icebreaker activity, but we have a few ideas up our sleeves, such as Open Badges for employability, digital skills, and ‘passion projects’.

Digital Champions: scaffolding adult digital and web literacies with badges

Saturday, 3:15pm-4:00pm
Open Badges, Floor 1 – 101

This session will help attendees understand the concept of ‘flexible frameworks’, using examples from London Connected Learning Centre and Sussex Downs College. This draws on doteveryone’s Basic Digital Skills Framework and Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map. It will be a conversation-led session with visual thoughts captured by Bryan Mathers.


Sunday, 11:00am-11:45am
Open Badges, Floor 8 – 801

Using the starting points of doteveryone’s Basic Digital Skills, Workplace Skills, and Digital Leadership Skills programmes, NCVO’s Skills Lab work, and London CLC’s Digital Champions Curriculum, this workshop will find commonalities, overlaps, and ways forward for badges-based flexible frameworks.

We’ll provide examples of existing programmes, badges and pathways and then work to flesh out, fill gaps and imagine new links and partnerships between established players as well as welcoming new entrants to the digital skills space. This will be a hands-on, practical session.

If you’re coming to MozFest, I hope you’ll join us for at least one session. If not (there’s so much going on!) then please do find us and say hello — I’m @dajbelshaw on Twitter and will also keep an eye out on the @WeAreOpenCoop account.

Photo by Mozilla in Europe

Where I’ll be at BETT 2016

I’ve spoken at BETT in many guises. I started off as a teacher, then I went as a school senior leader, then went there during my time with Jisc, then Mozilla… This time around, BETT 2016 will be my first as a consultant. On the first day I’m there I’ll have my City & Guilds hat on as they’re one of my main clients. On the second, I’m representing myself (i.e. Dynamic Skillset).

I love to hate BETT. While I dislike the amount of snake oil I see there, it’s worth attending because of the people. While I’m there I try to bring a dose of healthy edtech skepticism. I also try and show people alternatives to to their current reality.

This year, you can catch me at BETT at the following times:

Wednesday 20th

The first session I’m involved with on Wednesday is a presentation with Bryan Mathers. We’ll be talking about educational credentials such as Open Badges, and how City & Guilds can help with this. We’ll be going both wide and deep.

  • The Digital Skills Sandwich: credentialing 21st literacies in a fast-paced environment (1:45pm to 2:15pm) Learn Live Further Education and Skills theatre

The second session is one I’m chairing. I’m looking forward to asking probing questions of the panellists and getting input from the audience!

  • Connecting With Young People: Using Social Media and Digital Marketing to Enhance Student Recruitment (4:45pm to 5:30pm) Learn Live Further Education and Skills theatre

If you’re attending BETT and want to catch up, lunch, a coffee after my presentation, or dinner are your best options.

Thursday 21st

I’m only doing one short presentation on Thursday, and spending the rest of my time wandering around. I’ll be presenting on the Exa Networks stand (full programme), after being asked nicely by Alan O’Donohoe. Space is limited and there’ll be 10 minutes for questions afterwards.

  • How to be an (open) badger (12:00-12:20) Stand B160 – Exa Education

I’m hoping to bump into a few people on Thursday before heading home late afternoon. I’ll be pretty flexible, so if you want to say hello, do tweet me (@dajbelshaw) or email me beforehand to arrange a time ([email protected]).

If you’re interested in where I’ll be over the coming year, then you might want to check out my Lanyrd profile. I still need to update it with some stuff from last year, but event-wise it’s a decent overview of my past/future movements!