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Less Obvious Lessons From The Last 50 Events I’ve Organized

October 18th, 2014

I’ve always found myself organizing events. From planning the dance to helping with concerts in college to the dozens of CreativeMornings lectures in the past few years, I gravitate towards the magic of the live show.

I landed in New York on July 4th, 2011. Based on a hasty calculation, I’ve had a hand in 50 events for about 15,000 attendees since my arrival, of course with the help and guidance of many fine folks. These events were mostly talks, a couple multi-day conferences, and a sprinkling of parties, with anywhere between 150-600 participants each.

Here are a few (potentially) less obvious lessons I’ve learned that have helped me keep my head on straight, survive the stress, and make the most of the experience.

The types of events I've worked on

Some of my favorite shots: (1) Hosting the “Rebel” CM at New York Public Library Feb. 2014, (2) “Color” event Sep. 2014, (3) David Kelley at The New School May 2014, (4) Kelli Anderson at XO Group Jul. 2012, (5) CM Summit After Party at Pioneer Works Oct. 2014, (6) Emilie Baltz at Galapagos Art Space Jun. 2013


1. Eat beforehand

When I’m hungry, I’m irritable. When I’m busy, I forget to eat. Poor combo. Do yourself a favor and make time beforehand to grab a bite. For the morning events, I wake up early to make breakfast. If you’re running late, I suggest assigning a friend the single responsibility of making sure you eat amidst the chaos.

A pro-tip I learned from Ryan who produces events at BAM: pack apple juice. Those slow, sugary calories will keep you standing.

People that aren't me enjoying delicious catered food.

People that aren’t me enjoying delicious catered food.


2. If something’s wrong on the stage, fix it

Speaker not holding the mic to his mouth? Say something. Confusion about how to use the clicker? Get up there and demonstrate. Weird object obstructing the camera’s view? Get that sh*t out of there. You don’t get any points for timidly sitting by, hoping a situation will remedy itself.

Nobody wants to see you cautiously approaching the stage in a moment of need. The audience would rather watch you quickly and confidently fix the issue. You must never hesitate. I learned that from Nickey who runs Preview Events and has handled over five years of production at the Times Center. She had no fear when it came to addressing a problem. Even if a speaker is mid-soliloquy, I say get up there and fix the lapel mic. The audience is begging for you to save the day.


3. Test the media. Test all of it.

I don’t care if every animated gif, Keynote sparkle animation and This Is Spinal Tap movie clip worked last night. This’ll be the best six minutes you spend before showtime. If there’s some sort of presentation or media involved, test all of it once the tech is setup. Better yet, test it with the speaker watching too.

Trust me, fumbling through your email in front of an audience while searching for that original .mov file is no fun.

A desperate Kevin in front of 200 people, hopelessly searching for missing video files that he imported improperly. CreativeMornings/NYC with Jamer Hunt, Sep. 2011. Issue was not resolved. Sigh.

A desperate Kevin in front of 200 people, hopelessly searching for missing video files that he imported improperly. CreativeMornings/NYC with Jamer Hunt, Sep. 2011. Issue was not resolved. Sigh.


4. If you forget someone’s name, own up to it.

You’re going to meet a lot of people, and you’re going to forget some names. That’s okay. Unless it’s a VIP (you should have done your homework), I say own up to it. “I’m so sorry, I’m blanking on your name,” is a great go-to. There are plenty of other tricks including the classic I’ll-intro-you-to-someone-else-and-listen-closely play but if all else fails, just be honest. In my experience, people will actually respect you if you’re genuine about it.

On the flip side, when approaching someone you’ve met a few times, make it easy for them. My boss loves it when people kick off a convo with their name and company (e.g. “Hey! I’m so-and-so from where-and-where”).


5. Dress up

“We’ve been working long nights for months all leading up to the next three days. There’s no way we’re gonna look like crap.”

Those were Devin’s poignant words when we were producing The Feast Conference in 2012. Dress up, buy new shoes, wear your favorite shirt. Whatever makes you feel unbeatable. Part of holding everything together is making sure you’re put together. You don’t want to be running around on game day looking ragged. You’ve worked so hard, make the moment count.

In my case, Devin literally took me shopping. I have to say, we looked great…even if we wore the same clothes two days in a row because we slept in the venue.


6. The best thing you can do at your event is participate

It’s not always possible, but if you can muster the free time, I believe a perfectly executed event means you’ve distributed responsibilities well enough to allow you (or whoever is heading the show) to meet, mingle, and participate in what’s going on. Ask questions to attendees, welcome sponsors, and nurture new relationships. That was something Bonnie, who’s produced TED and more, said when we worked together in 2012 that always stuck with me. Doesn’t that sound better than freaking out about every little detail until the room is empty again?

I like to think about the planning process like an asymptote. No matter how hard you work, you can never achieve “complete preparedness.” Eventually, further preparation leads to diminishing returns. You’re better off getting a good night’s rest to stock up some brain resources for the big day.

Event Planning Asymptote

The event planning asymptote: you’ll never be 100% ready.


7. Make a habit of celebrating with your team

Honestly, I’m not a great celebrator. When I’m left to my devices, it ends up being work work work work work. However, I’ve learned a bit about the importance of celebrating a job well done. A team deserves to decompress, debrief, and enjoy each other’s company outside of a stressful showtime environment. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Maybe just start with a regular meal or drinks following an event. Together, you’ve completed a goal. Mark that moment, and make some time to be proud of what was accomplished.

Events can get a bit hectic, no doubt. But that’s part of the thrill. There will always be a crunch time and eventually it will be all over. Finished, fineto, cold stop.

Work your tail off, get some sleep, and enjoy the ride. If all else fails, at least you’ll learn some valuables lessons along the way.


Credit: Event photos by Bekka Palmer, Erin Sparling, Julia Robbs & Ace Boothby