The 4 Pillars of a Successful Event
There is nothing quite like the feeling of putting on a great event.
We love seeing people enjoy an experience, smiles on their face, and appreciative of the opportunity they’ve had. They keep coming back, and ask if they can bring others next time because they enjoyed it so much.
And there’s nothing quite like the pain of hosting a crappy event.
When people are constantly checking their phone, barely talking, or indifferent to the experience that we’ve created.
What makes the difference?
There are a lot of tactics event folks and community builders could share, from email language to invite subject lines, followup and everything else, but let’s cut through all that and focus on the biggest elements — the first principles.
I’ve organized most types of events, from intimate dinners to massive gatherings, and four aspects have stood out consistently over the years for the events that have generated the best experiences.
They are the pillars of any successful experience, independent of the context. And I’ve written them up a quick guide, so that you can create great experiences as well.
For each one, I’ll give three examples of what success might look like, ranging from the beginner to expert levels.
Is there something about your event that stands out from others like it, enough that they would remember it weeks or months later? If they went to multiple events in an evening, would yours stay front of mind? There are plenty of dinners, happy hours, and retreats in New York City alone — is yours just like everything else? (Thanks to Francisco Dao for his thoughts around novel activities, as well as Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger for their insight-inspiring writing around surprise.)
Beginner Example: You introduce a novel activity to an otherwise typical get together. Perhaps the attendees go sneaker painting, or do a dumpling crawl through Chinatown. You might take a group out to play childhood games in public, like the organizers of Inconspicuous Games. If you are giving a talk, maybe you end it with a group dance like Erica Dhawan.
Intermediate Example: You create an enforced constraint on the typical activities involved in the event. Perhaps people may not engage in small talk, or may not talk to anyone they know. Perhaps nobody may buy food or drink for themselves if there is a bar, but may only buy food for each other. Perhaps every person is asked to shared a lesser-known fact about his or herself. How can you change people’s behavior in a way that stands out?
Advanced Example: You create significant anticipation or surprise for attendees. At Chris Schembra’s 747 Club dinners, the story passes through word of mouth that many people may cry from a single question. (This ended up being true.) Perhaps they meet at an unclear location before the event, from which you lead them to the actual venue. You might have a completely unexpected occasion at the end that puts them in suspense.
No matter how amazing the event is, or how interestingly planned, the people make the difference. (Thanks to Keith Ferrazzi for his clarifying thinking around this.)
This doesn’t simply mean curation based on people’s titles (which I generally don’t like to do). It means that every person you’ve invited to the event has the right personality, adds the right value to the event, and resonates with the intention of what you are planning.
Beginner’s Example: If you are gathering folks for a learning event about artificial intelligence, and you have a speaker who teaches the fundamental concepts for beginners, invite people eager to learn the the basics, not the experts. Make sure all the people involved will have a valuable conversation.
Intermediate Example: If you are hosting a get together for people to simply get to know each other, and not network, invite your friends who are open-minded, and not just attached to their work life. Don’t invite the folks who don’t leave home without their business cards. Curate strongly for personality fit at your event.
Advanced Example: If you are hosting a dinner around a theme which resonates with everyone, each person you pick should have a sufficiently unique viewpoint, but with enough in common that they could understand each other. For example, when I did this for a dinner around the theme of travel, I invited a growth marketer from a luggage company, a founder of a itinerary planning startup, a videographer who gave historical tours of cities, an author of a packing efficiency book, and the founder of a flight savings platform. They had something in common, but nobody was doing the same work as everyone else.
When folks come to your event, they should feel that they are getting more out of the event than you are asking of them. The value that they get does not need to be monetary- it could be emotional value, social connection, learning, a full stomach, or anything else that they might find worthwhile. (Thank you to Michael Roderick, Chris Fralic, Patrick Ip, and Sandbox for their thoughts and practices around generosity.)
Beginners Example: If you are hosting an event with a paid ticket price, say $20, make sure that people feel like they got their money’s worth, be it in the food, the learning, or the experience. Would you confidently pay that price for your own event, or do you feel like you have to sell yourself on it? If it’s the latter, you are going to have a hard time maintaining the event quality over time.
Intermediate Example: Are the total resources exhausted getting to this event (inclusive of the time to sign up, respond to your communications, complete any prep work, pay for the ticket or expenses, and travel there) clearly outweighed by the experience itself? Is the overall cost, beyond money, worth it?
Advanced Example: If the other two are already “Yes’”, in the event, do you give more to your guests than you ask? At a dinner series created by Patrick Ip, the fundamental question of the event is “How can I help?” If you ask guests for connections after the event to specific people, are you giving them significantly more than your own ask? If you can consistently make some ask from the event of other people without feeling guilty, then you are doing well. If you feel hesitant making such a request of the same person more than once, you might not be giving more than you ask. As a host, you should never feel like you are getting more from others than what you are putting in.
This is perhaps the most under-valued but essential components of any good event. There are three ways in which consistency matters:
Beginner Example: What you promise people is consistent with what you deliver. If you promise delicious food and a pleasant venue, you must make sure there is no reason that anybody attending would say you had an unfulfilled promise. Don’t pull a Fyre Festival. If you promise the event starts at 6, doors must open then. If you say you will have great entrepreneurs and investors at an event, they should be great.
Intermediate Example: Your events are consistent over time. You don’t take a break on curation and invite just anyone for an event, just because you need to make your magic attendee quota. You don’t send calendar invites only 90% of the time, and forget every once in a while. You don’t say it is a monthly event series, and then all of a sudden, nobody hears anything from you between August and December.
Advanced Example: Everything you do for the event is consistent with the intention of the event. You ask yourself the questions, “What do I want my guests to get out of the event?” and “What do I want my guests to feel when they enter, participate in, and leave my event?” and make sure that every component of the event resonates with your answers to those questions. Let’s say that you create an event for people who are generous. Every element would be in alignment with the perception of generosity. There is no price to attend; everybody brings something to offer the community to eat; stories are told of generosity between community members, and in the followup, the hosts make a genuine offer of help to the attendees.
In conclusion: Though there are additional elements that can take you event event further, checking yourself for these for criteria first can make a world of difference for your events.
If you have other ideas of what is fundamental to a great event, or would like to continue the conversation, feel free to reach out to me on twitter at @mikemaccombie.