Ideas for Spark Festival events you could run

Why do people take time out of their busy lives to attend an event? To break it down, I think they do it because they’re looking for some combination of:

Meet — they want to network and connect with others

Learn — they’re looking to learn something they don’t already know

Do — they want to build or make something

Let’s face it though, you can actually do those second two things — the “learning” and the “doing” — in your own time. And these days with social networking, you can even do a pretty good job of the “meeting” part as well.

So it occurs to me that a really successful event is some sort of magical combination of meeting, learning and doing, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

As Program Director of Spark Festival I’m looking to help the ecosystem host events that have that little sprinkling of magic pixie dust. The first thing I’ve done to help make this happen is get a call for submissions out there, to get people thinking about their event early, and strategically.

I’ve also scoured the interwebs and gathered together a few ideas for the kinds of events that will have the greatest likelihood of delivering that magical combination of meet-learn-do. So, if you’re looking for some inspiration for an idea for an event that will bring real value to your audience, read on!

The Humble Panel

The poor old panel cops a lot of flak. And honestly, there’s a reason for that: we’ve all sat through those self indulgent, un-prepared affairs, and walked away with precisely nothing, bitterly thinking we wished we’d stayed at home on the couch and caught up on Silicon Valley.

But lately I’ve been to more than a couple that really gave me hope that with a little bit of work, this relatively low-bandwidth event can actually add a lot of value.

So here’s how you can host a great panel event on the Spark Festival program this year.

  1. Preparation

I was going to burrow down into the detail on this myself, but then I realised there is no way I could do a better job than this guy. So, do yourself a favour, read that link in its entirety, do what he tells you to do, and you’ll be 75% of the way there.

2. Facilitate the networking

There’s a reason I put “meet” at the top of that list of things people want to do at an event. But as much as people think they want to meet and connect, sometimes they need a little help to do it and there’s no shortage of ideas for really simple ways you can do this.

If you try and do it at the beginning of the event, people haven’t really settled in, they’re still feeling a bit on edge, and it doesn’t really work. But if you leave it till the end, you’ll find that a lot of people will bolt for the door as soon as the panel wraps up.

So how about doing something in the middle of the panel? The following is such a great way to get people talking to each other, plus it will really shake up the energy in the room again!

Make the schedule for the event (in this case I’m using times for an evening event, but the same template could be applied at any time) something along the lines of:

6.00pm: doors open and guests start to arrive

6.20pm (sharp!): Introductions and start the panel

6.50pm: take 15–20 mins to do the following exercise.

1. Invite everyone to stand up, and get your panelists out amongst the crowd of attendees as well
2. Pose an interesting question that is directly related to the purpose of the panel
3. Ask everyone to reflect on the question silently for a full minute
4. Then invite everyone to turn to someone nearby (preferably someone they don’t already know) and have a 5 minute conversation on the question — at the end of which you will ring a bell
5. When the bell rings, ask everyone to politely end the first conversation, then find someone else and discuss the question with that new person

Obviously you can repeat as many times as you like, but, people have turned up to hear what your panelists have to say as well so…

7.10pm: start the panel again

7.40pm: wrap up the panel

Simple, right? A bit of preparation, a bit of facilitated networking, and I reckon you’ve got yourself a panel that people should give up their Netflix for!

The Showcase

(photo courtesy if Incubate)

There’s a little bit of work involved in this idea, but with not that much effort you can be responsible for hosting an event that really helps startups in your sector get that attention they crave.

The best way to approach this is to focus on a vertical, which could be anything from Cleantech to Wastetech to Medtech to Deeptech, from Space to Blockchain. Any sector that is a hotbed of innovation!

Collaborate: gather together as many people doing interesting things in your space — especially if they have something they’d like to show off or demo.

Find a space to host you (Spark Festival can help you with this), but keep it simple in terms of hardware. You don’t need to go building fancy expo stands when a desk and a power outlet will do the trick.

Put on some food and drinks.

At some stage of the event give as many of the startups as you can the opportunity to do a 2–3 minute pitch onstage. Be SUPER strict about making them stick to the time limit: nothing kills the energy more quickly than a rambling 20 minute pitch :(

You’ll be amazed at the connections that happen: not just between startups and potential customers, but also between the startups themselves, and these are the connections from which an industry truly grows.

The Presentation/Keynote

If you’ve got access to a genuine expert on a relevant topic, or indeed, if you are a genuine expert yourself, then by all means let them have the stage and an audience. To make the event really engaging though, I would suggest incorporating some sort of facilitated networking, a la what I have suggested above for the panel.

Whatever you do, especially if this is an evening event, do not let a presentation go on for more than 20 minutes. Unless you’ve got Barak Obama lined up, in this day of short attention spans it’s impossible to hold the space for much longer than this. And people won’t remember any of the dozens of gems of wisdom that were imparted, they’ll just remember how bored and distracted they were by the end. So, 20 minutes, plus 20 minutes of really well facilitated Q and A, and you’ve got yourself a fine event.

The Workshop

Hosting a hands on workshop will inevitably involve a lot of work, though less so if you already have the materials developed. However, they can also bring a lot of return. Not only will you be really adding a lot of value to the Spark Festival program, a workshop can be a unique opportunity to get the depth of expertise in your organisation in front of a new audience.

And a workshop doesn’t have to be full day: an intensive lunch time or morning session that’s only 90 minutes to 2 hrs long might be just the thing!

The Pitch-a-Thon/Demo Day

Similar to the showcase above, an event focussed around a series of pitches can be a great way to show off all the interesting startups in your sector.

If you think you can get enough startups onboard that are ready for it, then by all means gather together some investors and make it a serious affair.

However there’s also a lot of value in lowering the stakes a bit and doing something fun, like this “Crocodile Pit” event being organised by Stone & Chalk for Vivid ideas.

But whatever you do, make sure your pitchers know you will have a strictly enforced time limit on the length of the pitch! And then, at the event, make sure you do strictly enforce this time limit. Not only will you be doing your audience a favour and keeping the energy high, you’ll be doing the whole Australian industry a favour by teaching startups how to do a professional pitch :)

How long should a pitch be? Well, TechCrunch Battlefield pitches are 6 mins long followed by 6 mins of questions from the judges, so I reckon that’s as good a gold standard as anything.

The Hackathon

There’s a lot of work in a hackathon, but if you get it right, A LOT can come out of it. There’s nothing like getting a whole bunch of like minded people in the room together and having them work on something together to build connection.

If there is one key to success at a hackathon, it’s developing a clearly defined set of problems or challenges you’re looking to solve. Indeed, you might want to think about holding a half-day or evening event in advance of your hackathon where you gather together as many of the hackathon participants as you can and work out what challenges you are going to put forward at the actual hackathon.

There are numerous guides online, but this one would seems to be the right balance of having enough detail without being overwhelming.

Hope that helps getting the creativity flowing, look forward to seeing your awesome idea for a Spark Festival 2017 event!

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