The “Potatoes” approach to organising events

3 parts to an event: the plate (logistics), the potatoes (content), and the gravy (nice-to-haves)

3 parts to an event: the plate (logistics), the potatoes (content), and the gravy (nice-to-haves)

Organising an event can be daunting. The sky’s the limit, there’s an empty canvas, anything and everything is on the table. There are a lot of tasks to complete, material to develop and people to pull in a hundred directions. Inevitably I see events being organised that require too much resources, time, effort, for very little return beyond the enjoyable day gathering people together, when all the while more common events are going on all around us with little efforts in the way of preparation.

Some approaches to organising an event involve an attrition of dedicating bodies around a table to mindlessly and effortlessly review every detail to be passed with consensus, each mired by another detail that seems related but hardly deserving of the time and effort on it. Other approaches involve bloated budgets and over-generalised goals and objectives the event is a confusing catch-all meeting aimed squarely at getting many people together, but leaving unfulfilled, with redundant connections and material hardly deserving of a day.

When organising an event it is necessary to take the initial step back and clarify the objective. That’s your crux, your core, your potatoes. Surely the objective can’t be just about getting lots of people together to spend time together. Some examples of worthwhile events include: to form a community of practitioners or experts; to solve a compendium of problems; to identify threats and challenges; to collectively learn leading-edge developments in our field; to make lots of money; to establish our centre as a leading learning provider; to expand our network connections of leading thinkers in the sector; to get strategic insight on the value of our services, etc. Choose one, make up your own. Be honest and clear about this to yourself and your partners or team (how you market it and what slogans you use can be up to others). And like with any cooking, when it’s ready to serve, you scoop it on a plate for your audience, and drizzle some gravy to add stock (but not too much!).

There it is; the 3 parts to event planning- like getting potatoes at a cafeteria, there’s

  • the plate (the logistics)
  • the potatoes (the content)
  • the gravy (the nice-to-haves).

Each of these are analogous to the parts to organising an event.

The plate

The logistics for the whole event. Where it is, when. The must-haves to hold the event, the make-its or break-its. Without these, you don’t have the event. Don’t let gravy topics distract you of this; if any of these items are missing, you must work-arounds or alternatives. The location booking, the date of the event, that key speaker, the website, the audio-visual support, the location of the event, etc. You can always choose different types of plates – but if it’s too small (such as the location is too small) or it’s chipped (your location is cold, noisy!) it will compromise your event. Not having cookies and a cellphone charger station will not compromise your event. Don’t let these discussions distract each other.

The potatoes

This is the content of the event. This encompasses the schedule, the target audience and speakers, and key messaging (and branding) that rallies people to your event. What are people meeting to discuss? Who’s speaking about what? What’s the theme, objective, and who’s going? What are people gathering to learn about? Is there enough for them to chew on? Are the right people sharing the right information?

The gravy

These are the “nice to haves” of the event. They don’t make or break your event, but they add value to your event. This includes food, accommodations, maybe even wifi, branded t—shirts, advertising. It depends on the type of event. The worst part is to be too concerned with gravy topics at the expense of focusing on your plate and potatoes. A good idea is to separate these nice-to-haves to enthusiastic volunteers who won’t distract you from making sure you have enough plates and delicious potatoes. It’s nice to have great tasting gravy. It also sucks to have a small chipped plate of just gravy.

Outcomes

Being a fan of analogies, let’s illustrate some of the outcomes possible.

  • You can’t have potatoes without a plate (you can’t have an event without a room and tables)
  • You can have potatoes without gravy (could be a terrible room, but a room nonetheless).
  • You don’t want a plate with gravy and no potatoes (maybe it’s an event lacking content, but lots of freebies and vapid conversation).

I find these 3 parts worthwhile when organising an event, because then you can group discussions, prioritise (whether or not it’s a “gravy” item) and group them according to an activity area that supports the event (the plate/logistics) or an item that is at the core of the rationale for the event (the potatoes/content). The real benefit is also at reducing the confusion of these areas, as it is easy to mire a discussion about the possible layout of a room (logistics) with the type of discussion that will be had (content). These discussions should not be siloed: any discussion about the format (content) of the event needs to be matched with the logistics to make it possible, but knowing how they are distinct is worthwhile to see how they relate than organising how to fill a room with chairs and coffee than having a discussion about whether the room with chairs and coffee is amenable to the discussion to be had by a panel at the front of the room.

Addendum:

Now, start planning. First thing’s first: book the venue (location) and the date. This is half the work, so do it well. It may include costs and contracts. If you want to hedge your bets, ensure there is a penalty, or find out if they can hold the venue until you confirm, to accommodate your cold feet if need be. But you need this nailed down because you can’t start building momentum without it. Consider the booking of the venue as your way of planting a flag in the ground in the far distance for others to see. If, by others’ vantage point, it’s clearly off the mark or there are better vistas preferred, move it, but do not be swayed by others’ opinion in this area: there will always be a dozen reasons to have your event in another location at another date, any other date. Resist temptations to change venue or change the date or to delay the event at a later time: this causes more damage than benefit. Changing the date and venue is not an option unless it’s the only option left.

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