Being one of the two main coordinators for TEDxWarwick over the past year has been a phenomenal experience. A bewildering mixture of frustration, inspiration, hard work, collaboration, meetings, exhaustion, excitement and, above all, belief. I have had the good fortune to be working with an extremely capable team, without whom the conference would quite simply never have got off the ground. Nevertheless, it’s also been a steep learning curve and quite a turbulent journey at times. I made a great many mistakes along the way! Here’s what I took away from it all.
First things first: people
Team recruitment is absolutely vital. Unless very particular or advanced technical skills are required, the most important attribute of a prospective team member is drive and passion. If those two elements are present, the rest will follow. Sometimes they are difficult to spot – plenty of people apply just to spice up their CVs, without having any real belief. As the workload increases towards the event, these are the sort of people who will quietly disappear.
Micromanagement is dangerous
When responsible for multiple facets of an organisation, it is all too easy to get caught up attempting to manage minute details. Symptomatic of control freaks, this is perfectly natural for someone unused to working with more than four people at once. It soon becomes clear, however, that such a totalitarian management style is not the answer. Firstly, there just isn’t the time – the project will take over your life if you’re not careful. Secondly, it’s highly anti-motivational for the team, symbolising a lack of trust in their ability.
Choose your hours
Organising something like a TEDx event is so wide-ranging that there is always something to do. Bearing in mind that it ran parallel to University study, achieving the right TEDx/coursework balance was crucial. Although emails come in all the time, problems requiring immediate solutions crop up frequently and nothing ever seems to stop, there must be a limit. A target amount of hours per week in the months leading up to the event is a good way of organising time.
There are a plethora of collaborative tools available online to facilitate effective communication. A Google account is a must – this allows the entire team to have common email addresses (ours is name @ tedxwarwick com) and provides access to Google Docs, a phenomenally useful suite of office applications that can be shared and edited in real time. Other project management tools such as Podio (free for small non-profit organisations) and Basecamp are another lifeline.
What can go wrong, usually does go wrong
Running a large-scale event is something of a balancing act. There will always be those rare moments where everything seems to be going smoothly – finances are in the green, the speaker line-up is secured, the website looks great, people are talking about the event, and so on. Unfortunately, it’s just as rare for such a state of affairs to last more than a day. This doesn’t mean that pessimism is the order of the day, just that it’s crucial to be prepared for every eventuality. A speaker could fall ill, a sponsor could pull out, or the website could crash – often at a highly inconvenient time. What’s the solution? Always have a plan B (and a plan C, and a plan D as well if you can).
Don’t get too paranoid
It’s easy to worry about things. Finances, marketing materials, production timelines, contracts, speaker confirmations (and dropouts), logistics and so on ad infinitum. Nothing ever got done by worrying, however, and thinking too much about problems that defy immediate resolution is wholly unproductive. Too much time spent worrying can lead to a loss in confidence in oneself or one’s team – both of which, over time, can be disastrous.
Social media: a fickle friend
Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, LinkedIn – they all seem like a blessing for marketing and publicity purposes. As we discovered to our cost, however, social media campaigns require a certain degree of sophistication. There is so much information being shifted back and forth – constantly – that if material is to stand out, it needs to be carefully designed and timed. Photos, videos and cool graphics are easily the best at doing this. 21st century attention spans demand immediate aesthetic appeal.
Visibility is key
We tried doing the ‘Green’ thing and going paperless – a noble but unfortunately complacent direction to take. As the event drew nearer it became very obvious that digital visibility would be insufficient to sell out the conference, particularly to those previously unaware of TEDx, so we (frantically) designed and printed a host of flyers and posters, which luckily did the trick. Never get overconfident about the power of the Internet – it’s much more chaotic and randomised than it may seem.
Having a particular vision for an event such as TEDxWarwick can be a huge motivation. Occasionally, though, it becomes more of a hindrance. Being wildly ambitious is all very well early on, but it soon becomes clear that however proactive and successful you are, compromises will be necessary somewhere along the line. A vital part of running an organisation is being both a source and executor of big ideas – but also knowing when to let go. In other words, be decisive in public for the benefit of the team, but privately, never rule anything out and be ready to change direction if necessary.
Finally: don’t get cynical
The constant barrage of administrative hurdles, red tape and setbacks is part of the job. Get used to it! Organising a large event is like being in an endless traffic jam. One small detail can hold everything up, and once it’s resolved, progress often halts again before long. Regardless, the most important thing is to retain an appreciation of the bigger picture, and to keep the end goal in mind. Nothing is more crucial to staying motivated and passionate. Whenever you find yourself faltering, stop to think: what got you going in the first place?