Creative event tips for community group organizers

10 min read
Allie Nimmons

Hey, howdy, hi, and welcome! My name is Allie Nimmons. I own a small WordPress maintenance business, work for a WordPress plugin company, and speak at WordCamps through the GoDaddy Pro Ambassador program.

I got my start in the tech industry through education and motivation I received at a WordCamp. It’s been my goal to pay that forward ever since.

This series is meant to be a guide for organizers of not only WordCamps, but any sort of local conference, event, or meetup.

Jump to another post in the series:

  1. Creative event tips for community organizers (this post)
  2. How to bring great speakers back to your event
  3. How to build the perfect website for your community event
  4. Adapting to the unexpected as a community organizer

For web designers & developers, events like WordCamps can provide a much-needed dose of community, human interaction, and fun. But a lot goes into planning these kinds of events. There is a lot to be aware of, a lot to remember, and a lot you just plain don’t know going in.

With the help of some of my friends who have worked on these kinds of events before, my goal is to prepare you and give you some resources that you can use when planning your event. We’ll cover things like selecting speakers, finding locations, creating a Code of Conduct, and so much more.

Let’s dive into the first chapter - getting creative with your events!

Why should you have more creative events?

You might be thinking to yourself, “What’s there to be creative about? You ask people to speak, they talk about their topic, there are maybe questions, then the next talk begins!” 

While the format of One-Person-On-A-Stage-In-Front-Of-Some-Slides-While-Others-Listen is a good one, there is so much more out there to do.

Everyone doesn't learn the same way.

Some people learn well by sitting still and listening. But some people are more visual, or more tactile. Some people learn better when they get to ask a question, or talk things through.

Meeting and talking to others is a huge benefit when it comes to an in-person conference. Try promoting more interactivity and networking. Get your attendees to try a hands-on activity, or talk over a problem or idea with others. They'll meet new people that way. As an attendee, one of my favorite parts of a WordCamp are the friends I walk away with.

Variety is appealing.

When you promote your event, it’s much easier to generate interest if you have unique or varied session models. A lot of marketing focuses on differentiation, and so it helps to make the flow of your event programming special.

Something I’ve found effective is to use shorter talks with first-time speakers. If someone wants to speak for the first time and they're nervous, tell them they can only talk for 15 minutes, rather than 60. It can make all the difference. There is less pressure, less to remember, and it will be over sooner!

One of the things I love most about to a WordCamp is how fun it is. To sit still and listen to someone’s presentation is great - but to do that all day for 2-3 days can get tiring. Variety can be fun and fun is memorable, which is what makes people come back next year. Your events should be enjoyable!

Try these ideas for your session formats:

Different session lengths.

When you follow up on speaker submissions, ask potential speakers long they think their session will be. Everyone’s presentation cannot be vastly different in length - that would make scheduling a nightmare. But if you can provide speakers with a few options for length, it will be easier to create reasonable slots.

Maybe some talks are closer to 30 minutes long? Maybe some need a full hour to really get into the topic? Maybe some can be wrapped up in a short 15? Don’t be afraid of variation. Not all the sessions can, or should be, the same length.

A brief survey I did of about 80 people showed that 30 minutes is the most popular talk length.

Shorter talk sessions are increasingly popular. The benefit here is that you can accept more speakers, fit in more topics, share more targeted info, and give people more choices. Shorter sessions are also a great option for someone who is new to speaking, and doesn’t want to make a commitment to a longer session.

However, it can be a challenge to fit a good amount of compelling information into a short session. Many speakers find this difficult and would prefer more time. So while it seems people like having the option of a shorter session, they’re not (yet) as popular as longer talk formats.

I wouldn’t recommend building a whole conference around short sessions, but they’re good for providing a variety of choices.

Unique session tracks & rooms.

To have multiple rooms for sessions, where each room is a set topic or track, is not uncommon. Attend a WordCamp and you’re bound to see tracks dedicated to developers, designers, business owners, etc...

While those are good standards that people have come to expect, it’s also a good idea to change up the tracks and try something new.

Look at the submissions you receive. If there is a trending topic that’s on everyone’s lips, consider having a dedicated track for that theme.

WordCamps have been known to include a Javascript track, where all day long, in one room, Javascript is the central theme.To have an entire track full of talks dedicated to Javascript means you can get some really in-depth conversations going.

You can pick whatever theme you want. Just make sure your attendees will care, and you’ll have enough speakers to fill that track. For example, when the new WordPress block editor (Gutenberg) first launched, there was so much that people wanted to learn and share about it.

Discussion panels and Q&As

One of the ways in which people learn best is to ask questions. When someone can ask a question that directly applies to a problem they’re experiencing, the answer hits home.

Hearing how someone else solved a problem can be useful. But people attend conferences like WordCamps in order to further their own goals and projects. Having a panel or other question-and-answer type format is perfect for this.

Sitting a few people down to answers questions from the audience creates immediate value.

Think about it. Web designers, developers, and consultants might charge 2-3x what it costs to attend your event. If you’re giving attendees the opportunity for a direct question-and-answer session with an expert, you’re giving them value that is far greater than the price of their ticket.

The challenge here is that the session isn’t as structured. You have instances of conversations getting derailed, panel members disagreeing with each other, or people chiming in with comments instead of questions.

A moderator is imperative in order to keep these challenges at bay. Their main focus is to keep the session on topic, break any tension, and field questions before they are posed.

Key takeaway: if you’re going to host a panel or Q&A, have a good moderator!

Turn attendees into participants with activities:

Hands-on workshops.

Another way to provide value, get questions answered, and keep people engaged is to host a workshop or two.

The definition of workshops in conferences can get a bit muddled. But more often than not, a workshop is a session where attendees can do some hands-on activities to apply what they learn.

For example, a workshop may see your attendees:

  • Building their first website
  • Practicing some new tips and tricks introduced by a speaker
  • Talking in groups and solving problems

You can get creative with workshop formats, so long as it gets your attendees doing something other than sitting and listening.  It’s also best to provide attendees something they can take home with them, like a workbook, PDF, sample website -- even a new friend.

Poll your attendees beforehand and see who would be interested in workshop activities.

Some conferences build their entire schedule out of workshops. Some have one day out of 3 that’s just for workshops. Some only have a few.

Table Topics.

It’s very possible you’ve never heard of this talk format before, but don’t worry -- I’ve only heard of 2 events that utilized it.

Basically, attendees and/or speakers can use tables and host their own mini sessions or workshops. Often times each table is equipped with a white board or sheet of paper, on which you can write your topic. Other attendees can travel from table to table and chat about that topic.

This is a concept I first saw at WordCamp Miami in 2019. I spoke the morning of the first day. A lot of attendees had questions about a specific project management tool that I mentioned in my session.

Instead of trying to gather everyone around for a hallway chat about it, I picked a table and wrote the name of the tool on the whiteboard. In no time, I had 4 or 5 people at my table and we all did a crash course on that tool together.

Table Topics give more power to your event attendees.

Given that any person can host a Table Topic, not just registered speakers, knowledge can continue to flow without barriers. Anyone who wanted to talk and didn’t get to, or who didn’t want to talk in front of a crowd but wanted to share information, now has the opportunity to do so.

Informal, on-the-fly sessions like these mean that attendees can learn what they want to learn, even if a talk about that topic wasn’t on the schedule. And popular Table Topics serve as great inspiration for the next event!

Interactive activities and games.

Remember when I said how I love going to WordCamps because they’re fun? So much of that fun comes from the people, but also the programming itself.

Take a look at the game show built into the schedule at WordCamp Miami. It’s now something that people look forward to.

The questions are often silly, and only sometimes pertain to WordPress. But it draws a crowd, it gets people laughing and talking, and when placed at the end of the day, it can get people to stick around rather than leave early.

Think about your local community and your event. What interactive games, events, or activities can you create? How can you turn your attendees into participants and get them talking about your event, well after it’s over?

Talks are good. Shared experiences are even better.

No matter what kind of event programming you schedule, remember: one person standing on a stage in front of some slides while others listen is a great -- but to get people laughing, talking, engaging and thinking is even better.

Editor’s note: Are you hosting a local meetup or conference? Let us know! Submit your event to our Community Events Calendar.

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