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How (not) to plan a scientific event

Last week, I was supposed to speak at a large public university I’ll refrain from naming. (Well, “at” is probably too strong a word; I would actually have been sitting in front of my webcam in my basement while pretending I was at a large public university. Maybe I’ll keep referring to my basement that way: “If you can’t find the Crock-Pot in the kitchen cabinet, try looking in the large public university.”)

But I chose to delay the talk when I learned how the school was promoting it: an email with the date, time, and link with the ambiguous words, “Grad Student Forum.” That’s all. The advertising neglected to use any of the material I had provided, including a photo, bio, and the actual title of my talk. It didn’t even include my name—which the organizers presumably knew, given that they had invited me to speak.

From the perspective of someone who’s produced and performed in hundreds of public events, I have to say that’s a pretty flat effort. What were they expecting? A chorus of grad students saying, “Come, colleagues! Let us all attend the grad student forum! I am most looking forward to the ‘forum’ part.” It’s a classic example of viewing publicity as a box to check, not an activity that requires thinking like your potential audience.

I get it. We’re scientists, not event planners. But at some point in your career, you’ll probably be asked to help organize a work event—whether it’s a holiday gift exchange, a lab retreat, a visiting speaker’s keynote, a doctoral defense luncheon, a Pi Day Bake-Off, or the department’s annual 3-day wilderness excursion. Wow. Scientists have devised so many ways to avoid spending time in the lab.

These events are fun, but planning them is clearly not your actual job. So when you’re asked to order coffee, or put together a flyer, or look into tent rental, you’ll either embrace the task as a fun diversion—or you’ll grumble with resentment and do it poorly because you’re Too Busy Doing Science.

If you want the event to be a success, putting some genuine effort into planning will serve you well. And if you’re a grump who never wanted this task and hopes to demonstrate that it should have been assigned to someone else, follow these tips to ensure other scientists will avoid your event:

  • Don’t check the calendar to see whether your proposed timing conflicts with any major events. I was once booked to speak to students at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. When I arrived, the grad student who greeted me warned that the audience may be a little small, as he had scheduled the event at the same time as the annual Christmas concert. Turns out—surprise, surprise—a very high percentage of Catholic University grad students will choose a Christmas concert in a cathedral over a guy speaking in a corner of the cafeteria.
  • Choose any venue you want. Don’t ask anyone if it’s available—they’ll move for ya. And don’t worry about the size of the venue. You don’t really know how many people will attend, so any size has to be a reasonable choice.
  • Publicize nominally at best, and avoid places where the advertisement will actually be seen. Does most of your department use Facebook? Advertise on Instagram. Is there a central bulletin board where event flyers are posted? Great! Post the flyer on the ceiling. Consider how my grad school handled a comedy show I helped book. As the event approached, I worried that I hadn’t seen any advertising. The administrator in charge assured me they had put up 200 flyers. I searched the campus, but I saw none of them—until I found, on a windowsill in one building, a stack of 200 flyers. It turns out “put up” meant the same thing to them as “put out,” and they felt that actually attaching the flyers to any perpendicular surface was unnecessary and too much work. “Yeah, the flyers are on that windowsill,” they shrugged and told me, “and if students want them, they can take them.” You can guess what happened: The event had more performers than audience members. The event had four performers.
  • Be vague about what the event is. Assume that people will want to attend simply because it’s on the schedule. Instead of “Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse’s Invited Lecture on Human Genomics,” call the event “Speaker in Room.” Instead of “End-of-Semester Postdoc Pizza Party,” call it “Add to Calendar.”
  • Make the logistics as confusing as possible. Never advertise the same time and/or date in any two locations. If your flyer says the event starts at 9, send an email that says it starts at 9:30. Then make huge posters that read: “Doors Open 8:45, Seating Begins 9:27, Event Commences 11:54 or thereabouts.” Ensure there is a discrepancy between the date and the day of the week. If May 13 is a Thursday, advertise that your event takes place on Saturday, May 13. You’ll receive lots of fun emails asking whether you meant Thursday, May 13 or Saturday, May 15. This is what it’s like to be popular! Reply and tell them there’s a typo, and you meant Friday, October 48. Alternatively, you can list as many logistics as possible as “TBD.” Never update them.
  • If it’s a virtual event, provide a Zoom link—but only on paper, so that participants not only have to type an overwhelming string of characters but also have to figure out which ones are capital O’s and I’s versus zeroes and lowercase L’s. It should take participants at least an hour to type the information. Shrug and tell them it’s for security. Better yet, use a non-Zoom platform that no one has ever seen before and that requires everyone to download malware and restart their computers. Tell your attendees, “This event will only take place in the ShareWithMe.kp app, so be sure to request a free trial and cancel within 36 hours to avoid being charged.”
  • For an in-person event, describe the physical location as opaquely as you can—especially if the event is in a building no one is familiar with. Advertise it as “Room E35701, off the hallway from the Atrium Lobby, yet also in the hallway itself, yet aren’t we all in a hallway? Not to be confused with the Lobby Atrium.” And for goodness’ sake, do not provide a map.
  • If you’re augmenting the event to increase potential interest/attendance, don’t mention any of your efforts. Free food? Handsome mugs to the first hundred attendees? One-on-one Q&A with a visiting dignitary? Let it be a surprise! Most people prefer to attend an event that has as much to recommend it as possible, and you know what? You don’t want those people to come anyway.
  • Remember, audiovisual technology always, always works. Every computer knows exactly how to connect to every projector, every wireless microphone has full battery, and the weird adapter that connects a Mac to an HDMI cable can be found whenever you want one. Invest no time in double-checking any of this.
  • If you’re bringing in a guest speaker, don’t tell them what to expect. For example, if they finish their talk, say goodbye, and are then told they have to stick around to be on some kind of panel, they love that!

Scientists often forget the basics when planning events. That’s why there are people like my dad: Before he retired, he worked as a meeting planner and program administrator for a scientific research organization, organizing events for scientists so that they didn’t have to. If you think your lab’s birthday pizza party is hard to organize, try arranging an international conference for 20,000.

So I asked my dad whether he had any horror stories of poorly planned events from his 27 years in the business. And … he didn’t. Sure, not everything went smoothly, and there was certainly stress, but there were no major disasters. I think that’s because he and his colleagues put time, effort, and thought into planning events. Strangely enough, that worked. I suggest you do the same.

I also suggest you attend Grad Student Forum. Doors open at 8:30, and the event begins at 8. ShareWithMe.kp link TBD.

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