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My events sucked, until . . .

Last updated on June 11, 2013

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Events that suck

Have you ever sat down to write the advertising copy for an event and found it just didn’t come together easily? Or put together the perfect event – and no one was interested? Does events management feel too hit-and-miss for comfort’s sake?

Of course, the best way to learn to manage events is to seek an apprenticeship with a maestro of events and learn at their feet.  But, I’m a just a spare-time events manager, as most of us are these days, and as a business psychologist, I wondered what my profession has to say on the magic of events management.

I’ve searched the university libraries and apparently we have nothing to say.  Hmm!

So, that’s the position.  I can carry on lurching from church to school, or I can dig into my kit bag of basic tools and put together a model from first principles.

That’s what I have done.  I took the well-known solidly-researched Theory of Social Influence (Herbert C. Kelman) and applied the trio of {rules, roles, values} to events.

Here is what I came up with.  This post is long (1500 words), so let me give you the basic structure and you can pick what you need.

  • Event Management: The Short Form
  • How I sabotaged my own event by mixing up the archetypes
  • 3 surprising insights that come with thinking more clearly about events
  • Checklists and links to examples in the wild

Events Management:  The Short Form

In short, we have three event archetypes, and they don’t mix.

  • Celebrity-based
  • Action-based
  • Value-based

Kool & the Gang Concert @ Montreal Jazz Festival by Anirudh Kuol via Flickr

At celebrity-based events,we experience AWE

We attend the event.

We see the celebrity.

We take home the t-shirt.


Not least,

We are remarkably passive.

Rock Climbing Mississippi Palisades (94) by akeg via Flickr

At action-based events, we experience AFFECTION

We are essential to the event.

We play in the team.

We take home the shared story of triumph and disaster.

And provided, no one asks too much of us,

We are amazingly loyal repeat-customers.

London Marathon 2009 by blitzy72 via Flickr

At value-based events, we experience ACKNOWLEDGMENT

We run our lives within the event.

We customize it to fit our tastes.

We take home a sense of having done good.

We have a sense of having been respected, and respecting the universe in turn.

But we cleave to our path and not the path of the organizers.

How I sabotaged my own event by mixing up event archetypes

Kelman’s model of {rules, rules & values} has helped me understand what I could have done differently to manage and advertise an event that flopped horribly.

I advertised a course in blogging for occupational psychologists (UK term for work and organizational psychologists) in our professional magazine.  Only one person called up – and he will probably read this post.

Why, I ask, was this event so poorly received?

Simply, I advertised a blogging-training course like a celebrity-event when I had a value-based mind-set.

Well, I was duly rewarded with a  muted response.

How would I focus my event on one event archetype and one archetype only?

Focus a celebrity-event on the celebrity!

  • First, if I wanted to offer a celebrity-centered event, I should have offered celebrities.
  • Second, I should have concentrated on the raz-ma-taz  – name tags, lunch and some good souvenirs.
  • Third, I should have let consumers consume.

Consumers want to enjoy not make an effort

The reception must be organized.  The seats must be comfortable.  No one must mind if their questions are off the point (but no one must be allowed to go on for too long and bore everyone else).  The dining room should be well appointed.  The participants pay good money and they want to know what they will get back.

The participants may be circulating like mad trying to meet new people but they don’t actually help run the event.  And, we should be clear about that.  Asking them to make an effort or take responsibility takes all the fun away!

Offering training (meaning the hard work of learning) is just not compatible with an event for consumers!

Either, I should have run the event with celebrities at the center and let them go home no more knowing how to blog than when they arrived, or, I needed to run an action-based event!

Focus an action-event on the team!

If I had wanted to promise training, I needed to improve my advertising and re-jig the event to match.  I didn’t do any of this so feel free to show me how to do it better!

  • Set a group goal and state how we will achieve it

“Bring occupational psychology to the attention of the corporate world with attractive blogs that readers return to again and again “

  • Assure participants that the training is organized

“Learn the basics with an expert on hand and graduate as a proficient blogger in one day”

  • Assure participants the group will be loyal to them

“Form a lasting network with experienced bloggers who are putting occupational psychology in front of the public”

  • Suggest ways forward

“Get an early start by registering with the event”

  • Tell participants what is needed

“Bring yourself, your ideas, your enthusiasm – we will provide the rest.”

Focus a value-event on the individual’s good judgment!

I also think that I may have blundered by designing my course as an action-based event while thinking in terms of  value – at least in terms of my own commitment.

The curious thing about value-based events is that the organizers stand back a bit and they rely on the good sense and judgment of the participants.  The good judgment of the participants is not a matter of chance, though.  We need to be close to our participants and not only understand the way they think, but share their values too.

If I were running a value-based event, then I needed to show my appreciation for their good judgement in my advertisement, provide facilities, and not take charge.   I am not sure at all that a value-based event works for people who have no experience in a domain but I may be wrong.  The dividing line is whether this event is about their judgment or mine.

If I had been running a value-based event, I would have said something like:

  • Talk to the situation and common values

“Join early-adopters who are bringing attractive and informative blogs to our clients”

  • Tell them what needs to be done

“Demonstrate to the profession the benefits of communicating with our public through the flexibility of blogs”

  • Tell them the resources

“Experience blogging with 30 other committed psychologists for a Saturday in a well-connected commuter room and specialist bloggers on hand to help with the mechanics”

  • Tell  them how to get there

“Click here for the venue, map, and sign up”

  • Keep in touch but stay independent

“Click to stay informed with the email newsletter”

  • Bring in their ideas

“Sign up here to add your ideas and shape our efforts in advance”

3 surprising insights that come with thinking more clearly about events

In truth, thinking clearly about events surprised me.

  • I hadn’t realized before that consumers like being consumers.

Often that’s what we want.  We want the magic of celebrity entertainment.  You do the work!  We’ll consume!

  • I hadn’t appreciated how much action-based events rely on the skilled delivery of levels.

Action-based events are games.  We love belonging, and in order to belong, the tasks have to be easy enough for us at the start and challenging enough for us as we level up.

  • I hadn’t been consciously aware that value-based events are curiously stand-offish.

After all, when we provide a luxury bathroom, we don’t tell people how to use it. They already know and may know better than us.  The core of a value-based event is our appreciation of our guests’ judgment.  We make the event possible with our facilities.

What do you think?

My event design has improved and I am sure will get even better as I apply some clear thinking to what I do.

Checklists & examples for good event design

Here are some check-lists and examples to get you on your way and for you to test out your thinking.  Do let me know what you think and the insights you glean.


Example of a celebrity-based event: SXSW Interactive 2011

Your checklist:

  • Who is the celebrity?  Why are they a celebrity to this group?
  • What is the takeaway?  Will it impress people back home or back at the office?
  • Are we letting consumers be consumers?  Are we expecting them to take responsibility – they want us to take the responsibility!


Example of an action-based event: Baking for Greenpeace

Your checklist:

  • Who is the team-based event?  Are the levels well thought-out and can people slip in at the right level for them?
  • What is the takeaway?  Is there a group goal that is achievable and can they see their own contribution to the goal?
  • Are we helping our guests work together in an enjoyable team?  Are we taking responsibility for their learning curve without micro-managing?


Example of a value-based event: Documentary Matchmaking at the Frontline Club [the link is now broken]

Your checklist:

  • What is the situation and what are the values that bring us here?  Is the situation immediate, is the action possible, and does it call on our values?
  • What is the takeaway?   What will people feel and remember after the event?
  • Are we giving our guests enough space to customize our facilities?  Are we celebrating their values or taking over?

Academic Background

And P.S. , if you’d like to follow up the psychology, look up Herbert C. Kelman’s Theory of Social Influence.

Published in Business & Communities


  1. Julius Julius

    Great post Jo,

    I would give it another go and re-position the event to see what is the outcome. It would be a terrific case study.


    • Yup, Julius. Thought experiment over – need to put my money where my mouth is.

      A Google Adwords experiment, I think.

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