6 min read

3 Rubrics for Designing Events

Think of an event as a pop-up small business: everything you'd need to start a company you'll need for your event.

"We're thinking we want to do an event."

That's the kind of thing people say to me that I know will result in scene two years later where we sit at lunch and they sigh with, "Yeah, we had no idea what we were doing."

I heard a screenwriter say that when people say, "I have an idea for a movie" they have 2-3 scenes in their head, but a feature-length film needs at least 40 scenes.

Usually, when someone wants to do an event and they're thinking of a dinner or cocktail moment or speaking moment or a small group moment. Those are all awesome, but they aren't the whole event.

Events are a curated collections of those moments that are then fitted together within a structure that can take a year or more to build.

So here are three rubrics to think about when thinking about what an event will take.

We'll start with a fun one.

Event Creative Collective's Event Design Template

A shocking number of event conversations do not talk about stakeholder experience. Like, at all.

By "stakeholders" we mean anyone the event touches. This means executive sponsors, organizational sponsors, attendees, vendors, staff, volunteers, presenters. Anybody the event touches.

Then we look at each of them and design an experience that encourages a journey from where they are to where they wish to be.

The Events Creative Collective has mapped this out in their Event Design Template:

As they explain it, we start on the left by identifying pains, entering behaviors, and expectations.

Then we move to the right side and "start with the end in mind", identifying gains, exiting behaviors, and what would define satisfaction.

Then we turn to the center and look at commitment, return, costs, and revenue, landing on jobs to be done, instructional design, the promise of the event, and the event journey they're going to take.

"Doing an event" means "leading everyone on a journey". Yet most "would be" event producers drop the ball on "leading", "everyone" and/or "journey". If we want a successful event, we have to do all three.

ROI Institutes V Model

Without funding there will be no event. Usually that means going into some kind of executive meeting and making the pitch that they should spend on the event, but the problem is, if we treat it like a business discussion, the event will never get green lit because most events are not positioned as profit centers.

Sporting events and concerts are good examples of the exceptions to this rule, but most events (trade shows, training events, conferences, meet-ups) will run in the red.

So the ROI Institute has developed their V Model, which identifies 5 levels of potential return on investment--only one of which is monetary--that we can take into executives and purse-string-holders to argue for why an event creates value.

You can read about their entire methodology here, but in a nutshell, we start at the top-right, identifying our financial needs, then work down to business needs, then performance needs, then learning needs, then preference needs.

Each one of those needs corresponds to objectives and each of this objectives can be measured for how well we achieved them.

For example, if we were a company that sells teacher training and we wanted to do a teacher training event, we might say,

  • LEVEL 5: Pay off needs: We consider this a marketing expense, so we'd like to sit between break-even and a 20% loss not to exceed $85,000.
  • LEVEL 4: Business needs: We want to position our brand as a definitive, trustable resource, for the professional development needs of professional educators working K-6.
  • LEVEL 3: Performance needs: We want 50-75% of attendees to become list "actives" and engage with our company's content pipeline at least 4 times a month and incorporating the principles in the classroom.
  • LEVEL 2: Learning needs: We want attending teachers to meaningfully engage with X, Y, and Z content.
  • LEVEL 1: Preference needs: We want K-6 educators to feel seen, appreciated, and re-invigorated in their role as professionals.

With the right evaluation program and instruments in place, each of these levels are measurable and reportable. We can take those 5 levels into an executive pitch and say, "See, we chose to bring value to these 5 levels of impact and when we measured them, we found successes in these areas and opportunities in these others areas."

That's a winning pitch and will secure funding for many more events to come.

But that requires us to think like an executive and build our strategy and evaluation processes so they connect to each other.

The vast majority of attendee evaluations I've seen aren't doing that and it hints to me that their event producers may be in an up-hill battle to keep their event alive. And even if they're not, they may be one leadership change away from being there.

CMP International Standards Domains

This is a lot more academic than the others, but as far as rubrics go, it's a good start.

The Events Industry Council is a group of 33 member groups that represent a massive swath of the events industry. Their certification process is intended to credential active professionals in the field. The cert requires 36 months of full time events work plus 25 hours of professional development contact house, in addition to the 3.5hr exam.

The standard for the exam outlines 9 major domains of study for covering professional event work:

  • Domain A: Strategic Planning
  • Domain B: Project Management
  • Domain C: Risk Management
  • Domain D: Financial Management
  • Domain E: Human Resources
  • Domain F: Stakeholder Management
  • Domain G: Meeting or Event Design
  • Domain H: Site Management:
  • Domain I: Marketing

To me, Domains C-F (Risk, Financials, HR, and Stakeholder Management) are all properly sub-disciplines of Project Management. So the real breakdown is:

  • Strategic Planning
  • Project Management
  • Design
  • Site Management
  • Marketing

I still think that's a pretty slapdash collection of domains, so if it were up to me, I'd probably put them in usage order:

  • Strategic Planning
  • Event Design
  • Promotion and Communication
  • Project Management
  • Event Management

Regardless, the point is is that we have to have a broad view of the project domains involved in an event. What we want is "thought coverage" over the entire event. It's very easy to do the parts of the event we love and skip "leg day". Having a comprehensive view of the event ensures our planning reaches the edges of the event.

I was working one project and I put our project domains on the wall and then put a sticky note with the date I "touched" the domain. Not only could I look up and see that I hadn't touched "finance" in two weeks, I could also see which domains were getting the most touches. That was kind of embarrassing.

We have to lead the whole event.

The fastest way to broadening our perspective on event production is to think of an event as a pop-up small business: everything we need to start a company we'll need for an event.

  • All events will need strategic leadership and design that connects the events structure to the story that's trying to be told.
  • All events will need a communication matrix, channels, and technology stack.
  • Every event will need work and resource breakdown structures as well as a means to track milestones, tasks, and deliverables.
  • All events will need insurance, legal council, and customer service.
  • If there's going to be any kind of revenue or expenditure, we're going to need finance.
  • If there's any kind of volunteer or staff work, you're going to need HR.

This doesn't mean we have to stand it up ourselves, but it does mean we'll need access the resources. For example, most events have sponsoring organizations that own the event and provide the accounting, insurance, and HR (that's why most people don't notice that an event has those resources).

The thing is, when I'm talking to people who want to put on an event, nobody wants to talk about these things. For most event producers, it's not fun, it's not interesting, it's not exciting. What most event enthusiasts want is good vibes, food, and venues.

Those things are awesome, they're just not enough for a successful event.

Thinking Bigger about Events

We all love events, but if we want them to be great and sustainable, we have to

  • See the whole event
  • Craft the whole event
  • Deliver the whole event
  • Report on the whole event.

Every event producer I know (including me) drops the ball at one or more of these stages. But that's the challenge of producing events. How can we lift up all of it to bring the maximum amount of value to everyone involved?

I know that can all seem overwhelming, so my advice is: do the event, just do it with your eyes open. You're going to screw a bunch of stuff up, but if you're wise, you won't screw the same thing up more than once. And over time, all those painful experiences will look like genius and experience. But in the meantime, using these rubrics will help you whiteboard the pain you're signing up for. That's the first big step.