Focus: some advice on the organization of live events

What should we keep in mind when organizing live events?

Direct communication with the public has distinct advantages and disadvantages: it reaches a smaller audience than mass media, but it allows to check the pulse of your audience and to have two-way interactions with the public. It gives the speaker control over the message, but it is relatively resource-intensive.

Over the long term, however, local events give you the opportunity to know better your audience and to connect with them in a unique way.
We will discuss this and other aspects of organizing live science communication events with Domenico Cerabona, director of the foundation Amendola, an institution active in the communication of political science and economics, as well as in organizing cultural events.

The interview has been translated from Italian and edited for flow, length and structure.

Q: Welcome, dr. Cerabona, and thanks for accepting our invitation. Can you introduce yourself and the goals of the foundation? A: The foundation has a political origin, as suggested by its name. However, during the years our activities evolved, moving from a purely political focus and towards science communication events and talks about topics such as economics, urbanism, architecture, art exhibitions and social science.

Q: Does the foundation have a single audience, or does it tries to reach multiple ones? How does it reach them?
A: Our different activities involve different audiences. Some talks and conferences are similar in nature to academic events. However, we also run regular communication events and cultural activities, which attract a less specialized audience

Q: We discussed in a previous step how targeting ‘everybody’ is actually very difficult, and it runs into the risk of not satisfying anybody. Do you have a clearer definition of what constitutes your target audience, when thinking of non-experts?
A: Well, our initiatives include both a very local audience, coming mostly from the neighborhood, which constitutes one of our core targets, and a broader audience, which is attracted by events with a higher profile and comes from a larger area. The local audience has a good percentage of people that are engaged and attend regular events such as our book clubs.

Q: So, can we say that you are providing a service to your audience and that by meeting some of their needs you get closer to achieving your own goals?
A: Yes, long-term activities allow us to engage our “core” audience, which then attends also bigger events and helps us spread awareness about the foundation and our activities.

Q: As an organizer, you must consider your speakers’ goals too, I suppose
A: Of course. But this is easier: speakers are usually very happy to talk to a wider audience than what they are used to. By involving in the dialogue people coming from different paths of life and with different interest, we expose everybody to new ideas, and this is something that does not always happen when talking to specialized audiences.

Q: In what other ways does your knowledge of your core audience help in organizing your events?
A: It is quite important when we allow a discussion between speakers and the audience. If you can predict the response of the public, then it becomes easier to avoid unpleasant debates. They don’t further your goal, nor the speakers’ ones, and they are not useful for the audience, either…

Q: But the media often allows - and often artfully creates - debates between very different points of view. Is this an effective strategy, in your opinion, when organizing talks or other live events?
A: No. Television-like debates usually are not suited to our kind of public events. They do not convey a clear message and the audience often cannot follow the subtleties of the debate. And you should take care of the speakers, as well. They are your guests, after all, and the job of the moderator includes avoiding exposing them to unruly comments.

Q: So, we can say that your goals are both to transmit scientific and cultural content to the public and to influence their point of view through the debate with your speakers
A Yes usually foundations have an editorial and scientific line. Consistency is important from a communication point of view, but in our case it is also one of the reasons that justify the existence of our foundation: we do not organize events just for the sake of it, but we want to transmit our core values.

Q: Speaking of goals and of strategies to reach them: what kind of suggestion can you give to our learners, when it comes to organizing events?
A: My main advice would be to focus on organizing smaller, regular events rather than big ones.
One-off events tend to have a lesser effect: you can attract larger audiences if you invest a substantial amount of resources in them, but the audience won’t necessarily be there the next time. Instead, if you focus on a steady rate of smaller, but still interesting, events, you will be able to communicate with the public constantly, and ultimately reach a deeper level of engagement.

Q: This suggestion is very interesting. Spreading awareness about your event can constitute a major drain of resources, but having an engaged audience can make them more effective.
Speaking of your audiences, how do you measure whether an initiative was successful? What are your measures?
A There are obvious aspects of attendance to the event. But our real goal is long-term engagement: seeing people coming back to your event, having them interact with the speakers, feeling the interest of the audience even between events

Some reflection topics

The discussion with Domenico Cerabona brought to light some interesting aspects that you might want to keep in mind if you are organizing events with a live public. In particular, we would like to focus on the advantages of running a long-term communication plan consisting of regular events, rather than less frequent and larger ones.

In what cases would you adopt a similar approach? Can you envisage a situation where its costs would outweigh the benefits?

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This article is from the free online course:

Science Communication and Public Engagement

EIT Food