Tessa Davis. Tops tips for organising a teaching course, Don't Forget the Bubbles, 2019. Available at:
My first foray into organising an event was organising an end of year party in our 6th year at secondary school. I was the Managing Director of our Young Enterprise company – it was called The Firm. We were in a very civilised middle-class private school in Glasgow (Hutchesons’ Grammar School). We wanted to put on an event and run it as a business and turn a profit.
I led the planning with my team – the schedule of events, the venue, the speeches, the entertainment, who would attend, and selling tickets. The excitement was palpable.
The party was unmitigated disaster. The venue ended up serving alcohol to lots of underage school kids who lied about their age. Those who didn’t get served had smuggled in rucksacks full of vodka anyway. This led to the venue organiser finding glasses and bowls filled with vomit. Even the flowerpots were flooded with vomit.
The curtains were completely destroyed.
One of my delightful guests broke into the nursery play area owned by the venue and caused £5000 worth of damage.
The one thing I missed is exactly what you need to make any course/programme/event a success. You need to care about it being a success. You need to show that you care. If you care, the speakers will care, and the delegates will care. And the guy who trashed the nursery might have cared. But I wasn’t a good enough leader back then.
I’ve managed to pull things back since then, with three years’ experience of organising DFTB conferences. Whether you are running a conference or a short teaching day, the principles of running a successful event are the same.
Tip 1: Identify your goals
My goal in 6th year was to run a better party that the rival cool kids party that was being organised on the same day. This is not a good goal.
Think about what are you trying to achieve with your teaching event. Who is it for? What tone are you setting? How do you want people to feel when they come?
At DFTB we aim to achieve an exciting, informal, and fun community event delivering a mix of hard science and non-clinical topics, which leaves delegates feeling refreshed and inspired to do their jobs better.
Your goal will be different. Your goal might be to match the College curriculum, or to allow trainees to present, or to learn about a specific clinical area. Just work out what it is and keep it in mind when you do the rest of your planning.
Tip 2: Form your team
This is where I made my mistake in the 6th form. My tip is – don’t make up your team from a bunch of 16/17 year olds.
Get a team with skills to complement yours. Our DFTB conference team has a skill set to cover most bases. Henry is our philosopher, and our blue-sky thinker. Andy is great at schmoozing sponsors. Grace and Ross absolutely boss the speaker coaching. Damian helps to add academic weight and ensure our programme is balanced. Ben takes the hit and deals with the difficult conversations. I’m across the finer detail. Mary Freer brings that special touch of love and compassion. Everyone on the team (including those not mentioned here) is there for a reason and has a place.
We all know that the team is what makes any project a success. I’ve been part of many projects, most of which have failed. The successful ones aren’t the ones with the best ideas, but rather they are the ones with the best teams. Bring in people who care about the event, care about the goals, and who want to work with you.
Tip 3: Shape your programme carefully
Plying a bunch of 16 year olds with free booze, with one speech from me whilst everyone mills around drinking, doesn’t constitute a programme.
You need to plan your programme carefully and thoughtfully. Do not just get together a list of topics and put them all in the order that the speakers can arrive.
What level is it pitched at?
What structure will it take?
How will the audience feel throughout the day/programme?
Do you have the right mix/balance of content?
At DFTB, we pitch at the the level of the senior reg or junior consultant. We have a three day course with one day of workshops beforehand. Everyone comes together at the beginning and end of the day for keynote sessions, and then we have three concurrent sessions running together. We do this because one of our goals is for a community vibe. We want everyone to start and finish the day together as a community.
We spend a long time planning the content – balancing the mix of science/non-clinical PEM/general paediatrics. The programme is your core – spend time making it work.
Tip 4: Find your speakers
It’s time to think about who will speak at your course. Think outside the box here. Yes, use people you’ve heard speak before, but also take recommendations from others, search online for people and watch videos of them delivering a presentation.
Avoid making a list of of speakers and then slotting them into an order. Equally avoid making a list of topics and then slotting speaker names beside them. At DFTB we do this as a fluid process alongside developing the programme. We have a very long list of potential speakers, and idea of session topics and how they might blend together in each day. And then we go through a slow process of merging these lists together while maintaining balance.
When you do this, take into account representation and equity of gender and ethnicity. For example, we know that 77% of UK paediatric trainees are women, and 53% of UK paediatric consultants are women. Therefore this should be percentage of excellent women speakers amongst the paediatric community, and they should be represented in your speaker body.
I have heard so many excuses from programme organisers as to why they don’t have representation. If you find yourself, or your organising committee, uttering any of the phrases below, then stop and think.
If you find women aren’t pitching talks, or women are saying no, or you can’t think of any women to put in your programme, then ask yourselves ‘why?’ What makes your event unattractive to female speakers? What is it about your expectations of speakers that is putting women off? What is it about your ethos or programme that isn’t open to fitting in representation?
Because it really does matter. And if it doesn’t matter to the organising committee you are on, it definitely matters to the delegates and the speakers. The following is a quote from an email we received after one of our conferences.
Representation and equity in speakers really matters.
When you have your speakers sorted, expect them to do the work. When I accept an invite to deliver a talk, I know it’ll involve hours of my time, so I make sure to only accept an invitation when I have time to do it justice. You don’t want your speakers to simply dig out an old powerpoint presentation from their hard drive (or worse – someone else’s old powerpoint presentation) and deliver the same old talk. Tell your speakers that you have invited them because you know they will deliver a fabulous presentation.
At DFTB we have a speaker coaching team who offer guidance, coaching, and support. We also tell them that their setting may be different from what they are used to – no lectern, no notes, a headset mic, and all they will see is the slide that’s behind them on the screen and a countdown timer. They have to deliver their talk within 18 minutes – no excuses for running late. No talk is made better by running over the planned time, and it impacts on the other speakers in the same session. This is where have expert session chairs comes in useful.
We push our speakers outside of their comfort zone. We make them sweat and they do feel nervous. And that’s ok, that’s how you achieve new and exciting presentations.
At DFTB19, Ross Fisher pushed himself to deliver something new in our closing keynote talk. He had three slides which were simply drawings by E.H. Shepard. He sat on an armchair and read us a Winnie the Pooh story from his book. In so doing he delivered a powerful message about curiosity in medicine.
By pushing your speakers and having high expectations of them, you will achieve a higher quality of content and delivery.
Tip 5: Don’t forget the practicalities
These affect the flow of the event and the experience of your delegates. Consider your venue – what space you need, what the capacity of the rooms are, what location you want. Think about food – hungry delegates are not happy delegates. Make sure you have a trusted AV supplier who will keep things running smoothly. And importantly make sure there is adequate WiFi – there are few things more annoying than being stuck in a conference room with no reception or wifi.
Tip 6: Consider accessibility
My 6th year party was far too accessible – they let in people with no tickets at the door as the ticket-checking system fell apart. The guy that trashed the nursery hadn’t even bought a ticket to the party in the first place. Open access made a bad situation worse.
Think about those who are your target delegates – what will be the barriers to them attending your event and how can you overcome that?
At DFTB our tickets are pretty expensive, because we have no outside funding, and we understand that that limits who can attend. So we think of other ways to improve our accessibility. One third of our tickets are discounted for trainees/allied health. We spend money recording all the talks and releasing them as FOAM content throughout the following year, and you can do a version of this relatively easily at ay teaching event your organise. At DFTB19 we had live streaming for this first time – so people who couldn’t come were able to pay a small fee and have live access to the talks as they happened. And those in low or middle income countries were able to live stream for free.
There will be plenty of creative ways to improve your accessibility. If it’s a regional teaching day and not all your trainees can attend, then you could simply audio record the talks and share them round. This would be a very crude and inexpensive way of improving access.
Tip 7: Have fun
We had no shortage of fun at my 6th year party. In this area we truly excelled.
It’s important for the delegates to have fun. These finishing touches are usually lower cost and quick to organise, but they make a difference.
At DFTB19 we had giant games (including giant operation), we had some special treats each day (popcorn, candyfloss, ice cream), we had pet therapy dogs (if you fail to feel happy when meeting these pets then you must have a heart of stone), and we bought some DFTB onesies for our DFTBabies.
These are just finessing, but the delegates really appreciate them – be creative and think about what you could do, however small, to allow your delegates to smile and have fun.
Make sure you and your organising committee care. Ensure the personal touches – contact your speakers directly, solve problems and trouble-shoot throughout the event. Get nice thank-you gifts for your speakers and send them a thank-you email afterwards.
The key is that you and your team really care about making your event a success.
If you care, your speakers will care, your delegates will care, and your event will be a spectacular success.