SkeptiCamp strongly encourages organizers to share their experiences of organizing events. This is to benefit the organizers of future events, to build upon our successes and fix our mistakes. The goal is to lower the barriers to hosting events for communities of skeptics anywhere around the world.
Here you can document your experiences from your events which have proven to be not so successful. These represent challenges that must be fixed in order to improve our events. Feel free to add suggested solutions to these problems. (Record successes separately on the What Went Right page.)
Planning and organizing
- Trying to do too much can overwhelm first-time organizers.
- SOLUTION: first-time events should focus on simplicity and emphasize participation.
- SOLUTION: ask what the minimum you can do to have a successful event, and plan around that.
Failures of collaboration and delegation
- At early organizing meetings, the lead organizer(s) are saying what's going to happen on key aspects of event (time, location, etc.) rather than collaborating on those questions. This risks disinterest and lack of buy-in by other potential organizers.
- SOLUTION: don't pay lip-service to collaboration. SkeptiCamp will work only if we take collaboration seriously.
- Lead organizers are unable or unwilling to delegate tasks (and instead taking those tasks on themselves.) This risks burnout.
- SOLUTION: The key responsibility of the lead organizer is to coordinate and motivate fellow organizers, to collaborate on decisions, to delegate tasks to organizers and volunteers, and to keep up on their progress. He or she should be doing very little else.
Failures of communication
- Start page: "We must guard against the damage that misinformation can wrought." http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/wrought
- SOLUTION: Don't use pretentious words unless you know for sure what they mean.
- Organizers for an event are working without awareness of what their fellow organizers are doing. This risks working at cross-purposes and can lead to frustration.
- SOLUTION: the tools you use for communication should allow organizers to work in harmony and provide a persistent record of communication. An email list (Yahoo or Google groups) or a wiki are candidates. Tools on social networking sites like Facebook might be another.
- No apparent organizer communication - at all. Without visible activity, those helping to organize, promote and participate will assume the event has been canceled and will pursue other interests.
- SOLUTION: Be transparent in organizing, choosing tools that provide timely and visible progress. Consider using the Event Page of a wiki with 'watches' for notification, for example.
- No activity at Event Page and related social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.). Without any visible activity to potential participants, they'll assume event will be mediocre or has been canceled.
- SOLUTION: Keep Event Page updated with all developments to indicate progress and build interest in the event.
- SOLUTION: Tie updates between Twitter and Facebook, so you can get double-duty from your postings.
Setting a date
- SkeptiCamps are generally more demanding of participants than a traditional conference and can be exhausting. This risks people leaving before the end of the day.
- SOLUTION: split event into two shorter days. Example: Friday 7pm-11pm and Saturday 1pm-6pm.
- SOLUTION: a shorter day with more rooms for parallel sessions
- SOLUTION: more breaks
- Unexpected surprises at the venue.
- SOLUTION: make sure to visit the venue in person before the day of the camp. You can get some sense of the physical layout of the room(s) from a website or photo, but going in person is always best. This is especially important given the space requirements of some equipment (A/V, band, bed of nails, etc).
- Think about distractions that might be in the speakers "eye line" when they are presenting, and minimize them.
- SOLUTION: ensure "attractive nuisances" like the food table, freebie table (and so on) are off to one side or in another room so people congregating at them will not distract the speaker.
- SOLUTION: move the speaker's podium to one side or another to arrange for them to look elsewhere.
- Attendee list is absent or only includes name, topic and length of talk with no way to promote website or affiliations. This loses a great opportunity to set expectations of who will be involved in the event and their area of expertise.
- SOLUTION: attendees should have a little space to promote their website, blog, podcast, etc. A prominent list of attendees can actually drive attendance. See Is Social The New Conference Black & Are Attendee Lists The New Allure?
- SOLUTION: use Facebook to manage registrations, as with http://barcamp.org/BarCampAustin4
- Event page infrequently updated - potential attendees assume event has been canceled and make other plans for that day
- SOLUTION: keep your event page updated at least every couple of days
- SOLUTION: tie event page to social media accounts. Updating one can provide a notice to the others.
Sponsorship, particularly local sponsorship, is one of the big challenges of SkeptiCamp.
- Consider going sponsor-free. Skip the t-shirts and choose a venue near fast-food restaurants for participants to get lunch.
- None of the organizers who showed-up at the initial meeting is a suitable Sponsorship Czar
- SOLUTION: when making your call for organizers, do so in a public way casting the net far and wide, indicating the skills that you seek.
- SOLUTION: use alternative funding mechanism, such as a fund raising party before the event, or charge a registration fee (if venue allows)
- Getting large corporations to donate cannot be done at the last minute and may require months of lead time. It may also require funding through a 501(c)3 non-profit such as Fund For Thought.
- Not keeping the speakers within their time limits can antagonize your participants.
- SOLUTION: find assertive volunteers for each room to give speakers a five-minute warning and cut them off. The MC may also be a timekeeper.
- Recording could have gone better.
- SOLUTION: Find someone with experience recording video and/or audio, to be devoted to recording everything that can be recorded. If possible, have more than one camera: One primarily recording the presenters, and one to pan into the audience, when audience members are speaking.
- SOLUTION: Have audio recorded separately, if possible.
- SOLUTION: Skip recording.
- The skeptic community is composed largely of long-tail passive skeptics, albeit with plenty of enthusiasm. Most don't see themselves as producers and sharers of their knowledge.
- SOLUTION: leverage that enthusiasm to reshape everyone's expectations. Your speaker wranglers should be encouraging everyone to do a short talk on a topic that drives their passion for science and skepticism.
- First-time speakers are hard to come by.
- SOLUTION: keep things casual and make sure everyone knows this is a shared burden. Speaker wranglers might consider setting a goal of N first-time speakers.
- SOLUTION: offer a smaller side-room that will be a less-intimidating option for first-time speakers.
- A professional speaker won't speak because it's a 'free' event, perhaps fearing it will dilute their value or status.
- SOLUTION: make it clear that these events are about sharing knowledge within communities of skeptics where people 'pay' to attend by helping to organize, doing a talk, volunteering on the day of the event, or otherwise actively participating. Emphasize the need for the speaker to share her knowledge and experience.
- SOLUTION: (shorter version) you'll do just fine without the participation of that 'pro.'
- Speakers cancel because they are ill prepared.
- SOLUTION: send out regular reminders to participants so they can plan and prepare. Speaker wranglers should be in contact with speakers to express interest in seeing the talk.
- SOLUTION: (easier) have a public list of speakers featuring an abstract of their talks. This builds anticipation for the speaker's talks, where cancellation comes at the expense of their reputations.
- Speaker gets angry because they've run out of time (perhaps due to long setup time or questions during talk)
- SOLUTION: set expectations for speakers, where they must take questions during their talk. Ideal to move key points to start of talk instead of saving them for the end when there might not be enough time.
- Some speakers do their talk and leave immediately afterward. Not a problem where someone has family obligations, etc.
- SOLUTION: ensure the posted talks on the schedule board contain summaries, so that participants know what to expect during the day. If it's not clear, they may lose interest and leave early.
- Certain speakers were stating factual inaccuracies, exhibiting poor reasoning or otherwise spreading misinformation.
- SOLUTION: encourage questions DURING talks. Any open event will attract a diverse array of speakers, some of whom are reaching too far and others who are just plain nutty. Reserving questions for END of talks risks misinformation going unanswered. By the time Q&A comes around the damage has already been done.
- SOLUTION: resist the urge to curate talks. Instead maintain openness and encourage all participants to interact with the speakers, asking questions and challenging unusual claims.
- SOLUTION: skip them
- SOLUTION: use one-off printing places (Cafe Press, Zazzle, etc. for those who want them
- Logos too big on small shirts
- SOLUTION: for smaller shirt sizes, scale down the logo
- Breast pocket logo too far to side
- SOLUTION: go with centered logo, or consult with experienced shirt screenprinter
- T-shirts back printed; nothing on front
- SOLUTION: ensure that several people review and discuss any designs to catch any oversights
A/V and speaker setup
- A/V problems with the projector will cut into a speaker's time
- SOLUTION: ask that all speakers bring their presentations on a thumbdrive in PDF form, at least as a backup
- Computer setup delays start
- SOLUTION: dry run at location before event date, or in advance on event date
- If possible, have more than one computer available for presentations, in case one of them crashes.
- Computer setup delays individual presentation
- SOLUTION: give everybody who requires access to technical equipment some opportunity to dry run before start
- SOLUTION: make sure everybody requests equipment they require and knows what will and will not be available
- SOLUTION: ask presenters to email a PDF version of their presentation on the morning of the event. An alternative computer can then be used.
- Live streaming of video/audio canceled due to technical issues
- SOLUTION: test the streaming at the site days ahead of time, to allow you to resolve any firewall or bandwidth issues.
- SOLUTION: if bandwidth is limited due to use by attendees, remind attendees to turn off bandwidth-heavy software on their computer (automatic downloading, video streaming)
- SOLUTION: some streaming sites (like UStream) also have a chat on the streaming video page. Be sure to tell in-person attendees to press pause on the video player if they are only using the chat.
- Warm room (or internal timer) causes projector to auto-shutoff
- SOLUTION: request that A/C be turned on for your event.
- SOLUTION: have a backup projector.
- Having the schedule board on the floor (rather than a table or wall) limits who can see it.
- SOLUTION: place it on a table or hang it on a wall.
- SOLUTION: Use the wall and sticky notes.
- Speaker gets angry at not getting time slot or room they were promised
- SOLUTION: don't make such promises. Make it clear that such promises will not be honored. Make it crystal clear beforehand what is required to reserve a time slot and room.
- Speaker gets angry that all time slots are filled
- SOLUTION: set expectations on how speakers will sign up for time slots and rooms. If using the recommended approach where speakers select their own time slot and room on the morning of the event, be clear what time this starts. It should be first come, first served.
- Crank or axe-grinding speaker signs up to do a talk
- SOLUTION: maintain openness so long as safety isn't an issue. Set expectations both beforehand and on the morning of the event that all attendees are expected to use their critical thinking skills to ask questions of speakers during their talks, challenging unfounded claims and poor reasoning skills.
- Last minute speaker, but not enough time
- SOLUTION: see if other speakers are willing to move to the end and risk being bumped / ok to say 'no'
- SOLUTION: asking other speakers to cut their talks short (or sacrificing a break) each have a price. Better to deny the opportunity to speak and ask the speaker to get involved in organizing the next event, to ensure there's plenty of time in the schedule for talks.
- For multi-room events, breaks in speaker-driven schedule aren't synchronized
- SOLUTION: if speakers are choosing their own time slots (a common BarCamp practice) have someone watching to make sure they are roughly synchronized with other talks. This will make it easier for people to switch rooms between talks
- SOLUTION: arrange the sign-up sheets into fixed sized slots (often 30 minutes) and synchronization will work better.
Day of event
- Not setting expectations can lead to passive attitudes prone to bitching and leaving early.
- SOLUTION: work with fellow organizers to get the word out about what is expected of organizers, speakers, volunteers and attendees.
- SOLUTION: being open events that reflect one's community, they reflect both the good and the not-so-good. As a result substance won't necessarily come from the speakers themselves, but rather through participants asking questions of the speakers during their talks.
- Speaker taking far longer than appropriate (eg: pushing an hour for a 15-minute talk)
- SOLUTION: establish a maximum time limit for everybody, and don't be afraid to issue five minute warnings
- Speaker shoehorns in additional subject matter eg: signed up to talk about x, but is actually talking about non-skeptical topic y (aka "Bait and Switch")
- SOLUTION: hey, you were blindsided. start with diplomacy.
- SOLUTION: leverage SkeptiCamp's interactive nature to derail attempts to abuse its openness -- ask questions about topic x and turn it into a discussion session, for example.
- For multi-room events, speaker with borderline subject matter signs up to give hour-long talk in large (and desirable) room
- SOLUTION: publish a policy before the event that any talks over a certain duration in large room must be approved by organizers. No such restrictions for smaller rooms.
After the event
- Not enough feedback from attendees: What they liked, didn't like, etc.
- SOLUTION: Have a participant survey available the day of the event, to be dropped off in a box as they leave. Or, have a web site set up for the survey immediately following the event, and make sure all attendees know about it. E-Mail them a reminder, if you can.
- SOLUTION: At least one of the organizers should make an effort to chat with attendees when it is over, about how things went; while the others are doing clean-up and break-down.
- SOLUTION: Ask attendees to relate their experiences of the event via their blog, podcast, Twitter, Facebook, etc.. Remember first rule of SkeptiCamp is to talk about SkeptiCamp.
- Always try to leave the location in slightly better condition than when you arrived there, if you can.
- Organizing a SkeptiCamp Event
- What Went Right - the flip side of this page, detailing successes of events
- SkeptiCamp Tips - the source document for the automated SkeptiCamp tip feed to Twitter and Facebook