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Why “Pre-Events” before TEDx (or other) events ?

Richard Lucas 9th June 2021


I’ve been organizing pre-events  – (events before events) for a decade. This blog post is published on the day of a TEDxWarsaw pre-event.

A couple of weeks ago – the first pre-event not organised by me, took place under the leadership of Martin Venzky-Stalling of TEDxChangMai – who put an team together in a couple of days.

22nd May pre TEDxIdea Challenge event in May 2021

Figure 1 Pre TEDxIdeas event May 2021

Here are some screenshots,

Figure 2  Pre TEDxIdeas event in May 2021

What are Pre Events, and why are they such a good idea?
My Pre Event journey started in 2011. I was preparing to go to my first TED event, TED Global in Scotland.  I knew that I knew nobody. I had no means of reaching or meeting other attendees. I tried via Couchsurfing to find some TED fans in Edinburgh and ended up meeting a couple in a bar. It was better than nothing, but not ideal.

I thought “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a more peaceful time and space to get to know other attendees”. There had to be a better way. and the good news is there is. 

Over the last ten years I’ve been piloting different ways of doing what I call “pre events “ bringing people together before primarily TED and TEDx events in New York, Calgary Rome, Warsaw, Edinburgh, Cape Town, Taipei, and Tel Aviv. I tried and failed to do one before TEDxBrighton in the UK.  I gave a TEDx talk at TEDxShenkarCollege about the idea in 2020. Aaron Sylvan and Jake Voorhees made a film the Pre-Event for TEDFestNYC 2018, and Aaron wrote a blog post here.

Why Pre-events?
Because there just isn’t enough time to meet all the other participants during events as great as TED and TEDx. A lot of the time is taken up with the wonderful talks, and organised activities – and the big networking parties are both intense and noisy. Longer would be better.  The goal of such events has always been to build more community among participants and not just the team, and – when you are from out of town – it’s great to have a place where you can hang out and get to know a few people before things get under way. I’ve learned what works the key components of making a success. Here they are.  

How to do it?

If you want to do a pre-event, you need to get a number of things right. What is most exciting is that often if you are travelling you will be doing things you haven’t done, in a place you haven’t been with people you have never met in person. If you get me involved, you will have one person with experience, but that’s optional.

Purpose – Be sure you know why you are doing it, and what would be a successful outcome.

Collaboration/co-operation with the main event organisers (getting their trust, and blessing, or at least go ahead) You will need their help getting to word out about the pre-event in their communications. 

Venue You need a venue, ideally cheap or free. Co- working spaces, church halls, community centres, libraries, schools. Having someone local who knows what goes on where is great. Look at where local meet-up groups and low budget organisations hold get together already. There are any number of online tools, don’t be pushed into using a tool that is presenter focussed. There are many tools that are much more about making those speaking on a digital stage look great, that don’t give space or tools for interaction between audience members.

Team You need to build a team and nurture them to help with your event.

Figure 3 Pre TEDxWarsaw Event team

If you do it alone you are in danger of being what Derek Sivers calls the  “lone nut”.

Treat all attendees as co organisers

As you communicate with potential participants of your pre-event give plenty of opportunities for those who are signing up to become leaders. As people make suggestions give them ownership of their ideas.

Pre-event sign up form

Promotion, communication and team building

if you can’t get the word out you won’t be able to have a pre-event. Most organisations have a Social Media presence – a Facebook Group, Twitter, sometimes a WhatsApp, and there are mailings and communication by the organisers to their mailing list). Make sure that you get a meeting with the Social Media person of the main event as early as possible, and agree your promotional plan. This can be harder than you expect as the marketing people of the main event may worry that you are somehow competing or distracting from their main focus.

Once you have a venue,  and “buy in” from the organisers you can start promoting, posting systematically in their Social Media about the fact you are having the pre-event, with a link to your Google form where people can sign up and express interest, and doing other promo activities like blog posts, getting those who sign up to post that they are going on their social media, and doing Facebook Lives about the pre-event.  

Remember you need to clearly communicate your “why?” to first time attendees. It is vital to get across why Pre-Events are a good idea to people who haven’t considered them.

As people sign up schedule regular online meetings by video conference for those who are coming to plan the event – this is how you start building a team.  Have the underlying rule: ” Those who suggest activities are expected to lead on delivery.’  
(The “unconference” idea of Open Space Technology events can be very useful. The founders of OST events noticed that the best part of events are the breaks. and organised events as one long structured break.  When planning your pre-event as well as starting with badging, icebreakers and introductions, have the first session as an Open Space where everyone who actually shows up gets to pitch what they want to do during the day.  In fact everyone mostly wants to hang out with each other. Not all attendees are so empowered and some will wait to be told what to do, It is good to have a skeleton plan, to fall back on.

Keep emphasising that the idea that the value of the event is in the attendees, working on the mindset that everyone who comes co creates, that the pre-event is not something that is delivered by you to them as consumers.  and make your event design work for that objective.

The community led culture extends to food and drink breaks, where for example, it may be better to have people make a picnic together (which can be inside if the weather and location doesn’t support going to a nearby park).

Have roles and task for attendees, make sure you know who is responsible for badging, welcoming people as they arrive and have enough activities to carry people along. Make tidying up a collective activity at the end.

Once you have figured out your costs and budget (My pre events have been between free and US$$50) ask people how much they are ready to pay and have a sensitive process where you can grant free places to those who can’t afford it. There will probably be some people who if asked are ready to cover the costs of an attendee who is struggling financially. You can ask me, if you can’t find anyone.   

Have someone take photos, encourage videos, (and make sure you get permission to video and share pics as people sign up).

Have a “code of conduct” – of course you assume that no one will be creepy or worse, but as we all now know, that assumption is not always correct  There is a great “off the shelf” “Code of Conduct” we use at TEDxKazimierz, and you can modify it to your purpose.

Take account of the main event programme and make your pre-event complementary rather than competitive. A great icebreaker question is “why are you going to the main event”  Don’t get big headed or feel superior. Your goal is to enhance not supplant the activities of the main event-  know your place. You are a part of something bigger.     

Remember that people are different and on a spectrum, extroverts will thrive at your pre-event and love them, and they will probably do fine at the main event. Think about and plan for the shy people who don’t know anyone. if you make your pre-event work for them, it will work for everyone.  

After the pre- event is over, make sure you send out a follow up e-mail asking what was good and what could be better. The only way to get better at them is to always be learning.

Call to action

If this idea makes sense, and there is an event more than a few months away, and you like the idea of doing a pre-event -go for it. If you get in touch with me, I may be able to help.