When I was the chair of Virginia Tech’s IEEE Student Chapter, I asked our membership development officer to organize a social outing to a popular waterfall location in southern Virginia. The officer did exactly what was tasked. He set a date and time, prepared an online signup form, and reserved a bus to drive everyone to the location.
The only problem was… no one signed up for the hike.
This true story served as a perfect example of how planning is only half the battle. The other half is driving engagement.
Teaming up with my fellow officer to troubleshoot what went wrong, his response was “I did what was asked of me, so I can’t help that people didn’t sign up,” but I did not agree with that logic.
Some, like the membership development officer, might say engagement is out of their control, while others, including me, might believe engagement is totally within their control. Planning must also take into consideration your audience, as well as audience generation or stakeholder engagement strategies, right?
The hike was planned for 6am on a Saturday, which required people to get on a bus at 5:30am. I asked the officer if he took a survey for when people would want to depart or if there was any rationale behind the departure timing, and he responded “no.” The hike was also planned for a weekend where there was a big volunteer event the next day, and the officer said that he did not cross-reference other overlapping events. Finally, I asked the officer why his close group of IEEE friends did not sign up, and he responded that they were not interested in hiking.
I am bringing up this story because, no matter if it is planning an event for a local IEEE Section or Chapter, leading a meeting with a stakeholder, or preparing a training session for your department, your event will not be as strong as it could have been if you do not proactively take steps to drive engagement — because engagement is within your control.
So, the question is: what are those steps?
Step 1: Understand your audience’s current priorities
In my waterfall hike example, it seems that the target audience possibly had conflicting priorities. It was a busy weekend, and these people were already preparing for a volunteer event the next day.
In a work setting, you usually know, through small-talk or other conversations, when a major deadline is approaching for the colleagues you want to meet with. If your work is not part of that deadline, you can consider postponing the meeting until you will have everyone’s full attention.
Step 2: Hold informal “focus groups”
The membership development chair received feedback from his friends about how they did not want to go on a hike, feedback that could have helped steer the event in the right direction. Asking close colleagues or friends for feedback before an event or meeting is planned allows you to adjust the plans before they are finalized.
An example of this could be sharing a presentation with someone who is not familiar with a topic to uncover gaps before you go in front of a leadership team, or simply asking for someone’s initial thoughts about the agenda, event date, or the activity itself.
Step 3: Kick things off with a lot of energy
Once you put in the time to plan an amazing event or meeting, show your excitement by spreading the word. There is nothing worse than showing up to a meeting and everyone looks like it’s the last place they want to be. So, as the organizer, you must set a tone that will encourage engagement. Keeping your audience in mind, make sure they know what is in it for them.
Another point here is that, inevitably, there will be things that go wrong during a meeting, event or training, but most likely, the audience will not have even noticed. Remain upbeat, and avoid bringing up the hassles you ran into during planning. During the event, you want to give everyone the impression that all planning was seamless.
Step 4: Show your appreciation
Welcome people and thank them for attending. When someone shows up to an event or participates in a meeting, show them that it meant a lot to you. Many workplaces have a way to recognize colleagues who went above and beyond, and this is a perfect way to send a thank you to a colleague. You can also follow up with a thank you note or email expressing your gratitude for their participation and contributions to the event, or perhaps everyone in attendance receives some “swag.”
This step is also important to set the stage for the next interaction. If you have a great first meeting and people felt valued, it will make the group ready and engaged for the follow up discussion.
Step 5: Ask for Feedback
Event or meeting evaluations can be formal or casual. A formal evaluation survey could be distributed after the event asking a variety of questions, or your planning committee could work the crowd asking how people enjoyed the meeting.
A simple conversation about what they enjoyed or what can be considered next time can be leveraged when planning the next event or meeting. Soliciting feedback also lets your audience know that you value their opinions and that their ideas might be considered when planning the next event.
So, go out and plan your next event — but don’t forget to use all of the tools available to assess interest and availability, and to drive engagement. Otherwise, you could end up sharing all of your hard work and killer content with an empty room (or, in my case, an empty bus).
Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Fast Company and the Huffington Post.
After Solar Impulse, Kassalen helped Covestro develop its strategy for materials for the future of mobility, and shared her work at conferences around the United States. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now applies her problem-solving skills to the finance industry, where she works with teams to develop big data strategies and implement innovative technologies.