Memorable events mean different things to different people. Sometimes, it’s a single conversation that sticks with someone for the rest of their career. Sometimes it’s a new way of considering the world, or their workplace, or their relationships within them. Sometimes it’s as seemingly simple as a seedling idea, a light moment, or a topic previously unearthed.
When you bring your community together, you might want to achieve one of the above, some of the above, or as many of the above as possible. This post covers a collection of ideas, advice, and best practices for creating memorable community events as shared across the Uncommon community and in the recent panel discussion at CMX Thrive 2022, How to Create Memorable Community Events, moderated by SueJean Kang and featuring Piper Wilson, Strategic Services Consultant at Higher Logic, Kaila Lim, Community Experience Manager at The Org, and Rebecca Marshburn, Head of Community at Common Room (it me!).
What makes an experience memorable
Bringing people together is a feat in itself. Bringing them together around a shared interest, idea, goal, or mission and making it memorable is next level. What are some ways we can design memorability into an event experience?
For Piper and Kaila, memorability stemmed from two primary ideas: Sensory activation and clear intentionality. This meant doing things like considering what someone would not only see, but also what they would hear and smell when they entered an event. Would they see a welcoming sign, an inviting space to gather, a comfortable chair, couch, or table to gravitate toward? What about the lighting? Or the art, the plants, the beverage table?
They reminisced about entering events with aromas from candles and food, music to complement the mood, clear instructions for how to interact with the space and the guests attending, and an invitation to swap shoes for slippers. To help others think through their next event, digital or in-person, we categorized a few ideas from the CMX panel discussion.
If you’ve got the time, I also encourage you to go deeper and learn from authors and community leaders like Carrie Melissa Jones and Laís de Oliveira, who share a wealth of knowledge about designing community experiences, creating welcoming digital spaces, and bringing coziness to communities.
Nine ideas for designing memorability into an event
- Set an intention: Choose your why. Even if it’s a hand-written list of three bullet points on a post-it, make sure you know the intention of your event. Mapping ideas back to your defined intention will help you evaluate whether a choice you’re making is necessary, good, or right for attendees.
A few questions to ask yourself when setting your intention: Who does this event aim to serve? What will attendees need to know before they arrive in order to best interact with the content—is it beginner level content or will they need familiarity with the subject matter to feel empowered and confident? What should attendees know or feel when they leave?
- Build beauty into the details: Related to creating an intentional event are little acts of thoughtfulness throughout it, based on who your attendees are and what you hope they get from the event. How might you create an event space, digital or physical, that reflects thoughtfulness around their experience from beginning to middle to end? What might you do to create a ‘welcome’ moment that helps attendees “cross the threshold” (phraseology attributed to Carrie Melissa Jones) into your event and out of their previous headspace? Where might you add check-in moments to make sure your attendees are still present, feeling heard, and getting what they need? Can you give attendees tools to help start a conversation?
One of our recent favorite ways to offer icebreakers or thought provokers, at least at in-person events, is to have questions printed directly on the napkins. Our questions have ranged from funny “Would you rather…?’s” to more hefty “What’s something you’re proud of doing with your community in the past month?”
- Prepare your guest and your attendees: Communicate early with your guest speaker(s) to set expectations around subject matter to highlight, subject matter to be tender with, formality, or informality, of the event’s tone and conversation, estimated number of attendees, and event timing and duration.
Help your attendees understand how they’ll be able to participate—will they be able to ask questions in real time? Can they presubmit questions or take a poll to share what they’d be most interested in focusing on? Who else should they expect to meet at the event?
- Hold space for acknowledgement and amplification of others: Before your event begins or at the event itself, acknowledge the folks who helped make it happen or whose work you built from—these might include people whose ideas inspired you to create the event, artists whose music you featured at the event, community members who submitted questions, people behind-the-scenes helping to moderate the chat or bring the event together, and the event guests themselves.
Gabrielle Leith, Community Manager at Grapevine, is an expert at acknowledgement. In her previous role as Community Manager at Bramble, she consistently went the extra mile to highlight marginalized voices, promote local creators, and share the spotlight with community leaders across the industry.
- Give people agency: As much as possible, give attendees the tools to create the kind of space they need. In a digital format, this might mean allowing folks to have cameras on or off, to post questions directly in a public chat, or to privately direct questions to a specific person. In an in-person setting, this might mean having clear signage around which beverages are alcoholic and non-alcoholic, what foods are meat, gluten, or dairy-free, who’s in charge of the event in case they have questions, and providing color-coded name tags that let attendees specify what kind of greeting their comfortable with.
Recently, we’ve loved empowering attendees to create their preferred personal space by way of choosing the color of their name tag—a green name tag if they’re open to a hug, a purple one if they’re open to a high-five or handshake, and an orange one if they’d prefer just a wave as a greeting.
- Make a storyboard: A storyboard doesn’t have to be pretty to help you identify opportunities or gaps in your event. Take a piece of paper, divide it into twelve squares, and draw your event’s moments from beginning to end. Imagine how people will enter, what they will see, who else will be there, any standout moments or topics you have planned, how people will move through the space, how they’ll interact with one another, how people will exit.
Your drawings can be stick figures or snippets of imagined conversations or complete works of art, whatever it takes to help you think through the eyes of an attendee and see where you might be able to add clarity, remove confusion, or incorporate something delightful.
- Do a walkthrough + talkthrough: Your storyboard can serve as a proxy for a walkthrough, but if you have the opportunity to do both, it’s highly recommended! As you walkthrough the space, digital or physical, narrate what you’re seeing and feeling.
How was entering the space? Did you know where to go and what to do next? How is the furniture placed? Where will people stand or sit or eat and how might they move from one part of the event to another? As you yourself move through the space, notice if you get stuck anywhere, or if anything you see, hear, or smell feels out of step with the intention of your event.
- Allow yourself to be present: If you’ve prepared the above, hopefully you’re feeling pretty confident by the time your event occurs. When and as much as possible, allow yourself to be present at your event—you’re as much a part of your community as your attendees, and they’d like to see you enjoying yourself too. If possible, consider removing yourself from the day-of operations so you can “attend” like your community members are.
At CMX Thrive, I had a conversation with the deeply talented and thoughtful Jenny Weigle, who shared with me the reason why she didn’t submit a talk for the conference: She knew that if she had a talk to deliver, she’d be too preoccupied preparing and worrying about it to really show up with, for, and in the community.
- Actively seek feedback: The end is just the beginning. Create a way, whether through a simple poll (Slack works!) or form (Google works!) or a more in-depth survey to allow attendees to share what worked for them, what didn’t, and what they’d wish to have more or less of next time.
You’ll often learn little pieces of actionable, achievable feedback that you can easily implement to immediately improve your next event. And when you use a piece of feedback to create an even more memorable event next time, ask the community member who offered it if you can acknowledge their contribution.
Sometimes, you know your vision for delivering an event but get stuck at the beginning—whether that means reaching out to a guest of honor or drafting attendee invitations. Sometimes, it’s just nice to have a starting place. We got you.
A starting place for sending thoughtful invitations
An open, blank email window is both exciting (imagine the possibilities!) and daunting (how do you begin?). When it comes to sending a thoughtful, thorough invitation to guests, what you say and how you say it can make all the difference.
To help alleviate potential blank email paralysis, we invite you to start with the language below and update the pieces in brackets to make it your own based on who your recipient is, what you admire about their expertise, why their specific experience would be especially additive to your community, and how’d they’d benefit from participating.
Hi [Wonderful invitee name]!
I’m [Your lovely name] — I [lead Community at Common Room] and I've been an admirer of your work for some time. I wanted to officially pen you a note to say hello and thank you.
Our team runs a series of [educational events], one of which is our [event name here] where we [invite expert authors to join us for an hour discussion about specific chapters, themes, and takeaways]. We'd love to promote you and your work and help get more of your [books] and knowledge into the hands of community builders everywhere.
If you’re interested in a [book x community event partnership], say the word and I’ll set all the fun stuff in motion and keep it as informed and light of a lift as possible for you, with more details in your inbox as you wish. If you’d like to connect about your work, our work, or any other work that you’ve been keen about lately, I’d love to chat either way.
All the cheers to the community you’ve built and continue to build!
[Your lovely name]
With these ideas at your side, we’re excited to see how you bring your community together next.
To connect with 1000+ community leaders on the daily and share your own ideas for creating memorable community events, join the Uncommon community on Slack and discover more content, resources, job listings, and upcoming events on our Uncommon community page. Want to start activating and engaging your community using an intelligent community growth platform? Try Common Room for free today.