Hosting unforgettable public events


Film composer John Powell said: “Communication works for those who work at it.” As academics, one key way we communicate with non-academic audiences is through public-facing events. A well-orchestrated event can inspire, entertain, and change minds. A poorly run event can, at best, bore people and, at worst, make them angry.

Drawing on my experience running Nerd Nite in three cities across two countries, I’ve seen the power of a well-programmed event. After each show, my co-nerd boss Doris and I would debrief to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and what we wanted to shake up. With continual refinement, we reached the point where we’d sell out our 150-seat venue in around 90 minutes, a month before the show.

Recently, I attended two university-led events on two consecutive nights, both put on by major universities in Melbourne, Australia. The difference was chalk and cheese. The free event was engaging and impressive, while the paid event failed on many fronts. This got me reflecting on what we can do to create better events that engage community audiences deeply. The contrasts between these two events allowed me to explore various dimensions of what separates the ‘meh’ from the ‘ah-ha’. Here are my key considerations for pulling together a memorable event.

Create a Welcoming Atmosphere

The paid event had no signage and no-one to welcome attendees. The free event was well signed and had someone at the door graciously inviting attendees into the space. The first made you question whether you were in the right place, and the second made you feel like they were excited to see you and glad you were there.

From greeters at the door to inclusive language from the stage, ensuring everyone feels welcome is the job of every person associated with the event. It starts well before participants enter the room — from the invite to the event description to the signage telling people how to find the venue.


The paid event had us waiting in the lobby until 20 minutes after the event was supposed to start. Some people had arrived 20 minutes in advance. That meant that some of the attendees were waiting for 40 minutes for a seat. For many people, that’s an insufferably long and potentially painful time. The free event started exactly on time and ended 10 minutes before the ticket indicated. The paid event was still going when I finally gave up and left 40 minutes after the advertised finish time.

People’s time matters. I can’t stress this enough — start on time, stay on time, end on time. People have consented to giving you their time, and breaking that contract reduces trust. Academics are the worst offenders, so when you’re doing a public event, the clock should be your god.


The paid event had no refreshments. A lobby filled with hundreds of people on a warm weeknight waiting for a sold-out event to start and only a water fountain to quench our thirst. The free event was held at a venue that had a bar. For the 5 pm start time, some people had water, some a glass of wine, and some had nothing, but no one was thirsty.

Even simple offerings can affect the audience’s comfort and enjoyment. Many university spaces won’t have the staff or resources for a bar, but at least know where the closest vending machine is. Parched people will appreciate disposable cups and jugs of water. Plus, they’ll be in a better state physiologically and ready to enjoy the show.

Test, Test, Test

The paid event started with people fumbling around the lectern. The first microphone was cutting out so another one was furnished. The speaker removed the rock-star-style headset mic and was given a handheld one, then complained about not being used to holding a mic. When this happens, the content of the event’s message is diluted because the audience is already offside and the speaker now has to try and get them back. The free event started with a countdown via video, then a slickly produced video introducing us to the topic, before introducing the Master of Ceremonies for the event. It was slick, yes, but you were excited about what was coming.

Technical difficulties can quickly derail an event. Get to the venue early. Test everything. Test it again and have backups in place. When things go wrong with a live stream, prioritise the in-room experience; don’t punish those who made an effort to show up in-person.

Get to the Point

With the paid event, rather than getting to the keynote speaker we had all paid to see, there were three speakers prior. Three! The free event launched like a rocket. Within a few minutes of the advertised time, we knew exactly what the event would be, and there was excitement in the room.

The public doesn’t care about the mucky-mucks. No one will miss them if we don’t see them. Sponsors can be thanked but should not get airtime. Tell people what the plan for the event is (an agenda) and then get to it. If the administration insists on time for prepared remarks, push back on how much time they get because they’ll almost always go over.

Lighting & Audio

The paid event was in a lecture theatre. It was a new lecture theatre with, one would assume, settings for lectures, workshops, and events. And yet, throughout the whole event, houselights burned brightly while the speaker spotlights installed in the ceiling remained off. The free event was in a theatre space with impeccable lighting. When the appointed hour rolled around, lights went down as the event started.

It’s a gripe of mine how poorly resourced new lecture spaces often are. Millions of dollars spent for nonfunctional space: a big, unmoveable lectern, poor lighting and bad sound. If you have the budget, invest in proper audio visual equipment to ensure the event looks and sounds excellent for those in the room. If you don’t, make the most of the space you have. We’ve all been to a show in a theatre. Set the scene with background music and mood lighting, and when the show starts, dim those house lights.

Coach Your Speakers

The speaker at the paid event seemed to be calling it in. The slide deck was an assemblage of slides from various presentations without a consistent look and feel. This resulted in a presentation lacking in coherence and a general point. It didn’t feel contoured to the audience in the least. The Master of Ceremonies at the free event had done similar shows several times, but it was apparent that the presentation had been continuously refined and perfected. There was authority, targeted outcomes and a point.

Even Oprah doesn’t just say whatever she wants at the Oscars. Regardless of your speaker, coach them. Event producers are magicians yet are far too rare at universities. Discuss the expected output, especially if the audience is paying. If you promise TED Talk quality yet deliver the vibe of an 8 am lecture on a Monday morning in dark basement lecture theatre, you’ll have a disappointed audience.

On the day, take the time to teach speakers how to use the remote clicker and hold the mic (in the centre, not at the bottom, so they don’t block the antenna, making the audio cut in and out). Even professional speakers can get flummoxed when you give them a slide clicker they’ve never used. Well-run events will put your speakers at ease, and they’ll perform to a higher standard. The audience will feel that, and the event will be better for it.

Summing up

Hopefully, you can learn from both the good and the bad. When you go to an event, consider what is working and what isn’t. Put on your critical cap and look around the room at the posture of the audience. Notice that people start getting antsy when the event is supposed to end and doesn’t.

The second you charge for an event, you make a contract with your audience. If we want the community on our campuses, we must respect their twin investment of time and money by executing events to a high level. Getting complacent is easy once you’ve established a successful format, but continual reinvention is key. By prioritising the audience experience and staying attentive to details, you can create unforgettable events that showcase the best that academia has to offer.

Author Bio: Dr Wade Kelly is Senior Lecturer, Researcher Development, Engagement and Impact at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.