Event curation: what, why, how

Most of us are familiar with the role a curator plays in a gallery or museum. But it wasn’t until I started attending and running TEDx events that I realised that curation was not only a part of organising conferences and talks, but it was also vital!

For me, curation is about using the content of your event to tell a overarching story or to communicate an overall message to your audience. We have all been to events that seem disjointed and not thought through. You end up not really understanding what the point of the event is. In fact, for many, at academic, business or industry events, this confusion is all they have ever experienced. And for me, there is nothing worse than an audience who feels like you have wasted their time.

Without an overarching story your audience and speakers can feel lost. Think about curation as not just pieces of isolated content but rather as pieces of a puzzle that fit together to show a bigger picture. In practice, this process involves having to brief and engage your host, chair and speakers before the event. They need to understand and be on board with the overall message and story you want to tell. Moreover, being clear yourself about the overarching message and story of your event will help you focus and decide who you want to invite to take part.

Great curation can leave the audience feeling energised and excited! So how do you do this? For me, the event curation process is the first thing I do and I ask myself the following questions:

  • Why am I organising this event?
  • What do I want the audience to walk away with?
  • What feelings do I want to elicit in the audience?
  • What are the key points in the overarching story and what content do I need for each of these points?
  • What order or flow will tell the most coherent and compelling story?

These questions can all sound very abstract, so let me give you an example. I am organising an event for a group of students about the tech industry and I used the above questions as a guide to shape my thinking around the event:

  1. The reason for the event is to inspire young people to consider careers in the tech industry.
  2. I want the young people attending to walk away with:
    • Ideas of careers that interest them
    • Ideas for areas they want to research on their own
    • Understanding how the job market is changing and why technology is at the centre of all jobs in the future
  3. I want them to feel excited about the tech industry and empowered that they can be a part of it.
  4. I need to find speakers/content:
    • From various tech industries (VR, social and digital media, dev, UX, robotics, coding etc) to speak about their careers. These speakers need to be diverse and inclusive – so I need to consider gender, age, industry, race and academic background etc.
    • With a vision on how the tech industry is changing and what the future might look like
    • To discuss how careers are changing and having one job or career for your whole life is a thing of the past
    • To communicate the importance of being tech literate even for non-technical jobs.
  5. I think the right order or flow for the event, to create a coherent and inspiring journey is:
    • Setting the scene and giving context – what is the current situation and what does the future look like?
    • Why being tech literate is crucial in any industry.
    • Personal stories from 2-3 people about working in different industries, their journey and experiences and what advice they have for students.
    • How the concept of one life-long career is changing and what this means for people just entering the job market.

After each of these 4-5 speakers gave a short talk, I would have a discussion between all the speakers and look to:

  • Draw out common threads
  • Find out what excites the speakers about future jobs in this industry
  • Find out what challenges they think people entering the jobs market today might face.

I would then take questions from the audience and I always like to plan a closing question to make sure that the panel discussion will always end on a high. In this case, I would ask what advice the speakers would give to their younger self.

One common mistake people make when they first curate an event is how they brief their speakers. You need to be careful not to make your speakers feel like they need to shoehorn your theme or title into their talks. The most obvious way I’ve seen this happen is for speakers to repeat the title or theme in their talk. For example, it would seem very forced, in the example above, if every speaker said “I’m here today to inspire you to work in tech” or “…and that is why you should feel excited about a career in tech”. This tactic althought focused is too overt and feels artifical to the audience. Not to mention, briefing your speakers like this can end up making all your content sound the same or repetitive.

Good curation is more subtle and nuanced. It involves finding out what your speakers can and want to speak about and asking them to draw our specific ideas that fit as part of puzzle in your overarching story. Curation is about a journey, each point will be different, but each point is also building on the previous one and at the end, comes together to take the audience on your desired journey.