Last week I highlighted how recruiting an engaging keynote speaker can help increase turnout at your next planned event.  This week I dig into another successful ingredient that helps get (and keep) folks in the room: how to create an interactive agenda. Events that spark conversation, engagement and interaction lead to more successful outcomes in terms of prompting audience education and behavior change. The more thoughtful dialogue and learning, the better the chances are that you’ll inspire action after the event.

So when I received an email from one of the organizers for Woodland Park, Colorado’s recent Wildfire Preparedness kick-off event on March 1, I was curious to hear what they had planned. The organizer was reaching out to ask for additional ideas as they were brainstorming their agenda and workshop activities. Their primary audience was homeowners in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). After just a few minutes on the phone, it quickly became clear they were already on their way to a great day. They were engaging a number of local experts to come and have booths that offered demos and other interactive forms of learning. Their agenda offered a keynote speaker and lots of facilitated conversation between homeowners and experts.

Here are some additional suggestions to keep in mind when planning your next community WUI event:

1)   Take it outdoors

Whenever possible, get people out into the field. Find a homeowner who might be willing to have his or her home assessed, or consider assessing a public building.  Walking around a site to do an actual assessment, and looking at different zones on a property, makes it real. Remember to give everyone their own assessment form so they can follow along and take the guidance home with them. (For an example assessment, check out the free Wildfire Home Assessment & Checklist). This advice of getting folks outdoors is also echoed by Michelle Medley-Daniel, FAC Learning Network coordination team member, in her recent blog post Five Tips for Engaging Your Community in FAC (see point 3, “Tours are more effective than talk”).

2)   Make it hands-on

If you have constraints on coordinating the logistics of an outdoor field activity, think about what you can bring to the indoors or a nearby parking lot. A few summers ago, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) put together a series of post-fire workshops for residents following the Colorado Front Range wildfires. They coordinated with Lowe’s Home Improvement stores, local fire departments, and other local and national organizations such as the FAC Coalition members. Workshops were held in Lowe’s parking lots, and experts shared information on building materials, landscaping and other home ignition zone concepts through modular exhibits using sample products from Lowe’s. Organizers also facilitated dialogue around rebuilding, insurance and other post-wildfire related topics.

Creating opportunities for interaction between local experts and residents encourages learning and understanding.

Creating opportunities for interaction between local experts and residents encourages learning and understanding.

3)   Take a breath

With the agenda, that is. We have all made the mistake of jam-packing our agendas with too much. People can only process so much. Besides, your attendees are also there to meet one another. Give them time to do that and don’t be shy about orchestrating icebreaker activities. Providing refreshments can also be helpful, not only to take care of biological needs, but also as a way to encourage people to congregate around something during breaks.

4)   Get people to talk

Breakout groups can be less intimidating for getting participants to discuss specific topics and ask questions, especially if the overall group is large. It’s also a great way to mine your audience for information and feedback. FAC Learning Network participant Forest Schafer relays the success of using a modified version of the World Café facilitation method in his recent community meeting in North Lake Tahoe. When building-in facilitated discussion, also ensure you have appropriate group leaders and note takers to capture information that will be fed back into the larger discussion.

5)   Logistics and seating

Last, but not least, pay attention to the basics. Is your audience seated in a way that fits your agenda? Can everyone hear and see the speaker(s)? When prompting folks to mingle or move about exhibits, is there enough space? If there is a field trip, is it clear where and when to meet? Most organizers get this right, but when it’s not effectively planned you can lose your audience quickly. Since you put in all the work to get people there, you want to ensure that you keep them engaged!

Look for Part Three next week, where we will discuss coordinating an effective media strategy. Have any more tips to add? Share them in the comments!

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