Five Things We Learned About Think Tank Events

If you work for a think tank, you’re probably pretty sold on two things: the power of ideas and the power of bringing people together. And if you work in events for a think tank, your daily challenge is in combining these two things: creating opportunities for interesting people to get together and talk about interesting ideas.

So why is it that think tanks remain so wedded to the traditional panel event? You know the kind of thing – a top table of (often male, usually pale and very occasionally stale) speakers imparting their pearls of wisdom to an assembled audience of people supposedly listening on enrapt (but more often than not are gazing at their phones and chatting via twitter to other delegates).

We know these kinds of events can miss the mark when we are trying to convene and energise people to think differently about policy. But yet the tired old panel debate remains a firm favourite in the think tank comms toolbox. So what better topic to discuss at our ninth WonkComms Breakfast Club, at which we heard from Richard Taunt from Kaleidoscope Health and Care, and Caroline Macfarland of CoVi. And for the record, we sat in a circle and even – wait for it – spoke to lots of people we didn’t know at the event (I know – innovative, right?)

As usual, our Breakfast Clubs are held under the Chatham House rule, so we can’t say who said what, but here are the top things we learned from the session (with huge thanks to our lovely attendees who sent me their reflections on the event to share). And for more on this, have a gander at Anna Howells’s excellent blog for Kaleidoscope.

1. Focus relentlessly on the aims and purpose of your event

A common feeling amongst those at the Breakfast Club was that when an event lacked focus, the format lacked punch. There is nothing inherently wrong with a panel discussion – it can be a great way to impart information to a group of people and give a platform to good speakers and top experts. But when it is the result of an ill thought through attempt to just do an event for an event’s sake, it can backfire.

So as with all think tank work, the comms team has a really important role in challenging colleagues to think through what they’re trying to achieve. A key distinction is thinking about whether yours is about promoting and broadcasting information (where a panel might be appropriate), profile-raising for your organisation (in which case an ‘in conversation’ with a famous speaker could be good) or whether it’s about creating connections and stimulating ideas (where a melting pot lunch or more informal roundtable might be better).

2. Don’t just think about the event itself

Much like think tank research, the submarine strategy doesn’t work for events either: successful events are rarely a one-off, where interesting people just pop up one day, have a productive conversation or debate, and then go back to their various worlds of work. So think about your events programme as a continuation of a wider conversation that both predates and post-dates the actual event itself.

Kaleidoscope cleverly use webinars and email introductions to get conversation going before people meet face to face. It’s the wonkcomms equivalent of the hen and stag do – when people are connected prior to going to an event, they’re more likely to get something from their interactions at the event itself. And there are loads of ways to keep the conversation going – from storify to podcasting. And the good old post event blog (ahem).

3. Many people like networking… but some hate it! So handle with care.

When challenged to talk about the best event they’d ever been to, many people at the Breakfast Club struggled to think of a brilliant, amazing, awe inspiring policy event. Instead people talked about non-work events – weddings, parties, festivals. And the thing that came across very strongly was the importance of good company, closely followed by good food (and drink). While you might expect a room full of comms people to say they like the talky (and eaty) bits of events best, they’re onto something. Opportunities for networking and interaction are really important.

But this has to be handled with care. The policy and think tank worlds are inhabited by people at both ends of the introvert/extrovert spectrum. So one person’s idea of a great chance to have a chinwag with like-minded people is another’s idea of hell. When planning interactive events, think carefully about your audience and what their needs are. And that brings us on to….

4. Avoid the Marty McFly problem

In the hit film Back to the Future 1980s teen Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, plays guitar at the high school dance, taking things a little bit too far in bringing power chords and 80s style-riffs to an unsuspecting 1950s audience. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” he tells the baffled crowd. “But your kids are gonna love it.”

What’s this got to do with think tank events? In short, be wary about moving too quickly for your audience. Think tanks and research institutes overlap with academia and the civil service, both of which it’s fair to say contain some pretty traditional types. So look carefully at who you’re targeting before you roll out your speed dating policy session or policy talent contest. And drag these audiences into the future in a way that will energise, not alienate them.

5. Get out and go along to events for inspiration

There is shedloads of room for innovation in the humble think tank event. But the thing that came across most strongly in the room was the recognition that think tank events could be so much better. When an event works well, it is an amazing thing. So events teams shouldn’t sit away in their offices wishing their audiences would catch up with them. Get out there and get inspired!

There are great examples of think tanks and similar organisations breaking the mould – from CoVi’s Big Tent Unconferences (read about the logistics of unconferences here) to the Jo Cox Foundation’s. But don’t stop at policy organisations– check out the school of life and a local Tedx live event (or organise one). And of course, make sure you come along to a future breakfast club session. We will be announcing our autumn programme very soon!


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One comment on “Five Things We Learned About Think Tank Events
  1. This is excellent, Leonora. I like the McFly effect! We have been thinking about this a bit at On Think Tanks, too.

    The point we make is that events need to be produced… and not just put together. I would highlight the importance of thinking about message/argument we want to make and the audience. These are often forgotten. Organisers tend to focus on “who can we get on the panel”? more than “what do we want to say?”. This is a mistake.

    How to produce a public event:

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