Thursday, March 1, 2012

QED: How to make a success of a conference for skeptics - Andy Wilson -

RDFRS UK is pleased to be one of the sponsors of this year's QED conference.

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In February last year, a culmination of hard work, sleepless nights, robust management meetings and several measured but real risks, paid off. I'll get back to the pay off later.

What am I talking about? Why QED of course. Question, Explore, Discover was the name we eventually settled on for the inaugural QED conference in Manchester. This is the two-day science and skepticism conference I co-organised last year, and which is “back for an encore” this year.

Merseyside Skeptics Society and Greater Manchester Skeptics Society cooperated under the banner of North West Skeptical Events Ltd to run a brand new event in the skeptical calendar.

Now that we are on the cusp of a 2nd QED, March 10th and 11th 2012, and the ever present and crucial question of whether the event will break even is largely settled, here is a guide to the main principles when running an event of this nature. Here I will describe only the most important, high level, considerations.

It's a risk.

To run an event of any scale automatically confers a risk. Financial, legal and reputation risks are all matters to consider. We formed a non-profit limited company to mitigate some of the risk. We set up financial services with Co-operative bank and Google checkout. Having a properly constituted company helps with these.

The financial risk was the most pressing last year. Running QED the second time we felt we had a measurable and receptive audience we could rely on. But the first time every single ticket sale felt like we'd won it individually. Make sure you understand your break-even point, and how you will get there. Ask yourself “Is this realistic?” Negotiate hard with suppliers to manage the timing of outlay to coincide with cash in the bank. Cashflow management is crucial.

Who is my audience?

The claim "If you build it, they will come" is woefully inaccurate. "If you build the right thing, they will come" is much more like it. Between us we had run Skeptics In The Pub and either organised or participated in quite a bit of skeptical activism. But this was a significant step change. Organiser Mike Hall set out his stall right at the outset by saying, "I want us to create an event that I would go to." You can thank this principle for the appearance of a Dalek at QED 2011!

Every decision was monitored against this principle. For example, there are about 5 suitable venues in Manchester. They're all hotels. We didn’t want a split venue. Even though we have the excellent Museum of Science and Industry, and university real estate galore, they failed to make the cut because they were less convenient for travellers, or not geared up for a social event. By which we mean a decent bar in comfortable surroundings within easy reach, with venue, hotel rooms and plenty of inexpensive alternative accommodation nearby. The hotel also increases the accessibility of our guest speakers. With them staying in the same hotel as the event, you’re much more likely to run into them in the bar.

We had to risk a much greater financial investment doing it this way but there was no choice really.

How are you going to manage it?

Insofar as we can claim a successful outcome for the first QED, there was, we believe, a specific reason for this. Our decision-making is consensus driven. We have enjoyed some very robust board meetings. Although Mike chairs the board meetings, we all have responsibilities and share the workload. There are 5 of us this year. We've disagreed on many things. But because we all agree on the desired outcome we seem to get along fine. Each of us has had to give way on something important in order to go along with the consensus. Also, we have no financial interest in the profit from the event, which I think helps. There's no one in overall charge at QED.


If you came to QED last year, or are coming this year, or both, thank you for your participation and excitement. In terms of reward this is, frankly, all we get. But it’s enough.

The success of an event is measured by its participants, and we managed to create a meeting place for them with stimulating content and somewhere to meet, network and discuss with like-minded individuals. How do we know this? Because we carried out a follow-up survey and you told us. We will do the same this year and offer a range of free and paid services to facilitate this. The feedback (we invited everyone to complete the survey and about a third of attendees did so), gave us an invaluable insight and strongly reinforced many of the decisions we had made.

The survey is a also a great way to find out how to improve. This year we’ve paid more attention to AV, and organiser and volunteer visibility, as well as making the British Humanist Association room bigger for the parallel track.


It's fantastic that our speakers give up their time freely to appear at QED. When deciding the line-up we have a pretty lengthy process to go through, with long lists and short lists which are then matched up against availability. We'll never get it exactly right. Last year we paid a lot of attention to the brain, cognitive function and pareidolia in particular. This year someone has already commented that they thought we were not "sciencey" enough.

So in short, if you want to run an event, and if the lessons we have learned are valuable to you, this is what they are:

1 Understand your risks and mitigate them as far as possible
2 Know your audience and build an event around their expectations and budget
3 Set up a robust management team to organise the event. Achieve consensus by being flexible
4 Listen to your feedback and use it to improve the event

See you at QED 2012!

Andy Wilson


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