How to run a toe-twitchingly good conference

How to run a toe-twitchingly good conference
Reading Time: 8 minutes

(Or, 10 unexpected lessons I learned from CopyCon)

I’m not someone who takes risks.

If you’ve read my book you’ll know that the very idea of risk taking makes my nipples invert.

I do, however, have a dreadful habit of letting my mouth (or, rather my fingers) run away with itself (themselves).

I have a crazy idea and, before I know, it I’ve blurted it out on Facebook

“How about I organise a copywriting conference?”
I gleefully shriek-typed late one night after one, or possibly three glasses, of Sauvignon Blanc.

And the comments rolled in.

“Do it.”
“OMFG yes please!”

I couldn’t turn around and say no, now could I?

Why would I let the fact that I’ve never run a large event and have no clue what I’m doing stop me?

So I did it.

And then this year, I did it again.

And in this post I’m going to share what I’ve learned from the experience.

Pssst: I’m not going to share little snippets of what I learned from the speaker presos because:
a) You can read all about that here.
b) I didn’t get a chance to watch any and will have to watch the video replay.

1. Haters gonna hate

Last year the surveys mentioned ‘too many pillars’, ‘long queues for food’ and ‘shady slides.’ (As in not bright enough).

I opened the surveys too soon after the event and each criticism poked me in the tit like a sharp stick.

I’ve now realised it really doesn’t matter how hard you try; someone will find something to complain about.

And that’s okay.

Some comments you take on board, some you pop into the ‘too hard sock’ and push to the back of your business drawer.

None of it is personal.

That being said, I’m saving opening this year’s surveys until a good day and shall be wearing a bulletproof bra.

2. Food matters


I’ve been to so many events where all we’re served is a platter of suspect-looking sandwiches.

By the time I get to choose I’m generally left with limp, dismembered sandwich remains.

Other events provide no food at all, so you’re forced to scramble to a nearby café and shove something down your gullet at lightning speed.

I like to feed my attendees like they’re at a Roman banquet.

Extra tip: Donuts and eclairs get extra points.

Extra extra tip: It’s impossible to cater to all dietary requirements. Cover your gluten free, and vegans as best you can, but just be clear and honest about what’s on offer.

3. Big names dont matter


It has to be said that most of the well-known copywriters are dead.

And while I toyed with the idea of a late night grave digging expedition to unearth Mr Ogilvy or Mr Halbert – my upper body strength is not what it was.

But I’d heard from other event organisers that:

  1. Big names don’t sell tickets: You’d think they would, but they don’t.
  2. Big names don’t help you promote the event much: they’re too busy being big names.
  3. Big names can be total divas: “I want a double shot skim caramel LATTE! Stat! And I want you to blow on it until it’s a drinkable temperature!”

Instead I focused on quality content from real life business humans with good information and stories to share.

PSST: I did manage one famous copywriter – Joanna Wiebe – but that was via live link up (possibly the most stressful 30 mins of my life).  Personal thanks to Ms Wiebe for being charming and totally flexible and easy going. She also donated her speaker fee (which I forced on her) to The Soi Dog Foundation –  GOOD HUMAN!

4. Team is everything


Last year I pretty much did all the event planing myself .

I had 2 great helpers on the day but was still crawling about plugging in cables, leaping onto the registration desk and generally wearing myself out.

This year I had back-up.

My V.A. Leanne Woff was a constant source of support in the planning.

And Amanda VanElderen smashed it on the sponsorship front.

Four willing volunteers and two team members to do all the things. (Thanks Lisa, Bill, Bec, Tallulah).

I also got Kat Rodrigues back as the wonderful M.C.

And boy, what a difference.

I mean don’t get me wrong, I still did lots of the things, and still ended the day feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. But it was a smaller truck.

Psst: We also got walkie talkies this year which was so impossibly cool. We barely used them, but I’m still going to get them every year from now on.


5. Its the little things

Most of the conferences I go to are Y.A.W.N.

Just PowerPoints and small talk.

I think the little touches are what makes an event memorable, because yes, people want to learn, but heck we don’t get out much so why not have some fun too?

Also I never had a proper wedding – so essentially it’s my day and I WANT IT HOW I WANT IT, OKAY! #Bridezilla #conferencezilla

This year my special tweaky bits included:

  • Ordering $600 worth of Frazzles (I wanted my guests to taste my culture)
  • Getting special branded cookies
  • Having random CopyBeast t-shirts to give away for social sharers
  • On stage Frazzle eating competition
  • Impromptu tag line competition – with wine
  • Photo booth at the post-event party
  • Massages at lunch time

There were also other odd, last minute quirky ideas.

I think the attendees appreciated them (haven’t looked at the surveys yet) but more importantly (!) I enjoyed them.

And it is, after all, all about me.

6. People crave connection


I recently went to a large US event and it was so huge and anonymous that I felt pretty dang intimidated. I found it hard to connect with anyone and spent a lot of time in my hotel room, watching Netflix and feeling like a saddo-no-mates.

So at CopyCon I worked EXTRA hard to build connection before the event.

This involved:

  • Setting up a pre-event Facebook group.
  • Posting regularly about all manner of event related crap – to build excitement. (I shared regular updates from my #FRAZZLEPIMP – the lady sourcing my Frazzles from the UK).
  • Setting up a buddy system.
  • Rewarding those who found their buddy.
  • Pulling random members of the crowd onto the stage (shhh they loved it) to help put names to faces.

The feedback on the day was that THIS was the point of difference.

Sure the content was amazeballs, yes the pumpkin ravioli was on point, but it was the friendly connections that made the difference.

7. Not all speakers are created equal


Picking speakers is a tough thing to do.

Here’s what I’ve found:

  • Everyone wants to speak: and gets pissed off when you don’t pick them.
  • Your mates think you’ll pick them: because mates. But then you don’t cos they’re not the right fit and it’s #AWKS
  • Big names have big speaker fees: which make them impossible to use.
  • The people you think will be amazing on stage, sometimes aren’t.
  • The people you fret might not be great, knock your socks off.

I like to give new speakers a chance at CopyCon, I also like to mix it up a bit.

(I’m so tired of conferences where the speaker line up consists only of smug, white, middle-aged blokes.)

My tips when considering line up include:

  • Whoever speaks first will set the tone and the intention for the day. Pick carefully.
  • Not everyone is a high energy speaker – and that’s okay –  try to alternate big voices with quieter voices.
  • Panels often feel unfocused and like filler unless you have a great moderator.
  • Balance highly informative presentations against more abstract inspirational ones
  • Work hard to persuade your speakers not to:
    • Cling to the lectern like Kate Winslet on that raft (there was room for Leo, just FYI).
    • Cover their entire slide with microscopic bullet points and oodles of copy.
    • Read their slides out in a dull monotone.

Also, people love a worksheet – give them something to scribble on or take home as a thought starter and they’ll love you for it.

8. Events don’t make money

This year we had amazing sponsors (thanks Xero, Cisco and Balance Tax) and that really helped with budgeting for things.

And while yes, I did splurge some of my budget on fripperies (dammit those Frazzles were worth it), this year I did break even and make a small profit.

But that doesn’t include my time. Or my team’s time.

If I included all the endless hours of preparation in the budget the event would be a giant fat loss. So, I don’t, and I feel okay about that.

As you’ll know from the book I have three criteria for anything I consider doing:

  1. Will it make me money?
  2. Do people want it?
  3. Will I enjoy it?

Although CopyCon doesn’t tick the first, it ticks the second and third, in bold and CAPITALS and that’s good enough for me.

9. It’s important to eat


We had an after party at the same event space. (If you make people move, they’ll just go home).

We had free booze (thanks Xero) and nibbles and pizza, a photo booth and the best view of Sydney ever!I tried to ensure I spoke to every single attendee.

And I had one glass of wine because it had been a hard day.

But the wine glass kept getting filled up by attentive staff – and I lost track.

And considering all I’d eaten all day was a breath mint.

I got a tiny bit squiffy.

I told people I loved them, lost my laptop and had to be escorted home.

My plans of being an aloof and serene influencer and professional event organiser were dashed.

But I guess I was ‘authentically’ me, right? RIGHT?

10. Events are addictive

As I was preparing for the event I had sleepless nights. Waking at 3am to frantically scribble things on pads – which in the morning I couldn’t read.

I’m used to working solo, and having to rely on so many suppliers and so many humans is not my forte.
I swore I wouldn’t do it again.

But then the event comes and it’s just SO MUCH EFFING FUN!

And before you know it, you’ve announced you will be doing it again and it will be in Melbourne and it might be a tiny bit bigger.

Everyone is so excited. And for one day you’re like, YES. YES, I can do this!

And then the worry starts all over again. 🙂

But each year it gets easier. You learn, you grow – just like any part of your business you find YOUR way of doing things. And your definition of success.

So my final learnings from running my Copywriting Conference?

  • Sometimes you don’t know what you’re good at until you give it a go.
  • It’s not all about the money, honey.
  • Shipping Frazzles from the UK is ridiculously expensive.*

Pssst: The waitlist for COPYCON19 is open now.

Over to you

Have you run an event? Did you attend CopyCon?
What learnings do you have to share?

* Several people have mentioned that I could replace Frazzles with Cheese and Bacon Balls. I’m afraid these people don’t understand just how insulting this is to my culture. Frazzles have no equal.

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