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How to inject tension into your policy events

July 19, 2023 #How to
How to inject tension into your policy events
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If you’re planning a policy event, how do you make sure it will be impactful? If your audience is nodding politely, that might not always be a good sign. Anne Murray explains how to give your policy events a boost.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned everything we knew about policy event planning on its head. The golden rules of balancing RSVPs with potential dropouts, drinks-to-attendees-ratio and how long Q&As should be before networking started were thrown out of the window and replaced with…

“The Minister is having some technical issues” … “You’re on mute” … “The joining link isn’t working”.

But the sheer number of events that got moved online instead of simply being scrapped shows us a great deal about how important events are to the policy world. 

Events can offer a space for collaborating on big ideas, exploring solutions to important problems and telling impactful human stories. In a world dominated by quippy political slogans and 280-character tweets, having the time and space to explore complex ideas can really help move the dial on issues.

Disagreement is a key pillar of an event that might change something. A room full of nodding heads isn’t the answer to the impact question. People working in the world of policy have an obligation to curate spaces where all sides of a debate can be heard and considered. Without that, we lose the tension point that will make their policies better and more credible.

So what does organising events with impact look like today? Our magic policy event planning formula is: 

strategy + tension + format = impact


Ask yourself: why?

Why are you organising the event? What purpose does it serve and why has this communications output been chosen over another? How does this fit into your other work and build momentum towards your ultimate goal? Could this event just be an email?

Create a sense of shared purpose.

This is really important to make your event a success. If you want somebody to give up their time during – or even after – work hours it needs to be worth their while. So try to make sure the event is useful for you, but also for your attendees. What do you want them to get out of it? Whether that is providing a space for them to make useful connections, answer questions they have been struggling with, or a fun space to let off steam. Make sure your invitation makes it a no brainer for them to attend.

Once you have established the why, keep yourself accountable by establishing how to… 

Measure your impact.

When policy event planning, ask yourself: What does success look like? Do you want attendees to go away with a totally new world view? Do you want them to sign a petition? Write to their local representative? Define it and find a way to measure it.


Forbid panels of people who agree on a topic.

Events provide an opportunity to have a disagreement and explore more than one side of an argument. It’s also way more interesting. And an interesting event makes it more likely that attendees will see your organisation as credible, and therefore take your point of view seriously. 

Tension requires attention. Make boredom your enemy.

While I’m sure there are some people who love to sit through an hour long presentation on complex topics… if you want to organise an event with impact, it should appeal outside of a bubble of expert audiences.

Think about how to distil your knowledge into simpler arguments, what visuals will leave the right impression on your attendees, and which speakers can bring your subject area to life with a compelling story


Consider which format you choose.

Your format is very closely linked to your strategy. Are you trying to build a big network of interested parties, then maybe a larger event would work.

Are you trying to get a few select people to engage with a topic? Then maybe look at a private roundtable.

Do you want to raise awareness among as many people as possible, all around the world? Probably look at an online webinar with some star power speakers to get people excited about joining.

Try and think of something new.

Event formulas have been through a shake up, but it doesn’t need to stop there. Ever considered a pre-panel event rollerblade? A break in the middle of speeches to learn a song to sing together? Taking a leaf from meditation retreats and asking attendees to take a moment of silent reflection?

A bit out-there, but you get the idea. If you want your event to stand out, and inspire attendees to take action, try to think differently. Different formats help us access different parts of ourselves, and could bring more creative insights.

Always remember: You will limit your impact if your event isn’t accessible.

This could be an article of its own, but here are a few examples of what to consider for planning accessible policy events:

  • If your event is in-person, check it meets access requirements to those with disabilities.
  • When deciding what time might be best, remember people with children and caring responsibilities often lament interesting events held early in the morning or late in the evening.
  • Virtual or hybrid events are a great way of making events more accessible – if somebody isn’t able to travel or sit comfortably for over an hour, if booking a train, hotel and conference ticket is a barrier, if having live subtitles is a requirement then webinars or live streams are a great way to go. 
  • Make sure you get everyone mic’d up so people can actually hear (this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised).
  • Provide refreshments – especially if the event is long or at meal times.

Whatever kind of event you decide to organise, just remember that your attendees are people. People are often awkward, tired, or distracted. They are looking for a place to engage with ideas, not be put through some sort of trial.

So think about how to create a space – whether it’s online or in person – that makes people feel comfortable enough to engage with the subject, make it acceptable for people to disagree with each other, and ultimately inspires them to take action.

Need help creating an impactful policy event? Get in touch to see if we can help.

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