4 Simple Steps to Running a Successful Event Debrief

The debrief: the essential step in between taking a breath and diving into your next event.

After an event, it’s tempting to pat yourself on the back and begin planning for the next. But without properly digesting and debriefing the previous event, mistakes, opinions, and valuable information will slip through the cracks.

Don’t let hindsight hit you with a painful (and avoidable!) lesson. Do your event debriefs.

A successful event debrief will tell you what went right, what went wrong, and how to use it for next time. Rather than juggling dozens of checklists, here’s a simple guide to getting it right.

Step one – Plan the workshop

Consider your debrief a workshop where you’re both attendee and organizer. Spend a little time planning in advance to make sure you get out of it what you need. Here’s what to do:

  • Decide who to invite: For small teams, probably everyone. For large events, not every person associated with the event needs to attend. Gather key people like managers, team leaders, decision makers, and those most involved and include that group in the debrief. Keeping the group smaller keeps conversations more focused. Just be sure all the key groups are represented!
  • Foster a comfortable environment: Make sure your group will be comfortable sharing productive and positive criticism, and meets in a setting free of distractions. You can also provide an anonymous option to share feedback. Not everyone will want to speak up in a group, and that’s fine – make sure you still have a way to hear from them.
  • Create an agenda: No need to relive every moment of the event during the debrief. Stick to an agenda of addressing the important questions (read on), analyzing the materials you have, and getting feedback from the group.
  • Choose someone to facilitate: If everyone starts throwing in ideas right away, it’s easy for the critical topics to quickly get buried. Pick someone to facilitate the discussion, and lead everyone through the agenda topics. It might even be better if it isn’t you – a neutral facilitator might push for tougher answers that are more insightful.

For more ideas and explanations, check out these 10 rules to successfully running a workshop.


Step two – Set a time and stick to it

If the debrief constantly gets pushed back, it’s easy to forget the details and ideas from the last event. Before it’s time to plan for your next event, and before you might make the same mistakes and face the same obstacles, specify the deadline to debrief.

Make sure you have a deadline for these meetings and topics nailed down:

  • When to survey your attendees, and when to conclude surveying
  • When to analyze and summarize the guests’ answers
  • When to talk to your team about the event
  • When to wrap up all the thoughts, presentations, and discussions of the debrief and move forward

Step three – Ask the critical questions

Break it down into a narrative:

  1. Did we meet the objective of the event?
  2. What went right?
  3. What went wrong?
  4. What can we do to make it better next time?

Keep the answers to these questions, and especially the last, on hand and in mind when preparing for your next event. You might even find that needing to be able to answer clear questions like this will help you define the goals of future events even more clearly.

If you have a larger team, it can be important to make sure everyone has a chance to give their feedback, even if they aren’t at the debrief. They provide perspective on the back-end of the event, and everyone appreciates feeling like their voice is being heard.

With an atmosphere of improvement rather than blame, sending out a feedback survey to your team soon after the event makes sure everyone has a chance to say their piece, and nets you valuable perspective. Check out an example feedback form from the National Informal STEM Education Network.


Step four – Get attendee feedback

To fully understand the success of your event, learn from the pros – your guests.

As an event organizer, it might appear to you that everything went swimmingly: nothing broke, the audience seemed entertained, there was a good turnout, and so forth.

But you need to know what the attendees themselves thought, and what they took away from the event. Those are insights you can’t substitute on your own. Perhaps they thought the presentations went on too long, or loved a catered dinner you thought was too spicy.

Here are a few ways to tune into those voices and get feedback from your attendees:

  • At the event: Consider setting up a booth or box somewhere unobtrusive to provide guests the opportunity to give anonymous feedback on the event while they’re there. Provide a survey asking quick questions like “Is the scheduled timed well? Are you enjoying yourself? Is there anything you’re missing?” The benefit of this approach is you get them while the event is fresh in mind, and can get some very honest answers.
  • Email follow-up: Pose similar questions in the form of an email follow-up soon after the event. If you send a thank you email to your guests, include the survey as part of the message. Depending on your audience, you might get some longer answers now that people have had time to think about it. If you’re sending to a large group, try to keep the questions very brief to ensure you get the most responses – maybe even a single question like “How was the event?”
  • Apps or social media: Utilize social media and any event apps you used to your advantage: invite attendees to use an event hashtag to tweet or post how they felt about the event.

Though you’ll never get every guest to give you feedback, whatever you can collect is valuable. Here’s a great article on more tips for effectively gathering audience feedback.

Bonus step – Go out and use it!

Adding too much process or structure to your event debriefs can make you start thinking of them as another checkmark that needs to be dashed off before moving on. And then once they’re completed, you might already be clearing your head for the next event, even if you haven’t really had time to digest the learning from this one.

The most important thing is to actually use the insights you’ve gathered. So make it a habit to take even one thing you learned from a debrief, and apply it to the next event you’re planning. You might be surprised how easy a habit it is to turn into second nature.