Never underestimate the influence of a Brussels conference organiser

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Gender equality on high level panels is one area in which events organisers are being asked to focus. [Brussels Binder]

As events season in Brussels gets back into full flow, Corinna Hörst, Charlotte Brandsma and Louise Langeby call on the bubble’s conference organisers to think outside the box when planning their events.

Corinna Hörst, Charlotte Brandsma and Louise Langeby all work at the German Marshall Fund of the US.

When the political machinery in Brussels is in session, there are multiple conferences, briefings, seminars, and workshops taking place around town addressing a myriad of topics.

According to EU Events asbl, there were 1,954 events in 2015, 2,987 in 2016 and projections for 2017 will be close to 3,000.  All these events intend to inform, influence, connect and, ultimately, leave a mark on the policy making that is happening in this town.

Many people working in Brussels have at some point in their lives organised an event.  It is not a glamourous job and includes tasks like booking conference rooms and hotels, ordering catering, making name tags, and being onsite the day of for any operational and logistical needs.

This is part of the job, often associated with young, mostly female staffers that move around to ensure a flawless event.

Yet, shaping conferences, managing projects with multiple deliverables – from papers, conferences, seminars, study tours, briefings – are actually different ways of asserting influence.

Unfortunately, this role is not often fully recognised. For many it is inconceivable that the person who does a speaker’s travel arrangements also has deep knowledge of the One Belt One Road Initiative, a strategy proposed by China to foster regional economic cooperation.

Or that the person doing the seating arrangements for a VIP dinner can speak authoritatively about NATO’s relationship with its southern partners. For many, organising an event or managing projects does not go together with intellectual curiosity and capabilities.

Yet, the people who put together the events – also participate in them but in different ways. They write funding proposals, memos, discussion summaries, and draft/co-write articles that appear in newspapers or political journals.

They build networks, converse with stakeholders from different sectors, engage with VIPs, design workshops, briefings, study tours – and thereby also increase their expertise and knowledge of key actors and the policy subjects at hand.

This is another side of the work of a conference organiser. If you want to put together a really powerful and influential event, you need a very clear skillset.

You need to be familiar with the subject matter in order to draft the right agenda, define the right presentations needed to have impactful discussions and design thought-provoking titles and session descriptions.

You also need to be able to identify the right speakers – knowledgeable and challenging (which is different from being in a senior position!) as well as the right mix of panellists that together  present the right balance of perspectives (institutions/sectors, political views, age, region, ethnic/race background, gender, etc.) to allow for engaged and solution-oriented discussions. To identify and reach these speakers you need to be well connected and informed.

On top of all this you need to find the right setting for the event – the right size, fit for the occasion – either big and prestigious, or intimate and closed – to allow for formal or informal discussions where visibility is desired or alternatively trust-building.

You need to select the right audience, i.e. who should be in the room to listen, ask questions, provide their own perspectives or challenge the panellists to further draw out key points. A variety of communication takes place around an event and requires the ability to speak to different types of stakeholders about the event and its content.

This is no small task in our highly specialised policy world where private sector representatives, policy makers, opinion shapers, NGO and civil society representatives interact. The point is that there is a whole set of experts working behind the scenes.

Influencing policy is being done in many ways, not just through the event speakers. And while there might be a senior colleague, boss overseeing the conceptualisation and execution of these events, it is only their staffers, mostly female, who know the overall lay of the land.

These staffers should not be underestimated. In an increasingly complex and connected professional world, people who have the ability to converse about a policy subject matter in multiple ways, with various stakeholders is equally relevant to the experts who devote their professional life to core policy.

This hidden expertise can be better used, nourished, built upon, and fostered – provided who do these jobs want to move on, excel, and get a different kind of recognition.

As the BXL binder, an online database with the purpose of promoting and facilitating gender equality in EU policy debates and raising the profile of female policy experts in Brussels, is being built, its future users should know that many of the women who will sign up, do know their stuff and are not newbies to the various subject matters.

For the women who are still deliberating whether to sign up to the database or not because they doubt their own expertise, do not underestimate what you already know! You probably know more than you think and at this time in your career it’s more important to improve your speaking and presentation skills than your expertise.

While there are certainly etiquettes and unwritten rules about how to organise conferences in Brussels, it doesn’t mean things can’t change.  People in Brussels seem to have mixed feelings about going to conferences.

Some consider them a waste of time unless they get to speak. Yet, others go – for the free food, the connections one can make, or to actually learn something new.

As the new events season in Brussels begins, here is an appeal: think more creatively and out of the box when it comes to speakers, audience and what to do with the event outcomes. And most importantly, start thinking differently about the people who organise them.

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