Event Debriefings 101: Learn How to Conduct a Successful Debrief

Event Debriefings 101: Learn How to Conduct a Successful Debrief

Did you recently plan and host a virtual event? If so, you probably have a lot of questions about how it went. Whether the event unfolded without a hitch or there were some snags along the way, you need to know what you did right and what you could do better. An event debrief is the key to learning from each event you hold so your next one can be even more successful.

In this guide, we are going to teach you everything you ever wanted to know about conducting effective debriefs. We will begin by explaining exactly what a debrief is and what forms it can take.

Then we will discuss the benefits of conducting debriefs, checklists, steps, and do’s and don’ts. Once you finish reading our guide, you will be ready to lead your own successful debrief.

What is a Debrief?

To get started, let’s define “debrief.” A debrief is what you do following an event to gather feedback. You can ask questions that evaluate its success or failure in achieving key objectives, scheduling, attendance, engagement, content and activities, outreach, and more.

Types of Event Debriefs

There are two main ways you can conduct a debrief. Either:

1-Hold a meeting with key personnel to discuss the event.

Or …

2-Survey participants for feedback.

You can also use a combination of these tactics to get a comprehensive picture of the event.

In fact, you might want to survey participants first, and then use that data as part of a presentation during your debrief meeting. Based on your survey results, you can work with your team to determine next steps for future events.

Key Point: Event debriefs can include surveys, meeting sessions, or a combination of both.

Why Are Event Debriefings Important?

The time and effort you invest in a meeting debrief will pay off when it comes time for you to plan your next event. Here are some of the benefits of holding a debriefing session:

  • Find out what participants thought of your event. You may feel confident your event went well—but how do your attendees, sponsors, co-workers, partners, and associates involved feel? The only way to know for sure is to ask them directly.
  • Look for ways to save time. Virtual events in particular can be difficult to plan. In fact, 52.5% of event marketers report that their logistics are challenging. You put a lot of time and effort into planning your event. If you want your next round of event planning to go more efficiently, this is your chance to learn from mistakes and identify opportunities that will speed things along.
  • Boost your ROI. You would never run a marketing campaign without conducting ongoing analysis to look for ways to cut costs and increase returns, would you? Whether your event is part of a marketing campaign or not, ultimately, you are looking to maximize your ROI. During your debrief, you can identify areas for future cost savings.
  • Achieve more of your goals in the future. You can take this opportunity to figure out which aspects of your event helped you to accomplish your goals, and which did not. Using that information, you can plan events in the future that help you get the measurable results you are looking for.
  • Reduce stress. There is no denying that event planning can involve headaches and hassles. The more you learn from the obstacles and setbacks you worked through in planning and running your last event, the more of them you can avoid while managing your next one.
  • Show that you care. People appreciate it when you ask for their feedback, because it demonstrates that you value their opinions. Just by inviting others to partake in your event debriefs, you are helping to cement your relationships with them.
  • Continue to impress. If you have a successful event, expectations rise for your next event, and your next, and so on. If you do not continue to rise to meet those ever-mounting expectations, people may feel let down. Debriefing helps you to keep building off of past successes.

Key Point: An event debrief can help you plan future events more quickly, affordably, smoothly, and successfully.

Whom Should You Include in Your Event Debriefs?

If you hosted a large event with hundreds of people involved, do you include them all in your debrief? Or simply key personnel?

What may work best is to offer a survey to all people who were involved in your event. It only takes a few minutes to complete a questionnaire, making this a non-disruptive way to gather a large amount of data.

You can then invite key personnel and attendees to your event debriefing meeting.

Anyone who was closely involved in meeting planning and execution should be present. You also should invite your supervisors, as it is largely their expectations that you seek to satisfy. Important attendees will want to be present for your debrief session. Sponsors and partners should also attend.

Basically, the question to ask yourself is this: Did Person X have a significant role or interest in the event? If the answer is “yes,” then invite them to the debrief.

Key Point: Attendees, meeting staff, supervisors, partners and sponsors all are worth involving in the debrief process.

How to Debrief Your Event in 6 Steps

Now that you know why event debriefings are important and whom should participate, let’s go over the steps for conducting a successful debrief.

1. Begin gathering data during your event.

You might expect the debriefing process to begin after an event is over, but you can actually jumpstart the process while your event is live.

You can do this whether your event is in-person or online, but with many events now going virtual, it is easier than ever to capture live feedback.

If you are hosting your event using software like Zoom, for example, you can create live polls while your event is running. You also can ask anyone experiencing issues to use the text chat feature to report them or ask for assistance.

Social media offers another opportunity to gather feedback. Come up with a hashtag for your event, and ask participants to use it while posting about their experiences during and afterwards. Later, you can look up what they posted.

2. Send out a survey.

After the event is over, contact your attendees, sponsors, and others involved by email. Thank them for their role in the event, and include a brief survey. You might want to offer some kind of incentive for filling out the survey as well (i.e. a coupon, if applicable).

You can ask them questions that require a “yes” or “no” response, have them rate their satisfaction with different aspects of the event on a numerical scale, and include a couple of questions where they can leave optional qualitative feedback in the form of a written response.

3. Plan and schedule your debrief session.

Come up with a specific, concrete plan for your debrief session. You need it to be long enough that you can cover everything you need to, but not so long that those you invite will lose patience.

Figure out which topics are most important to discuss, and make those your priorities. Then make a list of other topics you would like to go over, but will be able to triage if you run out of time.

Calculate how many minutes you can allocate to each topic. That way, you can stay on track and keep moving the discussion forward.

Once you have your meeting plan figured out, you can send out your invitations.

In the invitations, you should specify approximately how long the debrief session will be, and give a brief overview of the topics you will discuss. Explain the format and how others can prepare.

4. Kick off the debrief with a positive tone.

During the meeting, you will be discussing not only things that went well during your event, but also any shortcomings or mishaps.

Since that topic might induce some anxiety, you should first highlight the positive contributions of your team. Let them know how grateful you are for their hard work. That way, they are less likely to be on the defensive when you get around to discussing problems.

5. Share your data and analysis, offering a breakdown for different areas.

You can now review the results of your survey (creating some graphs and charts may be helpful here) and your own observations and analysis. Some topics to go over include:

  • The process of planning the event
  • How you promoted the event
  • The software and online tools you used for the virtual event
  • Backdrops, branding, and locations you used
  • Other technical aspects of hosting the event (i.e. your connection, sound, lighting, etc.)
  • The content, activities, demonstrations, speakers, etc.
  • The event schedule
  • Event goals and results
  • Comparisons with previous events you have hosted

Those are just a few ideas. You may come up with more based on the specifics of your event.

6. Invite feedback and discussion.

For each topic you review, share your thoughts, and then ask your team for their questions and comments.

Remember, your goal at all times is to come up with actionable feedback and ideas. That means there should be a focus on mistakes, but not in a negative way.

Think of mistakes as opportunities in disguise—each represents a chance to take more control going forward and achieve better results.

After the debrief is over, there are some additional steps to take. We will discuss those later on in this guide.

Event Debrief Checklist

One of the most important things you can do through your debrief surveys and sessions is to ask questions.

Following are some examples of debrief questions that may help you elicit valuable feedback:

  • What challenges did we face in planning our event, and did we overcome them?
  • Do we have ideas for how we might overcome those same types of challenges in the future in a more efficient way?
  • Did we do well incorporating input from the entire team while planning our event?
  • Did we budget sufficiently for our event?
  • Is there a way we could have reduced our costs?
  • Were our messaging and branding consistent and effective?
  • Were we happy with the hardware and software we used for our event? How can we prevent technical problems in the future?
  • Are there different or additional software tools that could help us enhance event quality going forward?
  • Were the staff, vendors, or speakers we brought in from outside our organization effective? This question should be asked only in a private session with members of your own organization.
  • What did attendees expect from our event? In what ways did we fail to meet those expectations, if any? In what ways did we exceed their expectations, if any?
  • Did we market our event successfully? Did we meet our goals for attendance?
  • Was registering for our event easy and intuitive?
  • What patterns did we see in event feedback? What direction do those patterns give us for our next event?
  • Did we achieve our goals?
  • Did our sponsors and partners achieve their goals?
  • Did we effectively network through the event and build relationships? Were other participants able to do the same with one another?
  • Were attendees clear about the schedule of events? Did they feel that we respected their time?
  • How engaging were the activities during the event? How educational were they?
  • Did we provide adequate support to our attendees, sponsors and partners when they needed help?
  • What aspects of our event were spectacularly successful? What ideas should we reuse or build upon in our next event?
  • Did we discover any new objectives during the course of the event? Were we able to adapt to meet them on the fly? What could we do to meet them in the future?
  • What unexpected issues arose during the event? How did we address them? How can we prevent them?
  • Did every member of our team understand their role in the event?

The questions above should be enough to get you started, but you will probably come up with plenty of additional questions of your own.

Debrief Do’s and Don’ts

Now, let’s review some best practices for making the most of the debrief experience.

Do:

  • Have a clear, organized agenda, and briefly go over it at the beginning of the debriefing. Let participants know what to expect from the conversation.
  • Remember to focus on the positives, not just on mistakes.
  • Ensure that you are setting aside enough time that anyone looking to share their observations, opinions and ideas has the opportunity to do so.
  • Focus on actionable next steps. The point of this exercise is not mere reflection, but improvement. You cannot make your next event more successful by concluding, “Well, we just will need to do better next time.” Come up with specific, concrete, attainable actions your team can take to create those improvements. Then, hand out assignments (during and/or after the team is debriefed).
  • Concentrate on what you can control, not what you cannot. There is nothing actionable you can do about factors that are beyond your control, so focusing on them is not a good use of your time.
  • Use visual aids to help you explain your findings to your team.
  • Keep things moving forward. It is easy to get stuck on a single item of your agenda. If you cannot reach a solution or agreement within the time you have allocated, it is best to press on and deal with that issue later.

Don’t:

  • Allow negativity to take over the debrief session. Constructive criticism is okay, but it shouldn’t get personal.
  • Blame one another for mistakes. The goal is not to rebuke and punish. Instead, focus on accountability. That means looking toward the future and how to improve. It also means acknowledging that poor organization and strategy may have led to mistakes, not simply the actions of one person struggling to manage within that broken approach.
  • Invite too many people to a debrief session. If you want to gather hundreds of opinions, surveys and polls are good for that. But if you crowd up a meeting too much, the conversation will be disjointed and nothing will get done. Just bring key personnel to the debrief meeting.

After Debriefing: How to Use What You Learned to Improve Future Events

Once debriefing concludes, you can take the following steps to build on your successes and overcome obstacles for future events.

1. Give out assignments.

You might have assigned certain team members to tasks during the debrief, especially if they volunteered to take them on. But in case you did not or you still have other assignments to give out, now is the time to do so.

Here are some examples of the types of assignments that might follow a debrief:

  • If you had problems with bandwidth, you might assign your tech support person to troubleshoot solutions.
  • If your software did not offer all the tools you needed to make your event a success, you could assign someone to choose a different program to use next time.
  • If the planning process for the event was disjointed, chaotic, and inefficient, you might assign a team member (or yourself) to create an overarching structure for planning future events that will ensure clear, consistent goals, steps and communication.

In every case, it is important to set deadlines. If you do not, these assignments will likely end up on a permanent backburner.

2. Follow up on unresolved issues.

Hopefully you were able to reach a consensus on most of what you discussed during your debriefing session. But there may be some matters that remain unresolved.

If that is the case, you should follow up with team members. In some cases, resolving an issue could be as simple as waiting a few days and then bringing it up. It could be that someone will come up with a solution between now and when you do.

In other cases, you might need to schedule additional meetings to work out solutions with the staff that are most involved in specific aspects of event planning and management.

3. Debrief yourself from your debrief session.

As “meta” as it might sound, you should debrief after you debrief. Just as there were things that went well and poorly with the event you were debriefing your team about, the same will be true for your debrief session and surveys.

Consider areas where you could improve. Should you dedicate more time to certain topics at your next debrief? Did you spend more time presenting than you should have? Would it be better to devote more time to comments and questions from your team?

You probably can take care of this step mostly or entirely on your own, though you might want to ask a few people a couple follow-up questions along the way.

4. File your debrief session notes, surveys, and questions for later use.

Finally, you may be tempted to move right on to your next task after the debrief without thinking much more about it.

But the debrief, like the event itself, involved a lot of time and work. You need to make sure you do not lose the full benefit of all you put into the session and surveys.

So, you should create an organized file for all materials relating to the debriefing.

That way, as you are planning your next event, you can quickly and easily reference the data you collected and the ideas your team members shared.

You also will have a template for your next debriefing event. You may be able to reuse many of the survey and polling questions you came up with. The structure for your debrief session could work again with some modifications. The same questions you asked this time may apply next time as well.

Key Point: The steps you take immediately after your debrief will ultimately determine how much value you derive from the debriefing session and surveys.

Effective Debriefs Lead to More Successful Events in the Future

Now you know how to conduct a debrief following an event. While the steps involved are simple and straightforward, how you structure the debrief, the questions you ask, and what you do with the responses you receive will all determine how effective the process is.

By following the recommendations in this post, you can maximize the lessons you learn from your debriefing, facilitating smoother, more engaging, more successful events going forward.

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