In the last few months, I’ve been experimenting with various event formats to see if I can keep the monthly meetups I run consistent and interesting for participants. I’m writing this blogpost to share to you what I’ve learned and hopefully help you feel less intimidated by regularly organizing community events.
Note that my objective as I explored on these event formats was to find formats that didn’t need a lot of preparation or resources to put together considering I still wanted to be performing at my best in my full-time job and wanted to stick to my personal exercise and sleep schedule.
Show and Tell
This was an event format that was especially useful for profession-specific meetups, but it can certainly still be used in more general meetups as well. What I like to do to prepare for this event format is to either ask a friend who I know has had an experience relevant to the meetup group or a community member who has participated in the group before.
What this person is tasked to do is not to be the “expert” in the room but to just be a sharer of their own experience – and emphasizing this to the sharer is very important. I found that communicating this well to that person not only increases the quality of the story they are sharing but it also makes the person feel more comfortable, knowing that the other meetup participants don’t consider their experience as “what should be done” but simply as “what they did at that moment”.
I schedule it to be an hour-long event with the sharer telling his story for five to ten minutes (with or without slides). When the sharer ends his story, I encourage the event participants to sit in a circle with the sharer, if they aren’t already, and open the floor to questions. Usually nobody will ask the first question and if this is the case, the facilitator (you) has to break the ice, and that’s okay. Typically after one question, the others will follow and conversation between the sharer and participants will happen.
The facilitator has to be mindful of the flow of the conversation and makes sure it doesn’t flow too far away from the sharer’s topic or too offensive to any specific party (unless a debate is your intent for the event and you feel like the participants are ready for it).
Once all the questions have been asked and you feel like the conversation has come to an end, you close the event by thanking the sharer and the participants for their time.
If you’ve noticed, the meat of this event isn’t the sharer and his story, but the conversation that happens after the story has been told. Because of this, I found that it was much easier to look for a “sharer” because they could be anyone and not necessarily someone who is famous or a thought leader in the industry.
Open Discussion on Theme
This is similar to the format above but without a sharer. A topic is announced during the event’s marketing phase and it should be clearly stated that the event is in a discussion format so participants are aware of the more active part they play during the event. I found that this event is a good sequel to the first event where participants are introduced to the concept of an open discussion; though, this event can certainly still stand on its own.
To prepare for this event, I try to make time to create at least five questions that can help guide the conversation. The theme of these questions are generally: questions that ask people what they currently know about the topic, questions that ask people about their opinions on the topic and questions that encourage them to be able to express what more they want to learn about the topic. The goal, of course, is to have everyone talk to each other and so these questions aren’t hard-set and the conversation might skew far away from these questions but that’s okay. Use these questions as a guide to the conversation, to make sure there is a conclusion or a closing thought and to help you fill the dead silences.
The event usually starts with a round of introductions. I like to format it as name, organization or affilitation and the participan’s expectations for the event. Noting that to memory or on a notebook, I start off the conversation with my first question from the list I prepared. I make sure to take everyone into account and allow them space to express themselves and warm up in this first part of the conversation. I then try to build on some of their answers, especially if one or some of them connects with my next question. I then encourage others to express what they think about the new question, often picking someone at random and asking them what they think. Usually after these steps, participants naturally pitch in and the conversation then flows.
The facilitator’s role now, similar to the last event format, is to be mindful of the direction and tone of the conversation and make sure that it ends with a good closing thought and within schedule.
I found that this event format allows me to be able to host many events of varying topics often requested by community members (decided by poll) as it is a group enquiry where we build on the knowledge of the participants present.
I experienced this format through a makesense Hold-Up. A Hold-Up is an event where a social entrepreneur presents to the group a challenge that they are are currently facing in their business and where the participants try to thnk of potential solutions to the problem. There are a set of program flow requirements that have to be met for one to be able to call an event a Hold-Up but I won’t get into too much detail on that. What I will explain though is how a simplified version of it can be run.
Unlike the first two event formats, I often schedule an event like this to be two hours long. To prepare for this kind of event, I source for topics (often times a challenge or a problem that needs solving) that we can set as the theme of the brainstorming session and a set of guide questions to facilitate the brainstorming process. You should also have a stack of scratch paper or post-its and, optionally, pens. I say optionally because if I do not have any on had, I make sure to communicate during the event’s marketing the need for everyone to have their own pens which, surprisingly, most participants follow.
I prepare five questions that fall under these categories: questions about who they think are affected by the problem, questions about where or what industry the problem is affecting, questions about what solutions are currently being used to solve the problem (if they know any), and questions about what they want to do differently to solve the problem themselves.
With these questions prepared, I start the event with a round of introductions then start with the first question. The rules for the brainstorm a la makesense Hold-Up are:
- One idea, one post-it
- For each idea, you have to read it out loud before adding it into the pile on the table
- Building or adding to another person’s idea is highly encouraged
Once I’ve gone through all the questions, I ask the big group to split into smaller groups. Sometimes these smaller groups naturally form based on who built on whose idea during the brain dump phase. The smaller groups then meet with each other to dicuss the ideas they have contributed to the table and try and see if they can work on one idea and refine it together. At the end, I ask a representative from each small group to present to the big group. The event then ends after both groups present, followed by an informal impromptu networking session.
If you have extra time to prepare for an event like this, then having a domain expert present to give more context on the problem will make the meetup more meaningful as there will be someone with firsthand experience to validate or invalidate some of the participants’ assumptions.
As you’ve noticed, these three formats require a facilitator to lead the program flow and that opens up a different but very familiar problem: if I am the only volunteer facilitator continually honing my skills, how can my meetup stay regular when I want to move on to something new? Similar to other community efforts, thinking of the legacy system early is also super important. You would want to upskill another volunteer for them to fill this role in the future. How to find these people is still a mystery to me as even I’m still thinking of ways on how to find these people. I am hoping though that with these ideas, it will be easier to pass on this knowledge to the next generation of community leaders and for you to create something consistent your community can rely on.
What other event formats have you found that helps make it easier to keep community events consistent?