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Soft Skills for Running Meetups for Beginners

17 Post author: Raemon 06 May 2017 04:04PM

Having a vibrant, local Less Wrong or EA community is really valuable, but at least in my experience, it tends to end up falling to the same couple people, and if one of or all of those people get burned out or get interested in another project, the meetup can fall apart. Meanwhile, there are often people who are interested in contributing but feel intimidated by the idea.

In the words of Zvi: You're good enough, you're smart enough and people would like you. (Or more explicitly, "assume you are one level higher than you think you are.")

This is an email I sent to the local NYC mailing list trying to break down some of the soft-skills and rules-of-thumb that I'd acquired over the years, to make running a meetup less intimidating. I acquired these gradually over several years. You don't need all the skills / concepts at once to run a meetup but having at least some of them will help a lot.

These are arranged roughly in order of "How much public speaking or 'interact with strangers' skill they require."

Look for opportunities to help in any fashion 

First, if public speaking stuff is intimidating, there're many things you can do that don't require much at all. Some examples:

  • Sending a email reminder to the group for people to pick a meetup topic each week (otherwise people may forget until the last minute)
  • Bringing food, or interesting toys to add some fun things to do before or after the official meetup starts.
  • Helping out with tech (i.e. setting up projectors, printing out things in advance that need printing out in advance)
  • Take notes during interesting discussions (i.e. start up a google doc, announce that you're taking notes so people can specify if particular things should be off the record, and then post that google doc to whatever mailing list or internet group your community uses to organize)
Running Game Nights

If you're not comfortable giving a presentation or facilitating a conversation (two of the most common types of meetups), a fairly simple meetup is simply to run a game night. Find an interesting board game or card game, pitch it to the group, see if people are interested. (I recommend asking for a firm RSVP for this one, to make sure you have enough people)

Having an explicit activity can take some of the edge off of "talking in public."


Giving a short (3.5 minute) lightning talk

Sometimes, a simple meet-and-greet meetup with freeform socializing is fine. These can get a bit boring if they're they only thing you do - hanging out an d talking is often the primary goal but it's useful to have a reason to come out this particular week. 

A short lightning talk about the beginning of a meetup can spark interesting conversation. A meetup description like "So and so will be giving a short talk on X, followed by freeform discussion" can go a long way. I've heard reports that even a thoroughly mediocre lightning talk can still add a lot of value over "generic meet and greet."

(note: experimentation has apparently revealed that 3.5 minute talks are far superior to 5 minute talks, which tend to end up floundering slightly)


Facilitate OTHER people giving lightning talks

Don't have things to say yourself at all? That's okay! One of the surprisingly simple and effective forms of meetups is a mini-unconference where people just share thoughts on a particular topic, followed by some questions and discussions.

In this case, the main skill you need to acquire is the skill of "being able to cut people off when they've talked too much." 


Build the skill of Presence/Charisma/Public Speaking

Plenty of people have written about this. I recommend The Charisma Myth. I also recommend, if you've never tried it, doing the sort of exercise where you go up to random people on the street and try to talk to them. (Don't try to talk to them too much if they're not interested, but don't stress out about accidentally weirding people out. As long as you don't follow people around or talk to people in a place where they're naturally trapped with you, like a subway car, you'll be fine)

The goal is just exposure therapy for "OMG I'm talking to a person and don't know what to say", until it no longer feels scary. If the very idea of thinking about that fills you with anxiety, you can start with extremely tame goals like "smile at one stranger on your way home".

I did this for several years, sometimes in a "learn to talk to girls" sense and sometimes in a general "talk to strangers" sense, and it was really valuable.

Once you're comfortable talking at all, start paying attention to higher level stuff like "don't talk too fast, make eye contact, etc."


Think about things until you have some interesting ideas worth chatting about 

Maybe a formal presentation is scary, but a low-pressure conversation feels doable. A perfectly good meetup is "let's talk about this interesting idea I've been thinking about." You can think through ideas on your commute to work, lunch break etc, so that when it comes time to talk about it, you can just treat it like a normal conversation. (This may be similar to giving a lightning talk followed by freeform discussion, but with a bit less of an explicit talk at the beginning and a bit more structure to the discussion afterwards)

The trick is to not just think about interesting concepts, but to:


Help other people talk 

Unless you are giving a formal presentation, your job as a meetup facilitator isn't actually to talk at people, it's to get them to talk to each other. It's useful for you to have ideas, but mostly insofar as those ideas prompt interesting questions that you can ask other people, giving them the opportunity to think or to share their experiences.

 - you will probably need to "prime the pump" of discussion, starting with an explanation for why the idea seems important to think about in the first place, building up some excitement for the idea and giving people a chance to mull it over.

 - if you see someone who looks like they've been thinking, and maybe want to talk but are shy, explicitly say "hey, looks like you maybe had an idea - did you have anything you wanted to share?" (don't put too much pressure on them if the answer is "no not really.")

 - if someone is going on too long and you notice your attention or anyone else's face start to wander...


Knowing when to interrupt 

In general, try *not* to interrupt other people, but it will sometimes  be necessary if people are getting off track, or if one person's been going on too long. Doing this well is a skill I don't even know how to do, but I think it's better to be able to do it at all. Some possibilities:

 - "Hey, sorry to interrupt but this sounds like a tangent, maybe we can come back to this later during the followup conversation?"

 - "Hey, just wanted to make sure some others got a chance to share their thoughts."


Have an Agenda

Sometimes you run out of things to say, and then aren't sure what to do next. No matter what form the meetup takes, have a series of items planned out so that if things start to flounder, you can say "already, let's see what's next on the agenda", and then just abruptly move on to that.

If you're doing a presentation, this can be a series of things you want to remember to get to. If you're teaching a skill, it can be a few different exercises relating to the skill. If you're facilitating a discussion, a series of questions to ask.


Welcome Newcomers

They made nontrivial effort just to come out. They're hoping to find something interesting here. Talk to them during the "casual conversation pre-meetup" and try to get a sense of why they came, and if possible tailor the meetup make sure those desires get met. If they aren't getting a chance to talk, make sure to direct the conversation to them at least once.


Not Giving a Fuck 

The first year that I ran meetups, I found it very stressful, worried a lot about whether there was a meetup each week and whether it was good. Taking primary-responsibility for that caused it to take up a semi-permanent slot in my working memory (or at least subconscious mind), constantly running and worrying.

Then I had a year where I was just like "meh, screw it, I don't care", didn't run meetups much at all. 

Then I came back and approached it from a "I just want to have meetups as often as I can, do as good a job as I can, and if it ends up just being a somewhat awkward hangout, whatever it'll be fine." This helped tremendously.

I don't know if it's possible to skip to that part (probably not). But it's the end-goal.


More Specifically: Be Okay if People Don't Show Up

Sometimes you'll have a cool idea and you'll post it and... 1-2 people actually come. This can feel really bad. It is a thing that happens though, and it's okay, and learning how to cope with this is a key part of growing as an organizer. You should take note of when this happens and probably not do the exact sort of thing again, but it doesn't mean people don't like you, it means they either weren't interested in that particular topic or just happened to be busy that day.

(Some people may not trust me if I don't acknowledge it's at least possible that people actually just don't like you. It is. But I think it is way more likely that you didn't pitch the idea well, or build enough excitement beforehand, or that this particular idea just didn't work)

If you have an idea that is only worth doing if some critical mass of people attend, I recommend putting an explicit request "I will only do this meetup if X people enthusiastically say 'I really want to come to this and will make sure to attend.'"

It may be helpful to visualize in advance how you'll respond if 20+ people come and how you'll respond if 1-2 people come. (With the latter, aiming to have more personalized conversations rather than an "event" in the same fashion)

Building Excitement

Sometimes, people naturally think an idea is cool. A lot of the time, though, especially for weird/novel ideas, you will have to make them excited. Almost all of my offbeat ideas have required me to rally people, email them individually to check if they were coming, and talk about it in person a few times to get my own excitement to spread infectiously.

(For frame of reference, when I first pitched Solstice to the group, they were like "...really? Okay, I guess." And then I kept talking about it excitedly each week, sharing pieces of songs after the end of the formal meetup, demonstrating that I cared enough to put in a lot of work. I did similar things with the Hufflepuff Unconference)

This is especially important if you'll be putting a lot of effort into an experiment and you want to make sure it succeeds.

Step 1 - Be excited yourself. Find the kernel of an idea that seems high potential, even if it's hard to explain.

Step 2 - Put in a lot of work making sure you understand your idea and have things to say/do with it.

Step 3 - Share pieces of it in the aftermath of a previous meetup to see if people respond to it. If they don't respond at all, you may need to drop it. If at least 1 or 2 people respond with interest you can probably make it work but:

Step 4 - Email people individually. If you're comfortable enough with some people at the meetup, send them a private messaging saying "hey, would you be interested in this thing?" (People respond way more reliably to private messages than to generic "hey guys what do you think" to the group?)

Step 5 - If people are waffling on whether the idea is exciting enough to come, say straightforwardly: I will do this if and only if X people respond enthusiastically about it. (And then if they don't, alas, let the event go)

Further Reading

I wrote this out, and then remembered that Kaj Sotala has written a really comprehensive guide to running meetups (37 pages long). If you want a lot more ideas and advice, I recommend checking it out.


Comments (8)

Comment author: casebash 09 May 2017 04:33:28AM 2 points [-]

Out of:

1) "Hey, sorry to interrupt but this sounds like a tangent, maybe we can come back to this later during the followup conversation?"

and:

2) "Hey, just wanted to make sure some others got a chance to share their thoughts."

I would suggest that number 1) is better as 2) suggests that they are selfishly dominating the conversation.

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 May 2017 05:21:41PM 0 points [-]

In our local LW space I think (1) would feel strange. To me, it seems like a sentence that people would say in other communities. I could only imagine saying something like that if I would be truly interested in revisiting the topic later.

Comment author: Raemon 09 May 2017 10:09:50PM 2 points [-]

I say things like that fairly regularly in the NYC meetup, where there's often an "official discussion" part followed by an open-discussion part. The official-discussion part usually has an explicit goal, so people have basically opted into having the conversation directed to that goal.

The way I intend it to come across (and I think it actually does but I haven't checked) is "you're welcome to bring this up in the open-discussion portion of the meetup if it still seems important then." Sometimes people followup with it, sometimes they don't.

(During open discussion, people split into small groups and move around to talk about whatever interests them, so if there's something 2-3 people want to talk about that didn't feel relevant to the entire group, it's a good time to revisit it. Sometimes a person is just rambling, sometimes they actually have something that a few people are interested it, and the things that actually seem important do tend to get brought up again)

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 May 2017 10:21:30PM *  0 points [-]

Okay, under that context I understand it.

Comment author: Raemon 09 May 2017 04:36:15PM 0 points [-]

I think it depends on whether they're a repeat offender and you want to make it clear why they need to give other people a turn.

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 May 2017 01:54:48PM 0 points [-]

Then I came back and approached it from a "I just want to have meetups as often as I can, do as good a job as I can, and if it ends up just being a somewhat awkward hangout, whatever it'll be fine." This helped tremendously.

Is awkward actually something that happened?

I have the feeling for our meetups the failure isn't awkward which mostly never happens but "wasn't as fun or insightful as the attendees were looking for".

Comment author: Raemon 10 May 2017 10:03:25PM 0 points [-]

I have the feeling for our meetups the failure isn't awkward which mostly never happens but "wasn't as fun or insightful as the attendees were looking for".

Basically I meant the latter, and it might just be a thing about me that I parse that as awkward (in particular when I'm afraid other people aren't having fun/insight)

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 May 2017 01:52:55PM 0 points [-]

Doing this well is a skill I don't even know how to do, but I think it's better to be able to do it at all.

I think a lot of doing this well is about body language. My body language is different when I'm simply listening then when I want control of the conversation. If you open up, increase your presence and start making gestures with your arms you sometimes don't even need any words.