Help me get a bunch of smart folks talking.
April 7, 2009 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Help me get a bunch of smart folks talking.

I have an event planned, billed as a casual conversation, in which members of various university departments will come together to explore a mutually important research-related topic. I have a list of agreed upon subtopics (open questions, actually), I have distributed some brief background readings, and I feel like there will be plenty of enthusiasm for discussion-- but I don't really know how to get things started. The only real goal of this discussion is to get people talking and perhaps lead to more collaborative conversations in the future.

University faculty, librarians (I am one of these), and doctoral students will be involved; likely fewer than 15. I'm very interested in everyone feeling engaged and welcomed to speak, but with no pressure to demonstrate extensive preparation or expertise. Like I said, casual. I'm new to the institution and relatively junior here, but as far as I can tell, it is a very collegial place. I'm used to more structured events, so I think my nervousness is due more to not knowing what to expect than anything else.

So, I ask you: What are your favorite strategies or resources for leading an informal discussion that stimulates response but does not require anyone to be "a presenter" or "an audience member"? How do I get the ball rolling? What should I worry about or try to avoid?

Sorry, I know this is vague, but if anyone has been in a similar situation, I'd love to hear about it.
posted by activitystory to Human Relations (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It often helps to have someone to lead a discussion, however informally - in the sense of a "First speaker" who can break the ice, make statements that others may agree with or disagree with, etc.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:49 PM on April 7, 2009

Best answer: Seems like a small presentation is in order, especially since faculty is unlikely to have looked at the material you sent them :P Try to go for an attractive, fun presentation since you said it's casual, and include your subtopics/open questions of course. I also recommend offering coffee/juice and snacks since it's a big group of people, seems the way to get people to hang around for a while and chat.
posted by lizbunny at 1:53 PM on April 7, 2009

With groups that are smallish but too large to all talk together easily, the "goldfish bowl" format may help. Everybody sits facing the center of the room (scattered about, not necessarily in a circle) and there are a certain number of chairs in the center (say three). Only people in the center are allowed to speak. Initially you populate the center chairs with yourself and a couple of stooges who have pre-prepared points to make.

Anyone who wants to say something gets up and walks to the center; someone from the center has to concede their seat and go back to the outside. You moderate and prod people where necessary.

The slight added formality lets quieter or less experienced people get a word in edgeways, and conversely, prevents people from hogging the discussion. People may be more willing to speak up when the format and protocol are very clear, and people in the center only have to talk with a relatively small number of other people at once.

I think about 15 people is the minimum this would work with, so if you have a lot less, never mind.
posted by emilyw at 2:36 PM on April 7, 2009

Yeah, I think it would help to have a presenter who can present the "big picture" (The Future of Water in The US) and overview all the tons of related issues (population increase, drought and climate change, technology and green building, water-related energy use and its climate impacts) and close with a rousing finish. This will get everyone's energy and ideas flowing and give them lots of hooks they can attach those ideas to.
posted by salvia at 3:10 PM on April 7, 2009

Stringfellow Barr's Notes on Dialogue might be of interest.
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 6:09 PM on April 7, 2009

Talking around a drawing, list or diagram that you add to as the event goes on helps set up a minimal structure that doesn't necessarily shoe horn the discussion in any particular direction. Split the 15 into smaller groups of 5 to work on separate visions/discussions and you can come together at the end of the event to compare and contrast, tease out further developments. Perhaps start out with tentative spectrum of issues, mapped along axis if you need more structure, or end by plotting one to bring together disparate perspectives. Also, wine and nibbles.
posted by doobiedoo at 7:11 PM on April 9, 2009

« Older Linus Van Pelt and the answer to life   |   What if we DON'T want a green card - how do we get... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.