Conversation-Catalysing Events

There's a famous British politics quote where the 1960s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, aka Supermac, is asked the hardest thing about government and replies “Events, dear boy, events”. This probably never happened and is absolutely irrelevant to this blogpost regardless, but I love saying it and most Americans I talk to have no idea what I'm referring to, so I'm jamming it into this blogpost in the hopes that it slightly improves my social life.

Supermac wasn't talking about events-as-in-gatherings, but I am: organising good social events is also hard, but people are desperate for more good gatherings, so it's very valuable to do if you can do it. I have recently converged on a philosophy for these events, which I will share below; as always, this will be relevant to you exactly in proportion that your city is like my city and your friends are like my friends, I don't think there's any universal truth to this.

In short: I think a lot of people are looking for a way to have interesting conversations with smart people and potentially make new friends. In order to do this, it's very helpful to have events which permit and enable interaction with strangers, and create shared context that gets conversations started (and mitigates the awkwardness when particular groups of strangers don't actually vibe, which will inevitably happen).

If you organise events starting from these principles, you wind up with something very different than if you organise events based on other principles, or no principles at all.

For example, one event I've thrown several times is an olfactory quiz: I partnered with the owner of a cool Olfactory Art Gallery, where the art is smells in bottles rather than visuals on walls. After the participants arrive, we tell the participants to get into small teams with people they don't know. We slowly pass around three bottles with smells in them, and each time has to write down guesses of what the smell is. Then we read out all the answers and hand out prizes, then have a long period for socialising in which people can just mingle and check out the other cool olfactory art exhibits.

Here are some of the features that this event format has which follow directly from the Conversation-Catalysing Events framework:

  • We start by telling people explicitly "get in a team with people you don't know" – we're giving people explicit permission to talk to strangers. Otherwise, any attendee who came with a friend would naturally/automatically team up with their friend (I mean, just think about the social dynamics: without the organiser saying "please team up with a stranger", it would be super weird for either friend to say "hey bye I'm going to play with someone else".
  • The content of the quiz itself doesn't really matter, since it's only there as a catalyst. Mostly people are guessing the answers almost at random; this violates Good Trivia Design, but we're not aiming particularly for good trivia. The quiz just exists to create shared context as a jumping off point for conversations, and all that requires is an intelligible task for people to do together which gives an obvious first question to ask each other.
  • We build a LOT of slack time into the event – e.g. you could imagine trying to optimise an event like this, but we actively don't want to make this efficient, we want there to be lots of down-time when people can talk to each other. We also have plenty of time at the event after and around the "scheduled content," where people can just hang out with each other and chat.
  • Since many people arrive at the event with a friend or two, and then meet a new friend or two on their impromptu quiz team, we enable the possibility of "chain" friendship through the event – people can start mingling between/across teams, giving more opportunities for interesting conversations across new people.

A similar event I ran was a chocolate tasting, with a similar format: put people into groups with strangers, give them a shared activity as a jumping-off point, and then structure the event so they have tons of time to hang out and make friends.

For clarity, let's compare some other kinds of events aimed at a similar demographic which (whatever their other goals and merits) are bad at conversation-catalsying. For example, I often get told I could/should organise Talks, but I think talks are a bad format for what I care about: you sit in an audience with 30 other people you won't interact with, listening to an expert or celebrity talk for an hour about something, and then you leave. While it's possible to meet interesting people and make new friends at such an event – there's a shared context, at least, and usually a chance to Mingle afterwards – it takes a very extroverted and confident person to do so; I'd prefer to run events where the structure itself encourages the outcomes I'm looking for.

This highlights one thing to look out for if you're organising a conversation-catalysing event: you might have to fight against the desire in you or your co-organisers to make the event itself more exciting or content-ful. Organisers are often tempted to add more programming and activities and to fill up more of the time, which of course is fair enough, but I think counterproductive if your goal is to let people talk to each other. Perhaps self-evidently, conversation-catalysing events should optimise for catalysing interesting conversations among attendees, rather than being maximally interesting or exciting themselves.

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