Some Practical Advice for User Group Organizers

I love attending tech conferences and user groups. I believe, that sharing knowledge with your community is one of the most rewarding experiences in the field of software engineering (and probably many other fields as well).

The Basics

I have visited many Meetups and even organized one for some time over the last couple of years and in this post I want to share some of my opinions on what makes a user group a great experience for attendees as well as organizers. However, I won’t go into the basics of how to start and run a Meetup, as these topics have been covered in great length and detail already by others such as with this nice illustration, or Nathen Harvey’s post from 2011, which is still relevant today. I also enjoyed reading this more recent post by Alice Whale on the topic.

An attempt at a very superficial summary of things to consider could look like this:

This post will instead focus on two topics I have reflected on quite heavily over the last months:

So, without further ado, let’s get into it!

Time Limits for Talks

The problem of how long a talk should be is, even among professional conferences, an unsolved one. There are different approaches depending on the crowd, the speakers, the venue, the topic…and many other variables. When deciding this for your User Group, you might need to consider different factors.

Things to consider

One very important thing to consider is attention-span. I prefer short impulse-talks in almost any circumstance, as they capture your attention-span well and inspire you to try something new or think differently about something.

This is especially true for User Groups which are held during after-work hours (which most I have attended are). After a long day of work, the attention-span is even shorter and most people will likely not be able to get the full benefit of a >1 hour talk with live-coding that goes into excruciating detail on every aspect of the covered topic.

Another aspect to consider is, that the speakers are usually not professionals with a lot of experience. So what happens often is that the talks go way over the time limit, which reduces important time for networking later and doesn’t really benefit people. A lot of times, User Group organizers are reluctant to interrupt or break off a talk which goes over the time limit, because these events are supposed to be relaxed and welcoming. Another reason I heard a few times was that it would be such a waste after the speaker has obviously invested so much time and effort in conjuring up all of this content.

The reality however, and I think everyone who has done any kind of professional public speaking (teaching, training, conference talks) will agree with me here, is that people who go way over time and have way too much content are not over-prepared, but underprepared. The hardest part when creating a good presentation is not gathering material, but cutting it down to the most valuable essence of what you want to get across, putting as little as possible on slides and then practicing that talk so often, that you know at each sentence how much time you have left without needing a clock.

This is, in any case, how people might prepare for professional speaking. But we want a relaxed atmosphere to give newcomers a way to share their stuff as well as to give people interested in speaking at conferences a training ground, so rigidly filtering out talks doesn’t really help anyone. Besides, User Groups in smaller cities usually suffer from not having enough speakers as it is, so discouraging them with lofty quality standards probably won’t be very helpful.

So what to do?

The Solution

I believe a practical solution to this dilemma is to have a well communicated, but rigorous time limit.

So instead of just stating that “talks should be about ~25 minutes”, you clearly communicate that talks will be interrupted after exactly 25 minutes. I’ve seen this work very well in practice and even novice speakers were able to finish within the given timespan. I also believe that this is actually helpful for new speakers. This way they have clear guidelines on what is expected of them and are forced to cut their content down to the essentials.

If you are already starved for speakers and worried that this might discourage people, a solution would be to offer some help in the form of examples or advice on how to prepare for a talk at your User Group. Similar to contribution guidelines in an open source project, this provides a potential speaker some guidance on how to go about preparing a talk.

Helpful tips could be something like…

…as well as slides and material from previous speakers, to have some reference.

I think this simple change can greatly increase the flow and overall experience at a User Group, especially if it has suffered from talks going on for too long in the past.

Hint: You might also want to try out Lightning Talks to show people that even 5 minutes can sometimes be enough to get things across.

Open Space

Talks are a great format for User Groups, especially if they are short and provide an impulse for later discussion. Something I introduced in my own User Group at some point was an Open Space after just one short talk and people seemed to love it.

What is an Open Space?

An Open Space is basically a self-organizing open discussion format (similar to what un-conferences do). The idea is to gather some ideas from the group, either on a specific topic or just in the general space related to your User Group and then enabling people to openly and informally discuss these topics in smaller groups.

Everyone can just move around as they please, share or not share and optimize for their own optimal benefit from the whole exercise. This is called the Law of Two Feet, stating that you and only you take responsibility for where you go and whether you stay or move to another topic and whether you contribute or just listen.

There are many resources on the web about the different ways of facilitating Open Spaces and their inherent laws and principles. I actually prefer to simply think of an Open Space as a self-organizing, open discussion format in small groups with crowdsourced topics.

What are the benefits?

How to do an Open Space?

I will just outline the way I did it in my User Group with about ~30-40 people. There are of course many ways of facilitating an Open Space and you can really just search the web for guides on all the different formats.

  1. Grab a Flipchart or a Whiteboard to write topics down
  2. Ask people to shout out topics until there are no more ideas
    • If people are reluctant, suggest 1 or 2 topics yourself, so they have a reference
  3. For each topic, ask people to raise their hand if they would be interested in discussing it
  4. Count the votes for each topic and prioritize by votes
  5. Based on the number of attendees, available time and isolated rooms to discuss (meeting rooms / corners in a big room) create a schedule
    • e.g.: 30 people could be 4 groups, with two 20 minutes sessions each.
    • In this case you would assign the 8 topics with the most votes to the 8 time slots, taking care that the highest voted topics aren’t on the same time slot if possible
    • You can experiment a lot with this step!
  6. Write down the schedule, announce where each topic is going to be discussed
  7. Start a timer and have fun! :) (after the timer goes off, announce topics again and repeat)

Conclusion

Community is an important part of a software developer’s journey in my opinion. Sharing your experiences and knowledge is rewarding and can open doors you wouldn’t have thought were there. However, the manner in which this is done is important both for oneself and the community as a whole, which is why regular feedback and self reflection are of critical importance when organizing or co-organizing a User Group.

This post covered two ways which in my opinion have the power to improve the experience of people involved in tech Meetups, but there are certainly many other ways to achieve just that and it’s definitely worth experimenting with new ideas and looking around for further inspiration. :).

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