This post is adapted from a memo I wrote for the 2022 global meetup organizer retreat, and owes some of its content to the organizers who attended.


'Soft skills' is a broad and somewhat fuzzy term, but the OED defines it as "personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people", and that seems close enough to me. Being able to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people is obviously an important part of running a community, and it can be hard to work on, especially because everyone is starting out with very different strengths and weaknesses.

The most important thing I have to say about this topic is:

If there's something that you don't know how to do, acknowledge that and find a way to work around it, rather than ignoring it / pretending it's not a problem.

For example, a lot of 'soft skills' involve reading non-verbal cues. If this is hard for you, maybe you can work on it, but in the meantime, you still need to be aware of conflicts, tension, and discontentment in your community. 

One way to solve this would be to enlist a trusted friend / member of your community who's better at reading people, and make it their job to notice potential problems and bring them to your attention. This way you can still address problems despite your trouble with non-verbal cues. Similarly, if you find it hard to talk to people or ask people for things, you might have a friend do the actual talking in your stead.


Welcoming new members

Engage with first-time attendees

When a new person shows up, speak to them (ask their name, etc) and help them get oriented. Ask if they have any questions, and set expectations for what's going to happen at this event. You might also ask them what brought them there, what they're hoping to get out of it, etc, but just conversing at all is good. When you inevitably have to leave them, make sure you've introduced them into another conversation, rather than just leaving them alone.

Note: This doesn't necessarily just apply to in-person events! The Miami ACX organizer DMs every new person who joins his Facebook group.

Appoint Welcomers

A Welcomer is someone whose job it is to attend to the experience of new members, as described above. By default you as the organizer are in this role, but if your community is large, or if you struggle with shyness or awkwardness, you can delegate it to one or more other people. (If you're lucky, you may have enough people naturally filling this role that you don't need to appoint anyone.)

Recognize that, if you take on the role of Welcomer, you need to be attending to it constantly. I've seen large-ish public events where the organizers just got absorbed in conversations and no one took responsibility for welcoming. New people who showed up would just stand around looking lost :(

Make points of contact legible

If you're gathering in a large group, the Welcomer(s) or organizer(s) should be visually identifiable, so that anyone in the crowd can find someone to help if they need something. This is the reason why events often give their volunteers brightly-colored T-shirts. 

Examples:

  • At a 100+ person meetup in NYC, one of the organizers made a tall flag that he carried around so he would always be findable despite moving.
  • If meeting somewhere with only one entrance, you can have a Welcomer stationed at the door.
  • The East Bay organizer always announces beforehand to look for his distinctive hat, so when people show up for the first time they not only know they're in the right place but also have a default person to talk to.

Retaining members

In order to retain people, you need to give them reasons to stay! Here are some ways you might do that:

Make your events pleasant to go to

This is the main one! People are more likely to come back if they have a good time. Time, location, and activities are all important parts of making an event appealing, but there's a lot more to subjective experience than that.

Try to give everyone at your meetup a good experience and make them feel included:

  • Be nice
  • Work to promote good conversations, get people to talk about their interests
  • Accommodate the preferences of your members (and of hypothetical potential members)
  • Make sure everyone gets a chance to speak, if they want it

And try to avoid making them unhappy:

  • Be attentive to if people are feeling left out, antagonized, sad, or otherwise uncomfortable
  • Be attentive to minor conflicts between group members, try to soften them before they become problematic
  • If any of the members of your group are being unkind or making others feel uncomfortable, deal with that proactively
    • Dissuade bad behavior with subtle hints, escalating to an explicit conversation or even exclusion if necessary
  • Be aware of the 'vibe' of your meetup (this may seem vague, but it's important)

Delegate responsibilities

People are more likely to continue coming if they feel some sense of ownership in the community. You might:

  • Encourage people to run their own events
  • Delegate responsibility for simple recurring tasks like posting meetup announcements or buying snacks

Encourage friendships 

People are more likely to continue coming if they become friends with the other people in the group!

  • If your group only has formal/topic discussions, that can make it hard for people to really get to know each other; try adding some unstructured social time, e.g. going out for dinner after the topic-focused discussion
  • Group chats and Discord servers are a common way for people to develop casual friendships outside of the context of the meetup itself

Leading discussions effectively

This advice is for meetups where you're having semi-formal discussion on a specific topic, since that's a somewhat different environment than just casual socializing.

  • Keep discussions on track
    • If you're leading a topic-focused meetup, people made the choice to come based at least in part on the stated topic.
  • Make sure everyone gets a chance to speak, if they want it
    • One organizer has a spiel he always gives that usually goes over very well: "Every discussion also needs people listening, so if you don't want to talk very much, that's okay because you are contributing by being a listener. If you want to share what's going on for you, I'm interested in hearing from the people who haven't spoken yet".
  • Lead by personal example 
    • Everyone copies everyone else’s culture, but even more so with the facilitator.  Think about how you are interacting and be prepared for everyone to copy you.  One example is interrupting: people will interrupt much more if you do it first.

What if I can't?

It may be the case that you aren't well-suited to leading discussions — for example, you might be extremely timid and unwilling to interrupt people, or on the other side, you might be someone who unintentionally dominates discussions. If this is the case, following the advice above, it would be a good idea to find a trusted member of your group who's willing and able to moderate discussions.

If no such person is available, it's probably time to explore other options, for example:

  • The Columbus community invented automoderation (though while it seems to have worked well for them, I haven't heard of any other group adopting it successfully)
    • Another group has a system where you put up 1 finger if you have something to say, 2 fingers if someone already has one up, etc., and then go through the queue in order
  • You could pass around a timer cube to bound people's speaking turns at a certain number of minutes
  • Try breaking into smaller discussion groups (this is often a good idea regardless)

So, that covers some aspects of meetup-related soft skills! I recognize that some of this advice is just telling you to do things, without telling you how — if you're dealing with a meetup situation that you don't know how to manage, I recommend asking other organizers in the Discord :)

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3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:33 PM

And see also also Anna Salamon's How to learn soft skills, which could possibly be helpful here

See also Raemon's very similarly named post, which is also good and covers pretty different ground!

I indeed did a doubletake when I saw this post, thinking "...did... didn't I write that?"

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