Community Building: Seth Godin on Organizing Your Advance

Note: “advance” as in the title of this blog post is Seth Godin’s preferential word for what we normally refer to as “retreat” or in-person gathering with a mission (he thinks retreat is too negative; I agree).

Online Communities are strengthened by simultaneous offline community gatherings. But importantly, not all offline community gatherings, or “retreatsadvances” are created equally. Some downright stink in many cases. If you’re looking to energize your online community with offline events, do it right.

Here are some awesome pointers from the always observant Seth Godin.

My favorites below:

– Must be off site, with no access to electronic interruption

– Should be intense. Save the rest and relaxation for afterwards

– Never (never) have people go around a circle and say their name and what they do and their favorite kind of vegetable or whatever. The problem? People spend the whole time trying to think of what to say, not listening to those in front of them (I once had to witness 600 people do this!!) Instead, a week ahead of time, give each person an assignment for a presentation at the event. It might be the answer to a question like, “what are you working on,” or “what’s bothering you,” or “what can you teach us.” Each person gets 300 seconds, that’s it.

– Use placecards at each meal, rotating where people sit. Crowd the tables really tightly (12 at a table for 10) and serve buffet style to avoid lots of staffers in the room. Make it easy for people to leave boring tables and organically sit together at empty ones.

– Don’t serve boring food.

– Organize roundtable conversations, with no more than 20 people at a time (so if you have more attendees than this, break into groups.) Launch a firestarter, a five minute statement, then have at it. Everyone speaks up, conversations scale and ebb and flow.

– Solve problems. Get into small groups and have the groups build something, analyze something, create something totally irrelevant to what the organization does. The purpose is to put people in close proximity with just enough pressure to allow them to drop their shields.

(photo credit – the99percent)

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William Hatcher

Great pointers! I teach a course on community development, and we had a successful local organizer come speak to the class. He stressed the importance of pizza when doing public participation. We often forget that small things, such as food, make a huge difference.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

I never considered the negative connotation of the word “retreat” before, but it’s a good point. I regularly follow Seth’s tweets, so I know that he is a valuable source of useful advice. Thanks for sharing!

Tom Bullington

Great tips. Completely agree with Godin’s point about not going around the room to get everyone’s name and who they’re with. Whenever I see that happen, it tells me the organizer is simply trying to burn some time and doesn’t have a good plan for the meeting. It also says the organizer doesn’t respect my time, because I’m going to get NOTHING out of knowing who my fellow attendees are, where they work, and some other nonsensical fact about them (like favorite movie or what type of vegetable they would be if they had a choice).

The real value from this type of event comes from the one-on-one interactions you have with your tablemates. A good rule of thumb is: If you don’t spend enough time with them to at least shake hands with them and get a business card, you probably won’t remember them or what they said a week, month or year from now.

Lauren Modeen

Tom – completely agree with you. I went to a conference this weekend, and in one of the sessions, the leader had everyone say their name and where they work. After going through 45 people, I couldn’t remember the person’s name sitting next to me, never mind four rows in front. Like Seth points out, I spent the time preparing to voice my own bit, not hearing anyone else. If the point of this exercise is to warm the room up, there are entirely more productive and engaging ways to do this (also on his list).