10 Lessons from Hosting Idea Exchange Dinners

By February 26, 2015Uncategorized

What I’ve learned by bringing small groups together for conceptual show and tells.

About a year ago, I started thinking about putting together a meetup centered around sharing ideas, a sort of intellectual show and tell. I wanted it to be rigorous yet unpretentious, and intimate — no loud crowded room or straining to see a stage, but rather small and comfortable.

Towards the end of the Orbital Boot Camp last summer, having had the “launch, share, iterate, repeat” mindset drilled in and hammered home week after week, I finally decided to make this idea happen.

I’ve now successfully hosted four “Idea Exchange Dinners,” and have learned a lot from the experience, including many useful and specific details for hosting good events that I didn’t expect.

Here are my top takeaways so far:

1. → Plan Ahead

It always seems to take longer than I expect to put together a guest list, send out all the details by email, and confirm everyone’s attendance. At first I thought figuring all that out a week or so ahead of the event would do it — but I’ve realized for peace of mind I actually prefer to have everything finalized at least a week ahead when possible. Taking into account the typical time it takes for responses to roll in (add a bit extra if roping in new attendees rather than just calling up friends to confirm!) and working backwards, this means I have to send out initial emails 2–3 weeks in advance. It only takes me a few hours of actual dedicated effort to plan an event, but somehow I still manage to procrastinate. For each dinner, I’ll go through my list of both friends/acquaintances who’ve expressed interest, and new people I’d like to reach out to. The longest step, though, is simply waiting for all the responses to come in.

2. → Provide Structure

So far I’ve hosted all the events at my apartment in Brooklyn, and consistently started at around 7:30 or 8pm. My girlfriend and I cooked for the first one (paella, yum!) but for the three since I’ve ordered food from local restaurants to take that additional load off my plate. Having some consistency with the general structure of these events means that each one gets a bit easier than the last. While there are still elements of the format I’d like to experiment with the the future, having a kind of default structure that I’m familiar with, easily executable if pressed for time, reduces the amount of planning and decision-making I have to do. This makes the process feel more manageable — something I can pretty easily fit in with the rest of my week, rather than a logistical headache.

3. → KISS (Keep it Small, Suckaz!)

I’ve found that 6–8 people works best, both for me personally (with my generally introverted social preferences) and for the way I’ve structured the events. There are a couple basic constraints here: time and space. Space = the number of people I can comfortably seat in my living room; this tops out at around 8 or 9. Time is bounded by the fact (learned by experience) that each shared idea + conversation takes roughly 15–20 minutes; accounting for food prep and dinnertime — the first hour or so is mingling and eating, with the idea exchange part following the meal — and considering that the later the event goes the more people either get tired or have to leave, this also works out 6–8 people as an ideal size. This can vary a bit based on the group dynamic, so I try to stay flexible. I’m not hovering over people with a stopwatch as we’re discussing ideas, but I had 9 people at the last dinner and could sense the energy draining towards the end, so that effectively established my upper bound.

4. → Set Expectations

Although I had a clear picture of what these dinners were all about, I quickly came to realize this didn’t necessarily translate to how others thought it would work. These first few dinners, I’ve had some people come without a specific idea prepared; I’ve had others talk about their own projects rather than the preexisting, broadly relevant ideas I had in mind. But you know what? The events have still been awesome. I’ve learned two things from this: on the one hand, it’s important that I communicate clearly what I intend for the event format if I want to avoid ambiguity and confusion. But on the other hand — a little confusion is acceptable. With good food and interesting people, I’d have to be a lot worse at explaining things to really screw up one of these. That said, I do want to make sure people are comfortable and stress-free. I’ve realized I could do a better job setting the casual tone while still being clear that there’s structure involved, so I’ve tried to find a balance in the emails I send out to prepare people for the dinners, and answer questions individually if anyone’s unsure what to bring to the table.

5. → Try for a Dynamic Mix

These events are a pretty new thing, so to be honest I’m happy just to be able to get any 6 or 8 people to attend these weird monthly dinners. But my goal ideally is to make sure each event is relatively diverse in terms of age, gender, background, and more. I think I’ve done a decent job so far, but the attendee lists have definitely been heavy on my friends and existing network, which means (mostly) younger people in tech/media/creative fields. Going forward, I’d love to have — to name a couple examples — more people who are older and more experienced than I am, more people working in technical fields like science and math and engineering, and people of more diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Another consideration I think will become important is the balance of new attendees and those who have attended a dinner previously. I’ve had a couple repeat attendees (including, of course, me and my girlfriend) but going forward I think a balanced mix of both old and new faces will be important — repeat attendees to build community over time, and new ones to infuse the events with fresh viewpoints.

6. → Moderate…but Gently!

The last thing I want to do is be a heavy-handed, overbearing host. I try to keep things moving and pay attention to ensuring people are comfortable (basic things: introducing people, topping off drinks, etc.) but always casually. After everyone’s showed up, I gradually transition the group from mingling to eating to sharing, but I try not to worry too much about timing or keeping tight control over the format — if I’ve set things up well, it should (and usually does!) work our just fine. The most important part of the evening is the idea presentation, so I’ll set an example for this by introducing the general format and presenting my own idea first to serve as an example. I try to keep things moving with questions throughout, but that’s something where everyone naturally contributes, not my special role. Typically things wind down naturally after everyone’s presented; since it’s usually pretty late I’ll just thank everyone for coming and insist that, no, really, I actually enjoy doing the dishes on my own! A couple tips: by asking ahead if anyone has to leave early lets me plan, I can make sure they’re one of the first few people to present their idea. And if we’ve talked for a while about one idea and hit a natural lull, I try not to be too shy about suggesting a next person to share. Other than that, I’m happy to go with the flow!

7. → People > Ideas

The ideas people bring are important, and it’s 100% my job to make it clear what these events are all about (see above re: expectations) but I’ve found that the most fun and important part of the night is always the conversation that flows out of the initial ideas people bring. A typical “idea” = 2–5 minutes for its presenter to acquaint everyone with the basics of what they’re talking about, then 10–15 minutes of free-flowing conversation and discussion which always leads in all sorts of unexpected directions. I see my role as basically just doing a good job setting the initial conditions. If I’ve brought great people to the dinners (so far so good!) the rest will emerge naturally. Other than inviting people who are both interesting and actually want to be there, and adequately preparing people for the format, I think the key to good conversation is making people feel comfortable. I’m proud to say my apartment decor is on fleek, I make sure to have a variety of food and plenty of drinks (both alcoholic and non-), and I try to always give people enough time at the beginning of the evening to chat and get to know one another before diving into more intense conversation.

8. → C.R.E.A.M. (Cost Recuperation Enables Awesome Meals)

When I first started putting these dinners together, I didn’t feel all that comfortable asking people for financial contribution. After all, I didn’t know how successful they would be; I was happy just to get anyone to show up! But starting with Dinner #2 I’ve asked people to chip in towards the costs of food and drinks, and I think that’s been important in making sure this is sustainable in the long term. So far, I’ve made these contributions “pay what you want”, and simply asked people to chip in roughly what they’d be comfortable paying for a decent meal out plus a couple drinks. This has worked well so far — contributions have averaged around $20–25, which is close to both my expectation and my breakeven point in covering the direct costs of hosting. (There are intangible costs, too, like the time I spend organizing — but also great benefits, so it’s a totally worthwhile tradeoff!) I’ve seen similar events charge $100+ per person, and I’ve considered whether it might be feasible to go that route at some point. But for now, I don’t want to charge more, for a couple reasons: first, I’d rather the meals feel more like a group of friends hanging out than an exclusive/formal event; and second, I want these to be as accessible as possible. I will note, though, that despite the “pay what you want” model I do require at least some cash money contribution to confirm a spot — mostly to reduce the likelihood of no-shows. Even $20 is pretty good insurance against last-minute flake outs!

9. → Take Great Notes

Something I started doing pretty arbitrarily, but have continued for all the dinners so far, is jot down detailed notes of all the ideas and conversations of the evening on my iPhone. (Side note: I have no technology policy, but try to be inconspicuous with this. People often read notes off their phones while presenting an idea, but once conversation gets flowing I haven’t run into any problems with techno-distraction.) This is the main documentation I have of the events — I think I’ve forgotten to even take photos at all but one of the dinners — but for me the ideas and discussion are the most important thing to remember and I’ve found this to be the best way to do so. At some point I’d like to create an online repository or “library” of the ideas and discussions generated from these dinners, and I’m really glad to have records of them. This is partly useful to me personally, but I’ve also been sending out the notes to the attendees, and using that as an opportunity to follow up (did you have a good time? would you like to come to another dinner? etc.) So far I’ve consistently procrastinated with that follow-up email, and I think that’s partly why it’s been less effective than I’d like at eliciting responses from attendees, but several people have told me they’re glad I sent it out, so I plan to continue doing so!

10. → Make it Repeatable

Ultimately I want to build on all these things I’ve learned so far, and keep improving the process as much as possible for subsequent dinners. To this end, I’ve created a couple simple tools to make it easier for me to put these together in the future. First of all, I’ve saved a series of email templates — one to introduce people to the idea of the dinners and essentially pre-qualify their interest, one to serve as formal invitation with more extensive details on the specifics of the event, and one to follow up afterwards. I’ve also been keeping a spreadsheet where I can track the attendees for each dinner, as well as keep a master list of both people who have expressed interest but haven’t been able to make it to one yet, and people who I’d like to invite in the future. I also have a basic webpage set up that I can link people to when I want to explain in a general sense how these dinners work and why I’m doing them. Other things I haven’t yet done, but would like to explore, include creating an “Idea Exchange” website to feature the ideas people share and the resulting conversations (accessible to a wider audience, contingent on attendees’ permission) and perhaps automating some parts of the system for emailing details and confirming attendance.

Going forward?
There are a bunch of things I’d like to continue exploring with this event series and the group I’m gradually building of people who are interested in this sort of thing! Here are a few ideas:

  • I’d like to try experimenting with times, format, and locations. For example, could an Idea Exchange Brunch work as well as a dinner? Come summer, perhaps an Idea Exchange picnic? Would these work as well at someone else’s apartment or a more public venue, or is my place ideal?
  • I’d love to take the basic ethos of this dinner series and expand to longer and more immersive one-off events. In particular, I’m curious to try putting together a sort of mini-conference that might last a full day but still be quite limited in number of attendees and focus around sharing and conversation. This could involve watching a curated video series, longer presentations by attendees, or something else entirely.
  • Finally, I’m curious to try similar events but with some sort of thematic focus — perhaps a group learning exercise, or workshop format on a particular topic. At one of the dinners, much discussion centered around the maker movement; one idea raised was that we could follow up with a group hackathon or hands-on meetup to actually learn together how to prototype physical objects.

I’ll end with an appendix of the email templates I’m currently using to organize these dinners. If you’re interested in putting together something similar, perhaps these will be useful. And if you have any feedback — either questions or suggestions for improving/clarifying any of this, don’t hesitate to get in touch!


Appendix

Here’s the webpage I currently point people to as a general overview of the Idea Exchange Dinners:

http://www.selfstartersguide.com/ideaexchange/

Here’s the email I send to people I’ve already told about the dinners (N.B— all emails include brief personalization where appropriate):

Hi,
I’m planning another idea exchange dinner for [date] — would you like to come? If so, please let me know by tomorrow night and I’ll send you further details to confirm!
Best,
Brendan

Here’s the email I send to people I don’t already know well (or at all) but think might be interested:

Hi,
I’m a writer / media-maker / educational futurist / Brooklynite who’s been following you for long enough to know that you do cool work and have great ideas.
I wanted to let you know about a dinner series I’ve recently started, and see if you might be interested in attending sometime soon.
The “Idea Exchange Dinners” are basically a small-group dinner party + intellectual show and tell, where each guest presents an intriguing idea they’ve encountered (past examples: microworlds, Bitcoin, inspectional reading, neural networks) and then we discuss as a group over good food and drinks. Basically it’s all about expanding our collective cognitive toolkit. You can find a bit more detail here: http://www.selfstartersguide.com/ideaexchange/
I host these with my girlfriend at our apartment in Prospect Heights, roughly once a month, and they usually run from around 8–10:30pm. Pretty casual and low cost, just a pay-what-you-want donation to cover food/drinks (doing these to meet people and learn things, not make $!) They’ve been a lot of fun so far.
If you’re interested, please let me know and I’ll keep you posted about upcoming dinners!
Best,
Brendan

Here’s the confirmation email I send people who have told me they’d like to come to a specific dinner:

Hello!
Looking forward to seeing you at the Idea Exchange Dinner on Friday, 1/30. Here’s what you need to know:
Time & Place
Dinner is [date], at my apartment in Prospect Heights: [address]. Close subways include everything at Atlantic Terminal, the 2/3 to Bergen, and the C to Lafayette.
We’ll plan to officially start dinner at 8. But please feel free to come around 7:30 for drinks and snacks and such. Based on past events we’ll probably wrap up by 10:30–11:00 or so.
The Meal
I’ll take care of food (type of cuisine TBD) and drinks (plenty of choices both alcoholic and non). If you have any dietary restrictions or foods you just really can’t stand, let me know and I’ll do my best to accommodate!
Please confirm your attendance by [date] with a donation here: http://gum.co/ideaexchange
Not doing these for profit; I just ask that you chip in to cover food/drinks and confirm your spot. Something along the lines of what you’d pay for a meal/drinks at a decent restaurant…whatever seems fair to you = fine by me.
The Ideas
The focal point of these dinners is the cross-disciplinary sharing of ideas — I think of it like a conceptual show and tell. My goal is for us to exchange useful fragments of our respective cognitive toolkits. To that end I’d like everyone to bring one interesting/useful/surprising idea to share.
I envision these ideas being fairly specific but also reasonably general-interest. Things you’ve encountered while working, reading, or exploring and found useful and intriguing. Let’s aim for the middle ground between “common knowledge” and “bafflingly obscure”. Some good examples from previous dinners include: the systemic sublime, neural networks, inspectional reading, massive open online medicine, the bid-offer spread, virtual water, and grief porn.
We’ll each take a couple minutes to define/introduce the idea, and then 10 minutes or so to discuss as a group. Should be pretty casual — come prepared with your idea, but no need to write out a presentation or anything.
If you have any questions, shoot! Otherwise, see you on [date] ☺
Best,
Brendan
[my phone number]

Here’s the follow-up I send after each dinner (sometimes many weeks after…whoops!), with notes appended at the bottom:

Hey all,
Thanks for coming to dinner last month! I’ve finally gotten around to compiling notes from the awesome ideas everyone shared & resultant discussions — find that below, fairly rough but hopefully cleaned of most iPhone typos and egregious abbreviations.
I also wanted to ask you a few quick questions:
1. Would you like to attend another Idea Exchange Dinner (or brunch? picnic? endless possibilities…) in the future? Let me know, and I’ll keep you posted.
2. Potential future attendee nomination time! Do you know anyone you think would dig an event like this? If so, please send me their info and/or introduce me!
3. Last but not least, let me know if you have any thoughts/suggestions on how to make future events even better!
And of course feel free to bounce any other ideas off me and the rest of the group ☺
Best,
Brendan
-=-=-=-=-=-
[notes go here!]


Also posted to Medium

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