Better Formats For Group Interaction – Beyond Lectures, Group Discussions, Panels and Mixers

Nearly all large events use a combination of only these four simple formats for human interaction: lectures, group discussions, panels, and mixers. Yet there are more than 40 structured ways that groups of people who don’t know each other can come together to interact, bond, learn, and help each other (see my full list at the bottom of this article, or click here for a spreadsheet version). Unfortunately, each of the four standard group interaction templates has significant flaws:

  1. Lecture : one person stands at the front of the room and talks while others sit and listen. In the best case, the speaker is a highly charismatic expert who understands the interests of the group and is able to transfer knowledge to them while being entertaining. More typically, some people find the lecture too slow and are bored, others find it too fast and are confused, and the speaker is both less informative and less entertaining than your average TED talk (that you could have watched at home in your pajamas). What’s more, passive listening is not usually a very efficient way to transfer information, and talks present little opportunity for attendees to interact with the speaker or get to know each other.
  2. Group discussion: a bunch of people sit in a room discussing a proposed topic, with each person jumping in when they feel like it. In the best case, the group has knowledgeable people with different perspectives who chime in when they have something genuinely additive to say, and the conversation stays on topic. More typically, the conversation is repeatedly derailed by participants bringing up only semi-relevant points, and two person disagreements break out but are not resolved. Some participants are out to make themselves sound smart, and others get defensive when people disagree with them, with little real depth being reached.
  3. Panel: a moderator interviews experts while everyone watches. At its best, the moderator has a strong understanding of the intersection between the interests of the audience and what the experts can usefully talk about it, and takes control of the conversation to keep it interesting to the audience. More typically, the experts ramble at length due to lack of conversational focus and little preparation, the moderator doesn’t have a deep enough understanding of the audience’s interests to keep the conversation relevant. When questions are taken from the audience, some audience members use this opportunity as an excuse to make everyone else listen to their opinion, or ask vague questions that the experts struggle to interpret.
  4. Mixer: everyone is in a room milling around, with each person left to start their own conversations. In the best case, people have a good idea of who they want to speak to, and feel comfortable initiating those conversations, with conversational interest being reciprocated. More typically, people don’t know who it would be interesting to talk to, and some people feel uncomfortable initiating conversations with strangers, so many end up talking with the few people they already know. People who don’t know anyone have little choice but to walk around looking for a conversation to jump into with minimal awkwardness, and others end up stuck in conversation with whichever random person happened to start talking to them even if they have no shared interests. Mixers are usually better than dinners, at least, which are basically mixers where you are stuck at one table and only have the ability to speak to the two random people next to you (or if you’re lucky enough to have a good table shape, five people).

 

Note: I’m talking here about gatherings with at least 5 people (typically far more than that) and where most of the people don’t know most others. When groups of friends gather, or the entire group size is 4 or fewer people, different considerations apply.

Each of the four common formats mentioned above works well at times, but is greatly overused. People likely rely on these because (a) they are common, so are the first thing that organizers think of, (b) are the defaults, so participants are expecting them, and (c) are reasonably low effort to organize.

Close-up of people communicating while sitting in circle and gesturing

But we can do better by thinking about what our goals are for bringing participants together in the first place, and then choosing from the many possible formats based on what will achieve our specific goals.

We should stop settling for the default, and start optimizing for what we’re actually trying to achieve.

So in that vein, let’s consider the goals we have when bringing people together for an event. They usually are a combination of trying to get the participants to:

  1. learn new information
  2. improve their skills
  3. have fun
  4. gain familiarity with each other
  5. spend time bonding with each other to form new, lasting relationships (e.g friendships, business connections, or romantic partnerships)
  6. help each other (e.g. give each other advice, or make useful introductions for each other after the event)
  7. gain inspiration to improve themselves or the world
  8. take specific actions after the event (e.g. take up a certain cause)
  9. engage in the creation of something together, or tackle a problem together
  10. feel excitement about attending the event in the first place

Different formats will be better along some of these dimensions, and worse along others. Note for example that using the lecture format with an excellent, well-known, and inspiring speaker may do very well on the learn, fun, inspiration and excitement goals, but will probably be bad along the other dimensions. However, a more typical lecturer will be lucky to do well on even two of these dimensions.

Here is my current list of alternative structured formats for bringing together groups of people together that don’t already know each other. Some of these I’ve witnessed first hand at events held by others, some I’ve used at my own events or invented, and still others I’ve heard about but never myself seen used. For each format, I list which of the above goals I believe it tends to promote, though the determination is rather subjective. Just search the list below for these words to find formats relevant to that goal: learn, improve, fun, familiarity, bonding, help, inspiration, actions, creation, excitement.

 

SPENCER’S LIST OF FORMATS FOR LARGE GROUP INTERACTION

Click here to download this list as a spreadsheet, with easy sorting by goal/benefit.

  1. Lightning Talks [learn, fun, inspiration, actions]: every participant (who wants to) gives a very short timed mini-lecture (e.g. 5 minutes each), with strict time enforcement (and a 1 minute warning before time is up). There could be a theme (e.g. “What’s your favorite life hack?”) or it could be that speakers can talk about any topic they want. [I’ve tried this, and it has some advantages over a single lecture since it’s more participatory. Rapid fire talks tend to be more stimulating than one long talk and make it harder for the audience to get bored. Most people are not that well versed in public speaking and so the talks may not be very polished, but it gives everyone a valuable opportunity to practice their public speaking. It also helps the participants know each other better and gives them easy to use material to start conversations with each other afterward.]
  2. Reciprocity Circle [familiarity, help]: Sitting in a circle, each person says one-by-one three things they wish someone could help them with, and then others (who choose to opt-in) volunteer to help with those things (if no one can help with that thing, the person can ask for something else, or you can go to the next person in the circle). There is also a format for this where you draw a ring of dots on a big piece of paper, with each dot labeled with one attendees name, and you write next to your dot what you could use help with. When someone can help you, they connect your dot to theirs with a line. A more complicated version of this latter format is sometimes called a Reciprocity Ring®, which seems to have been invented by Humax.  [I’ve tried the basic Reciprocity Circle format, and it worked better than I expected, with many people offering to help the others and many requests being fulfilled.]
  3. Participatory Experiment [learn, fun, excitement]: Everyone participates in a scientific study that the group is performing on itself or which the moderator performs on the rest of the group, with a group discussion at the end to talk about people’s experiences. Example experiments include the Asch Conformity Experiment, the Training Game (also sometimes called the operant conditioning “Shaping Game” – I recommend having everyone who is not the “animal” train the animal all at once by clapping), the Dr. Fox Effect, the Cognitive Reflection Test (each person answers individually), Change Blindness (e.g. aspects of the room or of the moderator’s appearance are dramatically changed when participants are looking at something else), memory techniques are taught such as the Linking Method or the Memory Palace method (with the group attempting to memorize items before and after they learn the technique), or a Lie Detection experiment.  Note that some of these require deception (i.e. only some of the group members are in on what’s really happening) but all participants should have a vague sense of what they are getting themselves into so that they can consent appropriately to participate. [I’ve tried the Training Game, and have tried a Lie Detection experiment, with everyone in the group telling a lie and a truth about the same topic (in random order), and the rest of the group secretly guessing which was the lie – at the end we calculated the statistics and discussed the results – people reported a really positive reaction to the event in the latter case, the former case the reaction was more mixed.]
  4. Deep Questions [familiarity, fun, bonding]: Break into pairs, and have each member of each pair answer a meaningful (pre-selected) question for the other member of the pair (e.g. “What in life gets you really excited?”, “What’s one thing you’ve never told someone before about yourself that you feel comfortable sharing with a stranger?”, “What do you hope they say in your obituary?”, “Who do you admire most, and why do you admire that person so much?”), then rotate the pairs and move onto the next question so that most people get to do it with most others. [I tried this recently using questions I designed, and it worked great – never before to my knowledge have I hosted an event where so much interest was expressed in staying in touch with other people attendees had just met. I recommend providing people 12 minutes to do two questions with one person, and giving them a 6 minute warning so they know when time is half done. Then people rotate partners and take on the next two questions with a new person.]
  5. Group Discussion [learn, fun, familiarity]: a topic is selected that the group has an interest in and a number of sub-questions about this topic are chosen that would be interesting to talk about (e.g. if the topic was “Is it wrong to eat animals?” some sub-topics could be “Why do people disagree about this topic?” and “Under what situations would it be more wrong or less wrong?”). Then a full group discussion ensues, with a moderator keeping the group on track so they don’t veer too far afield, and so that no one monopolizes the speaking time. In some cases, it’s best to have everyone read an article or book in advance to prepare for the discussion. [In my experience, strict moderation is critical to making this work well in a large group. The moderator should keep the conversation on track, stop disputes that just involve two or three people, ask those who haven’t spoken much for their opinion, etc.]
  6. Split Group Discussion [learn, fun, familiarity, bonding]: a topic is selected, or a small amount of material is presented as a lecture, then the group splits into subgroups of 2-4 people (4 is probably the largest that is viable), then these small groups discuss the topic. [In my experience, people generally like these smaller discussion groups better than larger ones.]
  7. Skill Practice [learn, improve, fun, familiarity]: some lecture material and a demonstration of how to perform a skill is presented by an experiment (e.g. a technique for making interesting conversation with people you’ve just met, or a technique to make a certain type of jewelry out of material) and then people are given any material they need and are broken into pairs or groups of three and practice the skill while helping each other. The expert usually walks around the room to answer questions. [I’ve seen it done and thought it worked well, though sometimes a large amount of practice is required to make real progress at a new skill. It might be more interesting if the small groups keep rotating partners to get to know more people, or if multiple exercises are practices that get at one skill in different ways.]
  8. Socializing with Rules [fun, familiarity, bonding, excitement]: a cocktail party, mixer or dinner but there are special rules everyone has to follow, which people are told about before they arrive. Do not spring new social rules on people unexpectedly. The special rules you use could be “no small talk is permitted” or “three people in the group have been told to lie about everything they say and you have to try to figure out who they are” or “you are not allowed to talk about what you do for a living” or “everyone short wears these special shoes to make them unusually tall whereas tall people must go shoeless” or “you can’t talk to anyone you already know” or “be as vulnerable as possible in every conversations” or “wear something you would never wear normally”. [In my experience this overall format can be fun and add a really interesting twist to social interaction. I find it remarkable the extent to which people will follow and enjoy new social rules (and even enforce that others follow them), as long as they are told about the rules in advance. Here’s a fun but extreme example where guests had special shoes to make them all identical heights.]
  9. Non-competitive Group Activity [fun, familiarity, bonding, excitement]: the whole group does a non-competitive activity together, like a group hike, easy outdoor rock climbing, camping, geocaching, karaoke, cooking mexican food, or whitewater rafting. [In my experience this is pretty good for getting people to feel more comfortable around each other, though it tends to splinter into smaller cliques over time. It may work especially well when the group activity automatically involves communicating with many other members of the group, or where the group has challenges that they overcome together.]
  10. Panel [learn, actions, excitement]: have a bunch of experts sit together in front of an audience, and have a moderator interview them while people watch. A variant on this is the “Colloquy” format, where the moderator chooses questioners from the audience to have public dialogue or discussion with the panel, but limits how long each such public discussion goes. [While certain excellent moderators can make this work well, I think on average it is not very successful. Having people tweet questions in that the moderator can see usually works better than having people ask them at a mic in my opinion, since in the former case the moderator can choose the most generally interesting questions and can make the wording more succinct and clear. This also prevents audience members from hijacking the Q&A time to tell everyone about their opinion in the guise of asking a question.]
  11. Ice Breaker [fun, familiarity]: have everyone do silly things with other members of the group, tell the group random things about themselves, do skits together, say things they are told to say, etc. Some specific examples out of a huge range of possibilities include: walk around starting conversations with others in the group looking for two non-obvious things you have in common with each person, or each person comes up with the one word that best describes X (for some relevant X), or each person says their 5 favorite X (for some relevant X), or each person answers a ridiculous question like “If you were a vegetable, which vegetable would you be, and why?”, or each person does a silly thing like find the other person in the room that has the same assigned animal as you (you are only allowed to make the noises of or act like your assigned animal), or stand face to face near one person and stare into their eyes for 30 seconds and then rotate. These can be done in small groups or as one big group. [Personally I usually don’t like this format much because ice breakers often feel awkward and are usually not a good way for getting to know people beyond a superficial level. But some people love these, and they do at least give you the feeling of familiarity with others in the room. Note that some people with social anxiety find these kinds of forced interactions to be highly uncomfortable, so they should definitely be opt-in only, while not making those who opt-out feel conspicuous.]
  12. Competitive Games [fun, familiarity, excitement]: have people play competitive games together (it could be athletic like dodgeball, or board games, or card games). [This format can work okay, but some people really don’t like whichever type of game you choose. I also find that people don’t actually talk to each other or get to know each other that well while playing games, and those that do talk a lot can annoy those who take games very seriously. Low pressure team games tend to work better I think, as members of the same team at least feel a sense of comradery.]
  13. Cooperative Games [fun, familiarity, excitement]: attendees have to work together to do things (e.g. “trust fall” games where you catch someone who falls backward, improv games where you create a story or scene together under constraints that have been assigned to you, group strategy games where you have to solve a puzzle or problem together such as Escape the Room games, etc.) [This format may be substantially better for creating a sense of group and cohesion than competitive games.]
  14. Writing Exercises [learn, improve, fun, familiarity, inspiration, actions, creation, excitement]: the group is given a brief lecture or presentation and a writing prompt, and each person then works independently to do a writing assignment (e.g. “Write a personal manifesto for your own life, now that we’ve told you about the characteristics of an effective manifesto.” or “Write down the 5 ideas you’ve learned that most changed your life.” or “Write out three very different plans you could use to try to achieve your major life goals.”). At the end, people who want to can read what they wrote to the group. [I’ve liked this format in the past because it gets you thinking a lot and you may end up sharer much more significant things due to the writing component.]
  15. New Experiences [fun, familiarity, bonding, excitement]: everyone in the group tries something unusual that none of them have done before, such as a new virtual reality experience, or eating miracle berries together, or all being blindfolded for a few hours, or doing a tasting of odd foods. [I rather like this format because in the worst case, at least you’ve tried something new. Plus having new experiences together can make a group feel closer, and gives participants something to talk to each other about.]
  16. 1-2-4-all [learn, familiarity, creation, excitement]: a format where a topic is brought up, and each person spends a few minutes thinking about it or writing about it on their own. Then groups of two are formed, where the topic is discussed further. Then these groups of two merge into groups of four, for further discussion. Each group of four then elects a “presenter.” The whole room then gets together, and the presenter from each group presents the views of that group to everyone else. An alternative would be to have a final group discussion instead of each group use a presenter. [I’ve never tried this format, but it seems to blend the benefits of various other formats. It comes from liberating structures which is a website with a lot of group interaction formats (I’ve simplified the 1-2-4-all format they recommend, read here for the original). In my opinion, most of the other formats they suggest work best within an organization or pre-existing group, rather than with people who don’t know each other already, and so don’t fit as well the purpose of this article.]
  17. Co-creation [learn, improve, fun, familiarity, bonding, help, inspiration, creation, excitement]: The entire group is assigned the project of creating something, and given guidelines and materials. It is then left to the group how to organize itself to achieve this (e.g. a leader could be elected, or the group could divide and conquer). Alternatively, this could be done in smaller groups (say, four people) with each group making their own creation, presenting their work to the other people at the end. It could be competitive (e.g. with a panel of judges and prizes) or more collaborative. [Hackathons are a common example of this format.]
  18. Query the Geniuses [learn, fun, help, actions, excitement]: a panel of experts or knowledgeable people (the “geniuses” a.k.a. “oracles”) sit at one long table looking at the rest of the group (in some cases, these geniuses will represent a large percentage of the room). All the other people in the room go one by one presenting something to the geniuses (e.g. their business idea, or the problem in life they are having, or a question they’d really like an answer to) while the other attendees watch. The panel of geniuses then gives feedback about how to improve this thing or helps you answer your question. This should be done on a timer so that no single asker monopolizes the time. Note that there is an extreme form of this where everyone except a small number of askers is one of the geniuses, so you’re basically asking the entire group to help you with something, at which point people chime in with ideas and feedback. When the topic is personal problems, this becomes a form of group therapy. [I attended one of these, it was neat. I first saw this at a House of Genius event that I attended. There was an additional rule used there which was that the geniuses were not allowed to talk about their backgrounds or credentials, so nobody knew who was who until the end.]
  19. Lecture [learn, inspiration, actions, excitement]: an expert stands at the front of the room and tells the audience about something. This works best if the speaker is very charismatic, knowledgeable about the topic, and understands the audience well. You can facilitate this by choosing the right lecturer, but also by clearly explaining in advance to the lecturer who the audience will be and what their interests are. [When slides are used, it’s often best if the speaker limits each slide to containing at most only three sentences, and preferably, just a relevant image with a single sentence. Also I would recommend having 10 minute breaks between each lecture (with the speaker standing at the front of the room during the break) so that interested participants can talk to the speaker, can discuss the lecture with each other, and can take a mental break.]
  20. Question Driven Lecture [learn, fun, help, excitement]: before the event, attendees submit all their questions to the presenter that they have about the presenter’s area of expertise. Instead of preparing a normal lecture, the presenter prepares a lecture designed to answer the actual questions of as many attendees as possible. [Depending on the questions this could be a lot of work for the presenter, but it could also make the presentation much more interesting to the attendees if done well. The attendees would have to have enough understanding of the topic to know what they even want to know about it, otherwise there questions may be poorly formed.]
  21. Speed Meeting [fun, familiarity, bonding, excitement] : you spend 5 minutes talking to each person about whatever you like, and then rotate so that you’re forced to talk to another person. For logistical simplicity, usually you’ll use small tables and have half the people stay at their table the whole time, and the other half rotate from table to table. [This format is good for meeting lots of people, which is great, and afterwards you will feel familiar with many people in the room. On the downside these conversations can be forced and awkward, and may not provide a reliable indicator of whether you’d like someone if you were to talk to them in a less forced setting. This format is obviously inspired by Speed Dating but is still very useful in non-dating settings.]
  22. Topic Tables [learn, fun, familiarity, bonding, help] : each table in the room is designated as the place to discuss a specific topic (e.g one table is the place for discussion of “the mind-body problem in philosophy”, or a place to discuss “content marketing”). Preferably there would be at least four different tables to cover a range of topics that attendees may be interested in. You can also assign one expert to each table who will lead that table’s discussion. An alternative way to do this format is to have the topics be based on who people would like to meet. For instance, you could have a table for “angel investors and CEOs” to meet each other, and a table for “companies that are hiring and people looking for jobs” to meet. Another variant is one where participants suggest topics, and after each suggestion a quick show of hands occurs to see how many people would want to discuss that topic, with the most popular topics getting tables assigned to them. [I’ve never tried this format, but I expect it to make it easier to start conversations, plus it would self-sort people into groups that are interested in the same things which is often better than random mingling / mixers. Using more specific topics may make it easier for attendees to find things to talk about.]
  23. Mixer [familiarity, bonding]: put everyone in a big room together (with buffet food and a bar with drinks ideally) and hope that fun and meaningful conversations spontaneously occur. [Hint: often they don’t. Mixers work better later in an event after other interactions have occurred that have enabled people to get to know each other a bit.]
  24. The Hot Seat [fun, familiarity, help, actions, excitement]: a volunteer is selected from the group and sits in a chair (the “hot seat”) with everyone else around them in a half circle. The other people then ask this volunteer in the hot seat ANY questions they want, including personal or strange questions. The person in the hot seat can always say “pass” if they don’t feel like answering one of the questions (it should be clearly explained that if someone says “pass”, another question should be immediately asked without trying to coerce the person in the hot seat to answer the original question). After a fixed amount of time a new volunteer for the hot seat is selected. [I’ve never tried this myself. It sounds like it would be very stressful for some people, so the ability to opt-out of being in the hot seat and to pass on questions seems necessary. It’s also important that the person in the hot seat understands that personal and strange questions will be asked of them.It’s also important to explain to the group that while they can ask anything they want, they avoid asking questions that they think have a significant chance of offending others.  This format could be weird, or could go interesting places.]
  25. First Impressions [learn, improve, fun, familiarity, help, actions, excitement]: you are paired with a random person in the group, and you talk normally for 5 minutes about whatever you feel like. Then a bell rings and you discuss your first impressions of each other. You then rotate. Another variant on this is that instead of telling each other your first impressions, you write them down on a piece of paper, and at the end  of the event you get all the notes that people wrote about you (they could be anonymous, or non-anonymous). [I’ve been at an event where the notes variation was used. It was a bit awkward but I also found it quite interesting to read about people’s first impressions of me. I think this is a useful way to learn about yourself.]
  26. Real-life Statistics [learn, fun, familiarity, creation, excitement] : In response to questions, each participant positions themselves in the room in such a way that it reflects their level of agreement or their beliefs about the topic. For instance the side of the room with the door is the lowest level of agreement or represents a value of 0, and the window at the other end is the highest level of agreement or represents a value of 100. A list of questions is then asked to the group. These could include basic demographic information that people might be curious about (“how many children do you have?”) psychological information (“how afraid are you of death from 0 to 100?”) opinions (“Do you think we should have universal healthcare?) or forecasts (“What do you think is the percentage chance that humanity will have a colony on mars in the next 50 years?”). Each person positions themselves based on their opinion or based on what is true about them. There should be a place to stand off to the side for those who want to opt out of answering a given question. Make sure that after each question people have time to look around the room to see where others have positioned themselves. You can also have the participants take turns suggesting questions for the group. You can also alternate between having people position themselves based on their guess of the average response of the room to a question (e.g. “what percentage of people in the group do you think would say they have (or had) a good relationship with their parents”), and then ask that question to the room after to compare the guesses against reality (“from 0 to 100 how good would you say your relationship is or was with your parents?”). [I’ve never tried this format, but it sounds like it could be pretty interesting as long as the questions are things that participants would want to know the other participant’s feelings on. One has to be careful to avoid questions that could upset participants] [HT: Julia Bossmann]
  27. Workshop [learn, fun, familiarity, help, actions, creation, excitement] : “There’s a quick introduction by the facilitator, followed by a group discussion during which topics are written on the whiteboard. The group then numbers off into subgroups of about four or five people each, and each discuss a separate topic from the whiteboard. At the end, one person from each group reports on their discussions, and there’s a discussion with everyone again.” Related to the “Divide and Conquer” format, but unlike that format, it is necessarily directed at solving a problem, instead there is more focus on the group learning together. [HT: Paul Crowley]
  28. Divide and Conquer [learn, fun, familiarity, help, actions, creation]: a topic or problem of interesting is chosen, and important sub-topics (or sub-problems) are listed by participants. The participants then vote on the most important of these sub-topics (or sub-problems). A small group is then formed around each of the important sub-topics (or sub-problems) with people self-selecting into the sub-topic group they prefer, but ideally balancing the number of people in each. The small groups discuss their assigned topic and perhaps even do research on it together. They then become resources for everyone else about this sub-topic. Later, everyone convenes together again to discuss the overall topic (or problem) the facilitator calls out to the small groups to have them answer questions that come up which are related to their sub-topic. In this way the whole group attempts to make progress on the overall topic. [This is related to the Workshop format, but more focussed on making progress on a topic or problem.]
  29. Open Spaces [learn, fun, familiarity, help, inspiration, actions, creation,  excitement]: This approach “is characterized by a few basic mechanisms: a broad, open invitation which articulates the purpose of the meeting; participants’ chairs arranged in a circle; a “bulletin board” of issues and opportunities posted by participants; a “marketplace” with many break-out spaces that participants move freely between, learning and contributing as they “shop” for information and ideas; a “breathing” or “pulsation” pattern of flow, between plenary and small-group breakout sessions. The approach is most distinctive for its initial lack of an agenda, which sets the stage for the meeting’s participants to create the agenda for themselves, in the first 30–90 minutes of the meeting or event. Typically, an “open space” meeting will begin with short introductions by the sponsor and usually a single facilitator. The sponsor introduces the purpose; the facilitator explains the “self-organizing” process called “open space.” Then the group creates the working agenda, as individuals post their issues in bulletin board style. Each individual “convener” of a breakout session takes responsibility for naming the issue, posting it on the bulletin board, assigning it a space and time to meet, and then later showing up at that space and time, kicking off the conversation, and taking notes. These notes are usually compiled into a proceedings document that is distributed physically or electronically to all participants.”
  30. PechaKucha 20×20 [learn, fun, inspiration, actions, excitement]: “20×20 is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and the presenter talks along to the images.” Ignite uses a very similar format: “5-minute presentations, where each presenter must use 20 slides, which auto-advance every 15 seconds” [I’ve given an ignite lecture before, and it’s quite challenging since you need to time what you’re saying to the slides. To do it well, a surprisingly large amount preparation and practice is necessary considering how short the presentations are. It’s hard to say anything very deep in this format, but it’s stimulating and things move quickly.]
  31. Recursive Conversation [learn, fun, familiarity, bonding, excitement] : you begin with a relatively short group discussion about a specified topic, which gets audio or video recorded (with all participants knowing in advance that this will happen). Then the whole group listens to (or watches) the recording of the entire group discussion, and a discussion about the original group discussion ensues (either pausing the replay when anyone wants to comment on it, or discussing only at the end once the entire recording has been played). You can also record the discussion about the discussion if you like, and then replay that and discuss it! Note that the conversation about the conversation can go meta, for instance, talking about the way that people discuss the information, or about how group dynamics operate. [HT: Holly Elmore]
  32. Group Dance [improve, fun, familiarity, excitement]: a (relatively) easy to learn dance that involves interacting with multiple dance partners, which starts with instruction from a teacher and some practice time followed by the actual dancing. Possible examples include Scottish Ceilidh, Contra and Square dancing. An alternative format works like this: “Put on any kind of fun music that would be good to dance to and have everyone stands in a big group all facing the same way. The person at the front leads while everyone imitates exactly what they do. As soon as they turn 90 degrees in either direction, someone else is in the ‘front’ of the group and begins leading, and so on.” Make sure that the first few people that go are fun dancers and comfortable leading to get it going smoothly and model what’s happening for the group, at which point the rest of the attendees can start jumping in to lead as well. [HT: Nevin Freeman] [Note that I’m not actually sure how easy to learn the dances mentioned are as I haven’t tried them.] [Also, it can be problematic if none of the attendees have performed that particular dance before, so having a few people with experience attend is recommended.] [HT: Julia Wise]
  33. Circling [learn, fun, familiarity, bonding, help, inspiration, excitement]: a format for “authentically relating” to the people in the room. There are many variations of Circling, and it’s hard to describe this format precisely, but here is one step-by-step process you could follow: (i) Everyone sits in a circle, and the moderator starts by describing the process that will occur, discusses the goals for the experience, and how long it will take. (ii) Next, the group does a guided meditation, with each person focussing on their internal state, each person bringing 100% of their attention to him or herself. (iii) Everyone now brings 100% of their attention to all the other people in the group, looking each other person directly in their eyes one by one.  (iv) Now, everyone continues to pay full attention to the people in the room, and anyone who wants to can chime in with either (a) something they notice about what’s happening here and now, or (b) a question they are genuinely curious about related to the people here or what’s happening here and now. Others respond by saying “Hearing that, I am noticing…” or by answering the posed question (but only if they want to answer). The focus should be on things happening right now in the room. (v) After a while, the process of noticing and asking is stopped, and people then share their thoughts with the group about what their experience was like (to give closure). (vi) The moderator then closes the session by giving their thoughts about the session, and further explaining the Circling process. Note that a common variation of the above involves choosing a “Center” of the circle, who is a single person that everyone’s attention is focussed on from step (iv) and onward. Of course the Center can rotate after a certain amount of time. [You can learn about the history of Circling here.]
  34. Establishing Contact [fun, familiarity, bonding, excitement]: this encompasses a wide range of activities, the main purpose of which is facilitating non-sexual physical touch and then (by means of touch) create a feeling of connection, familiarity or bonding between participants. This should definitely be opt-in, and it should be clearly explained in advance what the format will involve, since many people are not comfortable being touched by strangers. Example formats for facilitating touch include basic Acro Yoga lessons (a form of acrobatic yoga where each posture requires two people working together), therapeutic massage lessons where participants take turns practicing the skills on each other (clothed), Cuddle Parties (basically a space for consensual, non-sexual, clothed group cuddling), and Human Sculpture where you form and then hold in place elaborate multi-person group sculptures to match a randomly chosen theme (e.g. with a contact rule that every person must be directly or indirectly connected to every other person via an unbroken chain of physical touch). For the highly uninhibited or those who really want to push their boundaries, some formats take physical touch among strangers to extremes, like OMIng.
  35. Conversations Dinner [learn, fun, familiarity, excitement]: a multiple course dinner, where the menu is given to each guest shows conversational topics that were selected to go along with each course. [Consider rotating the seating arrangements half way through to mix things up] [HT: Richard Batty]
  36. Surrealist Games [fun, familiarity, creation, excitement]: a set of creative and artistic techniques and exercises to start a “creative process free of conscious control”, and to serve as a source of inspiration. Examples: automatic drawing – “the hand is allowed to move ‘randomly’ across the paper. In applying chance and accident to mark-making, drawing is to a large extent freed of rational control. Hence the drawing produced may be attributed in part to the subconscious and may reveal something of the psyche, which would otherwise be repressed.” Exquisite corpse – “a collection of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule (e.g. “The the “, as in “The green duck sweetly sang the dreadful dirge”) or by being allowed to see only the end of what the previous person contributed. Automatic poetry – writing sentences without any conscious self-censorship whatsoever permitted.
  37. Interaction Exhibits [learn, fun, familiarity, inspiration, excitement]: various exhibits are set up regarding a selected topic. Each exhibit is designed to foster or enable interaction or conversation with others who are also viewing that exhibit at that moment (e.g. participants are told that they are supposed to discuss each exhibit with the other people who are there). [HT: Katja Grace]
  38. Group Brainstorm [learn, fun, familiarity, actions, creation, excitement]: a problem is considered by the group (i.e. what action should be taken, e.g., “How should the U.S. handle illegal immigration?”, or what the truth is on a complex topic where there isn’t a clear consensus, e.g., “Why has obesity increased so much in the U.S.”). The group begins by discussing what characteristics a good or bad solution (or answer) would have (e.g. it would produce such and such result or be able to explain such and such data). This is followed by 10 minutes of individual brainstorming, where each person writes down as many ideas for solutions that they can (knowing that these ideas will then be shared with the group anonymously). All the ideas are then gathered together, and duplicates are removed. These ideas are then all read to the group one by one (e.g. each being written on a whiteboard) and people suggest pros and cons of each idea (or pieces of evidence in support of it or against it). Once all ideas have been discussed in this way, a blind vote takes place to determine just two solutions that (at this stage) people believe are most likely to be best (with everyone except the moderator closing their eyes and raising their hand during the vote, or writing votes on scraps of paper, to avoid people biasing each other or copying the high authority members of the group). Finally a group discussion occurs about the two remaining solutions, and another blind vote takes place to determine which single solution the group thinks is best (and to see how strong the consensus is).
  39. Shark Tank [learn, fun, excitement]: participants who opt-in each pitch a solution or product to a panel of experts. The pitchers (who may be be individuals or small teams) each get 5 minutes to do a presentation, and then are grilled by the experts, while an audience watches. Usually the experts rate each pitch on a few pre-determined criteria that everyone knows about (e.g. world impact, profitability potential, innovativeness, etc.), and may write comments about each pitch as well. At the end, the top three winners are announced (i.e. those getting the highest average scores on the pre-determined criteria). Pitchers get to see the rating scores (and written comments) for their pitch afterward so that they can learn from the experience. Most commonly this is used for startups to pitch (sometimes the winning teams get prize money or an investment in their company). However, it can be used in a much more flexible way. For instance, teams could pitch solutions to world problems (as brainstormed in teams an hour before the Shark Tank).
  40. Debate [learn, fun, familiarity, bonding, actions, creation, excitement]: the group is divided into two teams (perhaps with some significant proportion of the group as audience members who don’t have a team), and each team is assigned a side of an important issue that they are supposed to defend (or, people’s team is automatically determined by which side of the issue they already take, but team sizes should be roughly balanced). The teams then debate using one of the many possible debate formats. If it’s competitive and there is an audience, you can have each audience member register at the beginning as either being on side A, side B (based on their pre-existing views) or unsure, and the winning debate team is the one causing the greatest change in opinion (e.g. where flipping an “unsure” over to side A side counts as 1 point for A, and flipping a “side B” over to side A counts as 2 points for A, etc). [One thing to note about debate is that it often involves rhetorical tactics that are more about being persuasive than about analyzing evidence or figuring out the truth. Furthermore, by having two sides debate you can actually entrench each side further into their existing views. But this format can be entertaining, and audience members often learn from it. However, members of the same team may find it a good way to bond.]
  41. Symposium [learn, fun, familiarity, help, excitement]: a topic is divided up in advance into sub-topics among the future attendees, and each attendee (or small group of attendees) researches their sub-topic in advance and then gives a presentation about it to teach the group. The group therefore all learns from each other about the topic in question. [Be sure to enforce strict timelines on each presentation that people are told about in advance, and make sure that groups preparing highly connected sub-topics discuss the connections before their presentations so that they don’t repeat each other.]
  42. Office Hours [learn, fun, familiarity, help, excitement]: experts, speakers or other people of interest are each assigned a specific spot where they will be at a particular time (preferably a table with a half dozen chairs). All attendees are free to sit with them at these times in small groups and ask any questions they like or engage in group discussion. [I suggest doing this at least 2/3 of the way through an event, so people have had time to get a sense of who each of these people of interest are and what they might want to ask them. Also, it’s probably best if all the office hours happen in the same location at the same time and last more than an hour, so people can bounce around between experts/groups easily and talk to multiple people of interest rather than being stuck with just one. In my experience, this format is much better for creating a connection between attendees and speakers than merely having people watch lectures. But it dovetails nicely onto events where there are a lot of lectures already happening, because people get to question the experts whose thoughts they’ve already heard.]
  43. Moderated Double Crux [learn, fun, creation, excitement]: two people who disagree with each other about an important topic (but who are interested in seeing if they can reach agreement) sit together with a moderator. Either the whole room can be broken into such groups of three, or an audience can watch as one group does it (e.g. a moderated conversation between two experts). The goal of the moderated conversation is to discover is to uncover the “crux” of the disagreement, defined as statement that one side disagrees with and the other side agrees with, such that if either side flipped their belief about this statement they would now agree. The moderator guides the two people towards discovering the crux of the disagreement by asking probing questions, and resetting the conversation when it veers off course or becomes heated, as well as probing each party about what underlying beliefs they think their views on the important topic hinge on. [This basic technique has been developed by the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), though they don’t necessarily endorse the format I’m describing for organizing it.]
  44. Meet the Experts [learn, familiarity, help, excitement] : experts sit down at chairs that are spread across the room, with just one empty chair in front of each expert. Attendees that want advice, or that have questions for the experts, or that have problems they want to feedback on, sit together at a table (or set of tables) to simply hangout and wait. Those attendees at the “front” of the table (or at the “front table” if there are multiple tables) get up and then each sit down with one expert, and explain to the expert what they would like to hear the expert’s thoughts about. The remaining participants rotate to the front of the table (or to the “front table” if there are multiple tables). After 5 minutes, participants who are sitting with an expert get up and go back to the group tables (or leave altogether, if there are no other experts they feel like talking with) while those at the front table now each sit with an expert for 5 minutes. This process continues for an hour. So for instance, if there are 5 experts and 20 participants, then each participant will get to speak for 5 minutes with an expert every 15 minutes, and throughout the whole process can speak to up to 3 of the 5 experts. The reason that participants sit at tables while waiting rather than waiting in line is so that they can get to know each other and hang out when it’s not their turn yet to talk to the experts, rather than standing silently in line.
  45. Show and Tell [fun, familiarity, bonding]: participant are instructed about the format in advance, and each person who chooses to brings in one thing to show to the group that they think the group would find it interesting or fun or meaningful to see (it could be a physical item, a photo or a video). Each person stands up one-by-one, shows their item, explains it to the group and why they wanted everyone to see it, and then sits down. [One specific variant of this that I like is where each person brings in their favorite YouTube video to show to the group. This can run more smoothly if everyone emails their video to the moderator in advance, then the moderator can put all of these videos into one YouTube playlist beforehand, which will run continuously through all videos automatically, so the entire group can watch it like a film.]
  46. Watch Then Discuss [learn, fun, familiarity, inspiration, actions, excitement]: the group sits together to watch a documentary, online lecture, or thought-provoking film. Alternatively, multiple short online lectures can be used, or pieces from multiple documentaries or films. Then a moderated group discussion ensues about what was just watched.
  47. Storytelling [fun, familiarity, bonding, excitement] participants who opt-in stand up in front of the group and tell a (time limited) story about something meaningful, interesting, important or funny that happened to them. Give a warning a few minutes before time is up for each person. The story themes could be totally open ended, or there could be a theme (e.g. “Tell us about a time when you had no choice but to lie.” or “Tell us about the strangest thing that ever happened to you.”)

 

One thought on “Better Formats For Group Interaction – Beyond Lectures, Group Discussions, Panels and Mixers

  1. Julia says:

    A note on the group dance: I wouldn’t recommend trying this with only the group if there aren’t at least a few people who have done it before, as it’s much easier to learn if there are some people who know what they’re doing. You could bring a group to an existing dance, but then you don’t spend much time together.

Leave a Reply