What makes for a good meetup?

In January, I went to a meetup in Athens, Greece, for the first time ever, and I thought it was kind of bad… And it made me wonder, what makes meetups good?

For those who don’t know me, I have lived in London, UK, since 2006 (explains the bias of my meetup experiences), am of Greek descent (visiting parents for Xmas in Athens), and have been running a Bullet Journaling meetup (BuJo-addicts) in London myself since January 2017.

When I started my meetup I had no idea what I was doing. To some degree, I still don’t. I am lucky that the people who show up are lovely. But there is a … pattern to good meetups and another to bad ones. This is a short write-up of my experience of those patterns.

The meetups I attend the most are related to user experience, service design, technology (software development), stationery, board gaming or behavioural economics. And in London, they all have a similar format.

The London meetup agenda

All organisers start with a tiny intro about themselves and the meetup group’s origin story (even if it’s very short: “I wanted to attend something like it, so I just started it.”).

Usually the larger meetups are hosted somewhere, in a location generously provided by a company, or organisation. So the first five to ten minutes are spent telling the attendees about the host company, its history, the products or services, and why working there is great. (yes, it’s a recruitment pitch 99% of the time). The smart ones point out what positions they are recruiting for, and literally point out the person to talk to (who is attending) if you’re interested.

Next comes the main event: the presentation or collaborative session. Typically this is a time for presenters to tell stories, share their experiences, or facilitate an activity on the topic of choice.

Each presentation will have a short Q&A at the end. If the event was a panel, they allow more time for audience questions. This is the last formal part of the event.

The goal is to have the attendees learn or experience something new, and leave inspired or educated. Leave with more than they came with. Add value.

After all the presentations or activities, there is food and drink. Too often, it’s pizza, beer and wine, the staple diet of the tech industry. And the attendees get to talk to each other. Some people call it “networking”. I prefer “seeking out interesting conversations”.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling very asocial / introverted, I walk out when that part of the evening starts. Other times, I will make the effort to find someone else who seems to be feeling like that and rescue us both from a zero-interaction night.

I run a meetup in London too

I’ve been bullet journaling for several years, and had been wanting to go to a meetup about journaling, to share experiences. Not finding one for two years, I started one in January 2017.

In my Bullet Journal Addicts meetups, we’re usually 4-8 people, so we gather around one big table, and I kick off and facilitate a discussion-meets-show-and-tell around the topic of the day. We will each show how we do a thing, what we’ve tried and left behind, what ideas we’d like to try, and discover what everyone else is doing too.

Every single time, attendees tell me they looked forward to the evening, and are leaving inspired to try something new… or buy those untearable sticky tabs or the folding scissors that have the footprint of a pen!

The Athens meetup….

Started with a 10 min presentation about the difference between a startup and a scaleup (the official topic), was followed by a 40min presentation of the company, its history, how much this one dude loves working there, and a very brief mention of their products, without any mention of their strengths or what makes them unique.

And then about 8 people pulled up chairs in front of the auditorium-y audience, and we began a Q&A… except at that point I was really not sure what we were supposed to ask questions about!! Whether the new batch of 8 loved working there too? It was … confusing and (to me) boring.

After the Q&A, which lasted about half an hour, they served pizza, beer and Coca Cola.

So… how was it?

The impression they left me with is that they have a big idea of themselves (40 min about the company vs. 10 min about the day’s topic), can’t craft a presentation (working here is SO AWESOME.. oh and we have *product name*), and don’t know what constitutes value for their audience.

Not a recommendation for working there.

As a bonus, they also said that they’re always interviewing, even when they’re not hiring, because you never know when you might find a genius…

In a country with nearly 19% unemployment (which hits 39% in 15-24 yrs of age), that has been in financial crisis since 2008, and is being taxed to death to pay for a gangrenous (and growing?!??) civil service, that feels gratuitously cruel and wasteful.

What does make a good meetup?

To host a good meetup, you need to give your audience something to take away and use in their personal or professional life.

It could be a funny story they can retell to friends at dinner or colleagues the next day. An aha moment on a project. An assumption you made that research invalidated. A new technology that enables you to do a really cool thing. Or just giving them a peek into a different notebook layout you used to plan a trip, and letting them trade you their month’s cover page illustration.

It could be anything, as long as it gives them something. To laugh about. To discover. To learn. To take away and use. Or the chance to share something that might benefit someone else.

After a meetup, I want to feel like I gained something, and it was worth giving my time.

It is genuinely that simple.

So next time you plan one, ask yourself: What can someone take away from this experience?

Don’t turn it into a soapbox event about you.

Make it a gift to them.

And if you want to do it right, consider who is in your audience. Consider using personas to evaluate your content! If you expect 80% to be developers, do include a bit more context and explanations for the 20% who aren’t. Even the experts will appreciate the reminders.

Or you risk doing what the greek meetup did. Trading 90 min of someone’s time for three slices of pizza and no other value. Cheap for you, but they aren’t likely to want to trade with you again.