In a previous post, we mentioned the private event we hosted to bring together women in startup operations and marketing. Overall, the dinner was a great success in terms of the quality of people, discussion, and engagement.
From our experience, the idea of hosting a large gathering that brings people together to share ideas is often exciting but can be challenging in terms of execution and actual impact. How do you get everyone talking? What should you be talking about? Here are some of our tips that played out well in a recent dinner of 27 women from across the industry. We hope you find them helpful for organizing your own high-value events!
We’ve all been to events where people don’t know each other, and the first 10-minutes of every interaction are used to figure out who does what. To avoid this waste of valuable in-person time, we created a pre-read doc with three things:
- A “Facebook” with photos of every attendee and their short bio.
- A (complex) Venn diagram showing that we were all largely connected through work and education histories.
- It’s also helpful to have people think through meaningful questions ahead of time on topics that might be relevant to the group as a whole, to spark stronger conversation on the day of. For example, looking at our attendees and their areas of interest, we asked people to think about how they’ve overcome tough hiring challenges.
Ask about recent accomplishments — professional and personal
Even if you’ve had attendees do a pre-read of bios, it’s helpful to get the group comfortable with each other in-person by asking a uniting but insightful question in a quick-response format. We started off the dinner by having everyone share their most impactful professional moments over the past 6 months. It was inspiring to hear such a range of workplace — and personal! — accomplishments. This one turned out to be a great ice-breaker.
What worked well was the positive focus (vs. the more typical question a-la “what keeps you up at night?”) and that it got attendees to immediately be able to relate to each other. Attendees really embraced this question. To our surprise, work was either an equal or a supporting point in most answers while folks spoke about personal and family wins. These ranged from teaching a child to load the dishwasher to learning to meditate.
Seed the conversation with good topics
It’s best to come up with one or two specific topics to steer the conversation. Depending on the size of your group, you may want to have a few follow-ups or additional areas of potential discussion on hand, too. For example, we used one of our pre-homework thought starters — how to overcome hiring challenges — and as that moved into creative hiring solutions, we expanded the conversation to one around making remote teams effective.
One-time events can bring about useful learnings but if you’re looking to build a network and ongoing community feeling, it’s helpful to find out more about that group and their preferences — including what they’re looking to learn about longer term or how they foresee the community fitting into their needs. When we asked the group how they wanted to stay engaged and connected, people were strongly in favor of online means (e.g., email listservs) and infrequent in-person commitments, ideally during work hours (e.g., a breakfast) which reflected the number of constraints on our time — particularly given the number of women in our group who are mothers in addition to being workplace leaders.
In addition, we followed up the dinner with a summary of our learnings and a simple NPS survey.
When all was said and done, we were both surprised and thrilled to see that our group of 27 maintained a single conversation around the table for a good two hours, breaking up into smaller groups only at dessert time. We think what worked here is pre-seeding the conversation with good topics, active moderation by one of us, high-quality commentary, and a supportive group environment. The majority of our attendees contributed to the discussion, with no checking phones throughout!
Authored by Olga Narvskaya, former VP Operations at Segment, and Lan Xuezhao, founding and managing partner at Basis Set Ventures