This is Dave Muscato and I’m thrilled to write my first article for the Humanist Community Project. A bit about my background: I’m a former professional musician, and before I became an atheist, I played Christian praise & worship music at churches, Christian festivals, and youth conferences. I’ve also organized many secular performances at more traditional venues for bands, like bars, clubs, restaurants, recital halls, and so on. At my peak, I was performing over 150 times per year, for as many as ~2,000 people at a time, so I have some experience with events. I hope to share what I’ve learned with you, and help you apply this to running a successful skeptics’ meeting.
My article today will focus on the importance of choosing the right room. If you take one thing away from this post, I hope it is this: Size matters.
You likely already have a venue for your meetings. If your group has been around for awhile, you probably don’t give your venue much thought. I think this is an oversight.
Your room communicates a lot about what type of group you are. If you meet every week in a restaurant, as many Skeptics-in-the-Pub groups do, you may unintentionally be discouraging attendance for certain kinds of potential members.
For example, I am a vegetarian. Does the restaurant where you meet have multiple vegetarian-friendly options? Vegetarian members may get really tired of ordering a salad week after week, if that’s the only vegetarian option on the menu besides side items.
Other questions you should consider include:
- Are there food items available at multiple price ranges? If college students, unemployed folks, or underemployed folks are among your numbers (or potential numbers), you may be discouraging their attendance as often as they’d like, because they can’t afford to go to a sit-down restaurant every week.
- Do you meet in a bar (that doesn’t serve food)? You may be discouraging recovering alcoholics who don’t want to put themselves in that situation.
- Is indoor cigarette smoking outlawed in your area? You may be discouraging attendance from potential members who smoke by choosing a restaurant that lacks a heated patio, for example.
You can mix it up! Try meeting somewhere else sometimes – say, once every six months – to see if you like it. Have a potluck at someone’s house, or try an Indian restaurant instead of going to a bar. Variety is the spice of life. If you’re concerned about consistency, try these as occasional additions to your regular weekly meetings, rather than in place of them.
If yours is a campus group, you probably have the ability to reserve classrooms or lecture halls free. In many cases, you will also have access to a projector or computer hook-up. You can use these to show PowerPoint presentations, TED talks, or YouTube videos to spark discussion. My group, SASHA, usually has a member volunteer to present an original TED-style talk at each weekly meeting. We then have a Q&A or discussion portion afterward.
So, as a campus group — assuming you want to meet on campus — should you reserve a room, or a lecture hall? Here’s where it gets interesting. The question is not as simple as how many people are in your group.
One thing I learned from booking music shows is that it is much better to book a room that’s too small than a room that’s too big. This sounds counterintuitive, but consider this: 25 people in a classroom that holds 30 feels packed. It says to your audience, “This is the place to be.” Audience members can connect with the people around them, and it’s also easier for the presenter to read people’s faces and interact with her or his audience.
A room that’s too big makes your meetings feel sparsely-attended, even if they’re not. I would much rather present a TED-style talk to 25 people in a small room than to 50 people in a room that seats 200. In a room that size, 50 people feels downright empty from the stage, and it’s isolating for the audience. In rooms that are too big, people sit farther apart, and skip rows. This is bad news if you want to connect with your audience and encourage community and camaraderie. Big rooms make it easy for people to leave without anyone noticing (or giving you a chance to say goodbye). Too-big rooms are intimidating for newcomers. They make it harder to include people in the discussion and get the audience involved. While optimism is a good quality for any group organizer to have, take care not to let wishful thinking creep into your turnout expectations.
Big rooms have a major, additional disadvantage: They introduce the necessity of microphones. This means the added probability of technical difficulties, and using a microphone drastically changes the tone & dynamic of a presentation (literally and figuratively).
Microphones don’t just increase volume. According to the Yamaha Sound Reinforcement Handbook (the “Bible” for all stage musicians & sound engineers), there are 3 reasons to use a sound system:
1) To help people hear something better
2) To enable people to hear sound in remote locations, and
3) To make sound louder for artistic reasons.
The guide goes on to say: “A vocal group in a small club may be clearly audible but not very exciting. A sound system can give the group much greater musical impact by making it sound ‘larger than life.’”
Simply put, microphones increase stage presence in addition to volume. This may or may not be desirable. Microphones make it harder for the audience to feel like they can ask questions or get involved. They turn a discussion into a lecture. And if you elect not to use a microphone for these reasons, if you’re in a room that’s too big, you’re left with an even-worse possibility: That people in the back won’t be able to hear you, or that you will come across as a poor public speaker on account of low volume. All of this can be solved by simply meeting in a room that fits the size of your group more appropriately.
So, how to anticipate your turnout? Set up a Facebook or Meetup event for every meeting, and ask your returning members to get into the habit of RSVP’ing! You may overshoot or undershoot on occasion, but that’s part of the learning process when running a group. Of course, I hope that each of you has success growing your groups, too, so that a lecture hall, in fact, is what you really need to fit everyone!
Until next time,