In New York, we’ve been running a monthly Socratic Seminar since 2013. The goal of these events is to have participants learn from each other in the style of a Socratic Circle. This format works for our community because it encourages participation from attendees and keeps content fresh, and it also breaks reliance on outside presenters for content.
We’ve learned a lot by running these events over the years and have tried lots of experiments and iterations. Some ideas work well and become regular features. Others don’t, and are abandoned. This blog post is an attempt to distil that experience so you can apply it to your own local Bitcoin community.
The first step is to find event space. Getting this right is critical, and having a reliable and regular venue will make your job as a host much easier.
The main requirements for a location are that:
Don’t let the lack of microphone or projector deter you from from an otherwise appropriate venue – you can bring your own if you have no other choice.
If you don’t have an immediately obvious venue, here are some connections you can try:
Once you have a venue, you’ll want to promote the event. You only need a handful of people for a Socratic Seminar, so don’t stress over having a massive turnout in the beginning. The most important things are consistency and reliability – if you schedule the events regularly (e.g. once a month) your attendance will trend upwards over time. Also, don’t be worried about there being no enthusiasts in your local community. Create a space for thoughtful and advanced discussion and you’ll probably be surprised by who shows up.
Some ways to promote your event:
If you specifically invite people with expert knowledge, let them know that you’d like their participation in the discussion – people will not naturally come prepared to engage, so you have to foster that environment.
The next hurdle is content discovery and collation. Topics we often look at include:
There are many Socratic style meetups worldwide which post their content online; going through their recent events will give you a lot of materials to choose from (e.g. New York, San Francisco, Berlin). The Optech newsletter is also a good source of relevant content.
Tailor the content to what the attendees will find interesting. It’s OK if you aren’t having the exact same discussion that another city is having. Maybe people in your part of the world are more excited about privacy, or maybe you live in a financial capital and your attendees are interested in regulation. Make it your own and tailor it to the people that show up consistently.
With content selected, it’s time to prepare yourself to lead the discussion. First, read and highlight the material. There are highlighting plugins for all browsers. Use highlights to emphasize important content on the page – they’re a good mnemonic device for the host and they help drive discussion. That said, be careful not to use the highlights as a crutch – if you exclusively read word-for-word from the links and do not engage the crowd, you’ll lose their attention and discussion will fall flat.
Generally, preparing slides isn’t useful or necessary – it takes a long time to prepare, and people want to see the source material anyway.
Arrange the tabs in your browser, starting with the things you would like to cover first. Warm the crowd up with a topic that has relevance for the whole group and is ripe for discussion. Examples are less technically detailed blog posts or Stack Overflow answers. From there, move on to more technical content (e.g. pull requests, BIPs, BOLTs, etc..). Finish the meetup by covering or demoing fun projects (e.g. lightning games). Use a browser plugin to save your tabs in case your browser crashes or device loses power.
Next, you should practice explaining the content in front of a mirror or by recording yourself. It may sound strange but this really will uncover holes in your knowledge and make you aware of which concepts you can’t articulate clearly. The more you prep, the more enjoyable the event will be, both for you and the attendees. Your goal is to have enough understanding of the material so that you can contextualize the content in a way which avoids the attendees feeling completely lost.
There is always more to learn. Do your best to prepare, but don’t overextend yourself. As host, you’re there to guide discussion, not to be an expert on everything. Be open to making mistakes and encourage the crowd to participate. Treat the event like the review process for open source software: stand on the shoulder of giants and use the event to improve your and everyone else’s understanding.
Even small details about the space can have a big impact on the success of the event. A bit of care and preparation here will pay dividends!
Triple check all the details with your venue host. The worst meetup experience we’ve had was when we had to cancel a Socratic with no notice because of a miscommunication with the venue.
Always bring every possible converter and extension cable you may need to the event (e.g. HDMI extension, VGA to X, DVI to X and HDMI to X). We have a dedicated Socratic bag where all of this gear lives permanently. That way we can never forget any of it.
At the venue, set up a table at the front of the room so you are at the same level as the crowd. For smaller groups, arrange the seating in a circle. This enables anyone to look each other in the eyes and fosters high quality conversations.
Start by welcoming everyone and explaining the format. In New York, we don’t record the event or allow people to take pictures. This is both out of respect for our members’ privacy, and also allows people to speak their mind without fear that their words will be taken out of context online. Have some pens and paper available for people who want to take notes.
Give everyone 10 seconds to introduce themselves and mention a topic that interests them. People may announce other events, job listings, tell jokes and share other things relevant to your members. This brings members closer together, and gives people a chance to get to know each other.
Set the expectation that Bitcoin fundamentals (e.g. what a hash function is) will not be explained at each event. That said, when there are new concepts, schemes or mechanisms being introduced, make sure to explain and contextualize them. For example, if you are going to explain a new opcode, you may need to briefly explain how opcodes work, talk about pre-existing opcodes and then explain the merits and drawbacks of the proposal. You should be welcoming to new attendees but your main target should be members who come to each event – find a way to quickly explain recurring themes in snippets so you do not bore people who regularly attend the events.
Once you’ve established context, discussion can begin. Sometimes that happens organically. If not, then having some prepared questions can make the attendees think about the material in a way that encourages participation. Not every topic requires discussion, and don’t avoid subject matter you think is important because it may not be interesting for discussion. You’re telling a story: some topics are minor plot devices while others are more central elements of “the conversation”.
There are some topics which can lead to circular, tangential or virulent discussion. As the moderator you should not be afraid of cutting off comments which undermine a respectful atmosphere or stymie the discussion. Avoid tired debates (e.g. block size, segwit), as there’s no novel or insightful discussion to be had. Set the tone as the host. Cultivate a respectful and focused style, and others will generally follow your lead.
There’s no correct time length for a Socratic – it really depends on your group’s preferences. However, you should manage your time and try to finish at the advertised end time. Respect that many people have families or come from far away and need to get home at a reasonable hour. For attendees who haven’t had enough, discussion can continue in the nearest bar!
A few final tips to make your event even more enjoyable:
-the BitDevs NYC team