16 minute read

From March 2020 through September 2021 I ran an online community of military officers called RINGKNOCKER.

The mission was to create connections between shipmates and comrades-in-arms who couldn’t get together physically due to the COVID crisis. We hosted over 80 weekly Zoom calls that brought together thousands of people who learned together how to activate a powerful network they ALREADY had, but hadn’t learned how to leverage.

Running RINGKNOCKER was an incredible experience, all the more so because I was able to do it from my home on the island of Bali!

Like all good things, RINGKNOCKER eventually ran its course: attendance dropped as the COVID lockdowns came to an end, and we decided to finish on a high note rather than run it into the ground. While the RINGKNOCKER operation is firmly in the rear-view mirror, the community and I continue to benefit from the connections we made during that time.

I’m a software engineer by trade, and I won’t pretend to possess some arcane secret about running great events. But if RINGKNOCKER taught me ANY important lesson about hosting events, it’s this one:

Brilliance is a nice-to-have. NOT SUCKING IS ESSENTIAL!

If your event is competently organized and offers the occasional small flash of brilliance, many attendees will return for more, and bring friends to boot! But if your event can’t get out of its own way, it won’t matter how brilliant your content is: most attendees will never darken your door again.

I can’t help you be brilliant. That’s on you. But what I’m going to share here is a template for creating and operating an event—more properly, a series of events—that is virtually guaranteed not to disappoint. It’s a pretty good formula that you can easily build on in whatever ways make sense.

Why Am I Writing This?

I have a buddy here on Bali who is a talented software developer.

A few weeks ago he created a Telegram channel and opened it up to other developers on the island. It’s a great forum where we can have awesome technical conversations and NOT have to explain anything to the Instagram bimbos, marketing geeks, and 22-year-old life coaches who clog every other channel on Bali.

Last month my friend decided to try hosting a physical meetup at a local crypto space and it went pretty well. Unfortunately, I was in the hospital and missed it. This afternoon I attended the second meetup. I immediately saw the potential… but I also saw a couple red flags that are probably going to undermine the event if my friend doesn’t get a handle on them.

So I’m writing this guide with a VERY specific audience in mind: an audience of one talented young guy. But I also believe that these are useful lessons for ANYBODY trying something similar.

If you find any of this useful, hit the comments below and tell me about it! If not… well, it probably wasn’t for you to begin with. 🤣

That said, here goes…

The Format

The most important thing you should know about an event format is: YOU SHOULD HAVE ONE!

An event without a format is just a meeting without an agenda.

But what’s a format?

Simply put, an event’s format is a plan for the event, expressed in units of time. For example, every episode of Saturday Night Live follows this exact format. The format is so consistent that, in 45 years of weekly run time, the show only deviated from its published format nine times.

Imagine trying to figure out what to do with 67 minutes of non-commercial air time, with tens of millions of viewers, EVERY Saturday night. That is a HUGELY complex problem!

Compare that with trying to fill just the five-minute opening monologue segment. Still not trivial, obviously… but also a MUCH simpler challenge than the whole!

As any engineer will immediately understand, this is the power of problem decomposition: break a tough nut down into simpler pieces, and then solve many easy problems instead of one hard one. That’s what a good format does for you.

With that in mind, here’s the RINGKNOCKER format for a 90-minute meetup. I’ll dig into the details in the sections below:

Time Speaker Content
3 min Host Opening monologue
1 min Host Background & mission
1 min Host Host intro
1 min Host Agenda
3 min Host Guest speaker intro
30 min Guest speaker Presentation
15 min Attendees & guest speaker Q&A
15 min Previous attendees Member updates
15 min New attendees New member intros
3 min Host Closing remarks, CTA & wrap
87 min TOTAL  

A Word About Timing

Your event schedule is a PROMISE to your attendees.

This is non-negotiable! Remember that YOUR event is just ONE event in everybody’s day. It is VERY easy to run over time. Do NOT run over time! If your event is scheduled to run from 12-1:30pm, then END IT at 1:30pm… no matter what time you actually started… whether you have completed your agenda or not!

There are two reasons behind this iron-clad rule:

  • Trust. If 40 people show up for a 90-min event, then you are the custodian of 60 man-hours of collective time. If time is money and your attendees are professionals, then that time has a market value of THOUSANDS of dollars! Are you worthy of that? Then show them that THEIR time is more important than YOUR show.

    Prove you respect the value of your attendees’ time, and your attendees will reward you with more of it!

  • Showmanship. NO event is just exactly long enough. EVERY attendee will either leave wanting more, or wish he had left sooner. You want MORE of the former, and LESS of the latter.

    On the event clock, less really is more!

Take another look at the RINGKNOCKER agenda above. The event is 90 minutes, but I have planned for 87 minutes of content precisely so I can screw it up for three whole minutes and still come in under the wire.

Running on for an extra minute is effortless. Recapturing a lost minute is hard. Plan accordingly!

Some segments will be on you. Do yourself a favor: write your content ahead of time and practice it a couple of times in front of a mirror before you try it in front of the group.

The goal isn’t to find your comfort zone: do this 20 times in a row and your comfort zone will find YOU. 🤣

The goal is to figure out BEFORE the event that your segment is WAAAAY too long-winded… and then cut it down until you can deliver your bit without blowing your timeline out of the water.

Other segments will be on other speakers. That’s ALWAYS the goal, right? Get other people to do the work.

But even when other people are talking, you STILL have a job, and that job is to manage to the format. Interrupt people to warn that they only have another minute. Cut them off when their time expires. Be RUTHLESS with the clock, and you will earn the respect and appreciation of ALL your attendees… and they will express that appreciation by coming back for more!

The Opening Monologue

I admit it, I’m no Johnny Carson. Ok… Jay Leno. Ok… whoever the new guy is. Or the NEW new guy. Who cares.

But that isn’t the point of an opening monologue, at least not the way I did it. Instead, there are TWO points:

  • Nobody shows up on time. Well… almost nobody. So you need a little slack at the beginning of the show so people can come in, get settled, and start paying attention. If the room is utterly silent, people will start wondering why they came. So dance, monkey!

  • Who the hell are you, anyway? Nobody cares about your bio, at least not yet. Why should they? So give them a reason to care. Reward the people who actually showed up on time by sharing a bit of yourself that the latecomers won’t get to see.

Share WHAT, exactly?

Well, this is one of those points where you have to find your own brilliance. But haven’t you called everybody together there for a REASON? Did you have an experience since the last event that was at all relevant to that reason? Would you tell that story to your friends?

These people want to be your friends… so tell it to THEM.

PRO TIP: Write the freaking story down! Read it to a mirror and see how long it takes. Revise it until it fits the format. Then shred the paper: nobody wants you to read to them, but that PROCESS will make it stick in your head and your delivery will be WAY better than if you went in cold. It’s an hour of your time you will NEVER regret spending! {: .notice–info}

You don’t have to be PERFECT. With just a little practice, you won’t SUCK, and that’s good enough!

The Legend

Back when we were cavemen, we’d sit around the fire every night and tell stories. There were thousands of stories, but there was also that ONE story some old geezer told EVERY night: the Legend.

Here’s the RINGKNOCKER version, which fits into the Background & Mission section in the agenda above:

With slight variations in wording, I told that EXACT SAME STORY every single week for nearly TWO YEARS! It was our Legend. It was why we spent our Thursday nights together on a Zoom call instead of doing damned near anything else.

I had attendees who heard me tell that story 40+ times and not ONE of them ever suggested maybe I skip it this time.

Why? Because legends MATTER. Your group’s Legend is the reason they are there with you instead of watching a ball game or having dinner with their families. So tell the freaking story.

Is that intimidating? Consider this: everybody’s there for a reason, right? THEY ALREADY KNOW THE LEGEND! They just need YOU to say it out loud.

So do that. Do it EVERY TIME the group comes together.

PRO TIP: Legends are LEGENDARY. Every person in the room has at least one good reason why the world would love people like him, if only it knew. Most of them have the SAME reason. So give it a voice. {: .notice–info}

Besides watching the clock, reciting the Legend of your community is your only other job that really matters.

Host Intro

There’s probably at least one person in the room who hasn’t met you in person yet. Look that person square in the eye and introduce yourself.

Remember elevator pitches? In 60 seconds, tell the group why they should trust YOU with another 85 minutes of your time (or however much is left). It’s partly about your qualifications, but it’s probably more about your motivations. Find a balance: you can be qualified to lead a meeting AND not be a pompous asshole.

PRO TIP: Write your bio once, memorize it, and refine it over time. You’re the same person every time, right? So don’t be afraid to use the same bio. {: .notice–info}

If I’m here to TEACH you, I’m not that interesting. But if I’m here to LEARN from you, suddenly I’m fascinating!

The Agenda Again

Up to now the content has been mostly canned. This is the part where you reiterate your promise to your attendees: this is what’s about to happen, and here’s how long it will take.

They don’t need a minute-by-minute rundown. Just lay out the basic timeline and then stomp your foot on the REAL promise: that, come hell or high water, you will release them ON TIME.

Trust takes a lot of repetition to earn but just one disappointment to lose.

Guest Speakers

Every format has its own demands, and you might have one guest speaker, several, or none at all. Here are some general principles:

  • Introduce everybody! As the host of the event, you have mojo. Your introduction confers some of that mojo on your guest and makes them more interesting. If they are a big deal, then some of THEIR mojo spills over onto YOU. It’s a win in both directions.

  • Stay engaged! Don’t just sit there playing with your phone. Everybody in the audience has questions, all the time, but NONE of them wants to interrupt the flow and ask. So stay engaged. Ask the speaker for clarification. Satisfy your curiosity. Turn a flat monologue into a dynamic conversation, where your whole job is to be a good student and make the speaker look like a stone-cold genius by comparison.

    PRO TIP: Do NOT blind-side your speakers! Make sure they know ahead of time that you want to step in with a couple of questions. Assure them that the goal is to ask the dumb questions the audience might be afraid to ask. Know how much time they need to deliver their message, and take that into account when you step in, because… {: .notice–info}

  • You’re STILL in charge of the clock! If you’ve scheduled time for Q&A, then you can trade it against presentation time if the speaker runs on or if you’ve asked too many questions. But the clock is king, no matter WHO is talking.

  • Be the questioner of last resort! Sometimes your audience won’t have any questions. You’re the host: if you’ve budgeted time for Q&A, it’s up to YOU to fill it! So take notes, and keep at least one of your own questions in reserve in case nobody else has one!

The clock is king, ALWAYS!

Nobody Cares How Smart You Are

Just wanted to call this one out.

When you engage with your speaker, the goal is not to show what a genius YOU are. You’ll wind up looking like a pompous a-hole, every time.

Instead, engage your curiosity and show everybody how great you are at filling up the room with OTHER geniuses. Your guests AND your speakers will love you for it!

Updates & Intros

These segments are pretty use-case-specific: at heart, RINGKNOCKER was a networking group, so it made sense to make space for people to introduce themselves and deliver updates on their activities.

Even so: if you’re putting on a regular event, you’re building a community. It isn’t ridiculous to schedule in some time for attendees to do that kind of thing. So with that in mind, here are a couple of tips:

  • Track your registrations. There are plenty of ways to do this, but the bottom line is it really helps to know who’s coming. That way you know who’s new and who you haven’t seen in a while. You’re the HOST, remember? You’ll be better at welcoming people if you know whom to welcome.

  • Track your attendance. This is the other half of the host equation. If somebody registered LAST month but didn’t show up until THIS month then they’re still a first-time attendee and should be welcomed accordingly. But you can’t do that unless you know they didn’t actually make it last time!

  • Be curious. Most people are bad at telling their stories. So when you ask somebody to introduce themselves, don’t just leave them hanging! Grab a thread in their intro and pull on it. Ask a question, and listen to the answer. Introduce them on the spot to another attendee with a similar story. Be real.

Don’t host like it’s a game show. Host like it’s your house.

The Wrap

Every good thing must come to an end. And… just in case I haven’t hammered this one home hard enough… it must come to an end ON TIME!!! 🤣

You left a little wiggle room in the agenda. And this last bit can ALSO serve as wiggle room: cut it as much as you need to in order to hit the time constraint.

But assuming you DO have the time, here’s what you can do here:

  • Admin notes. Are you going to post event videos, notes, or a transcript? Is there going to be another event? Have a canned message you can insert here that ties your event up into a bow and prepares your audience for the next one.

  • Call to action. Do you want your audience to follow you on Twitter? Invite a friend to the next show? Send you money? This is your last chance to ask, and is the third-to-last thing they will remember.

  • Your promise. Remember? It was to honor the value of the time your attendees shared with you. You kept that promise, maybe right down to the minute… so REMIND THEM YOU DID THAT! The second-to-last thing your attendees should hear from you is confirmation that you actually kept your promise. Might sound silly. Isn’t. Ignore at your peril!

  • Your thanks. Don’t be shy. Mean it. Be brief, be bold, and be done.

Some Extras

If you follow the plan I laid out above, you will generate an absolute MOUNTAIN of content!

Between regular weekly meetups and other stuff, RINGKNOCKER produced over 80 events. Each one of those generated:

  • 90 min of raw video
  • A full text transcript
  • Up to a dozen or more short video clips of speaker presentations, member intros & updates, etc.
  • A unique opening monologue.

That is a LOT of raw material! Here’s how we used it:

  • We used the opening monologue as a blog post over the key short video from the event.
  • We posted the raw video and transcript as private content for attendees.
  • All the short videos went up on the YouTube channel and out as social media posts.
  • We mined each transcript for dozens of short text excerpts that also went out on social media.

The full operation was a hefty part-time job for myself, an operations assistant, and a video editor. It never actually broke even on costs, but that’s on me… Lord knows I’m better at making things (and running events, I guess) than I am at running a business.

But my point is: if you ARE thinking about generating a stream of revenue from your events and you DO know how to leverage social media to accomplish that, this template will give you plenty of material to work with.

Still Want To Do This?

You should!

If you aren’t my young developer friend, don’t feel obligated to read the rest of this.

If you are…

Look, I know this sounds like a lot. It IS a lot. But remember: you don’t have to be PERFECT. You just need not to SUCK.

So feel free to cut corners. We’re your friends: we love what you’re doing and we WANT you to be successful! If you cut the wrong corner, we’ll rag you about it and then we’ll buy you a beer and help you figure it out.

No sweat.

Also, you’re WAY smarter than most of us. So where I struggled, I’m pretty confident you will find ways to make it easy. And where I barely managed, you’ll probably find ways to shine.

Just pay attention to the fundamentals: HAVE A FORMAT, WATCH THE CLOCK, and TELL THE LEGEND. Everything else is a minor detail, and you’ll figure it out as you go along.

Looking forward to the next Bad-Ass Devs event!