Podcast Discussion Meetings - A Potentially High-Value Event Template For Local Groups

byTomBill18d1st Feb 20194 comments

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(This post is based on a post I made on the EA Group Organisers Facebook group. I decided to post it here in order to ‘archive’ it for future reference, as well as hopefully show it to a few more people who may find it useful)

Introduction:

Podcast discussion meetings are an event template for local EA groups where attendees, all having listened to a previously designated podcast (relating to EA), meet up at a social area to discuss it. Usually there will be 1 person leading/ prompting the discussion. This is something a small number of local groups have been hosting and have seen as well worthwhile. This post is to explain podcast discussion meetings and what we have learnt from running them. The ultimate goal of this post is to encourage more groups to consider hosting similar events.

To give the brief version, if executed well, podcast discussions can prove to be a low-cost event with good value. Probably the main benefit we’ve found is that the format has added an extra layer to our group by providing a regular meeting space where more engaged members can discuss EA topics in greater depth than at other events. Other benefits are that it engages our core members in EA ‘literature’, it is particularly good at creating personal bonds within the group, and acts as a good tool for identifying more engaged members in a group.

You should note that I have not done any analysis of the effectiveness of podcast discussion meetings, and that this post is only meant to encourage other local groups to consider the format.

Lessons From The Southampton Template:

Since April 2018, EA Southampton has been meeting up around every Sunday in a local pub to discuss a predesignated, EA related podcast. These often last for 3-4 hours. We will aim to nominate a podcast at least 5 days in advance of the scheduled weekly meeting time (it’s only fair for people to have a good amount of time to take in what are usually quite large podcasts).

A major concern that we had before hosting these events was a lack of interest due to the commitment required. We worried that asking university students to listen to (sometimes close to 3 hours long) podcasts would lead to people not turning up or (even worse) turning up not having listened to the podcast. How we chose to combat this was by personally asking our more committed members if they would like to come to each podcast talk. As we do not post about them on our Facebook page, this makes podcast discussion meetings somewhat ‘invite only’. This, I think, has a lot of benefits. Firstly, personally inviting people has, for us, been very effective at ensuring they turn up having done all the required listening. It has also given us full control over how many people we involve. We have found that these events cap out at around 8 people (more would require multiple groups). Also, making these invite only adds another layer of interactivity for people who have been showing a lot of interest in the society, and can even act as a good tipping point for people who seem like they are considering becoming more involved. Multiple times we have had a member who seems to be especially interested in EA, but hasn’t fully integrated with the core group. Inviting these kinds of people to these more personal meetings has helped either tip them into becoming heavily involved, or (if they do not come) has flagged to me that they are not yet fully comfortable with more advanced-level EA discussion. I believe these events have advantage over other bonding events, as they can act as a ‘double-whammy’; enhancing a person’s feeling of community in a way that gets them to engage with EA ‘literature’.

Another key part of Southampton’s template is guiding the conversation through notes. I lead the conversations, and so I will try to listen to the podcast twice myself (though I do not always manage this), and one of those times I will write down all the thoughts, questions and objections that I can think of. I will then go through these notes and try and identify what could make interesting launching points for discussion. I will then bring these discussion points with me and use them to guide the event. We have found that my notes are the foundation of the eventual discussions, and I would definitely recommend making at least some notes. I will comment on this post with an example set of discussion points I have used in a previous podcast meet-up.

Another thing to consider is the meeting place. A location that is not too far away from main campus (for university groups) is probably a good place to start, as you know that everyone is able to get there. Also, it’s important to pick somewhere that isn’t going to be too busy (after all, you’ve got to be able to hear each other). Another priority for specifically student groups is that it is not too expensive. We have found that meeting at a local pub works for us.

How EA York’s Template Differs:

The only other group (I am aware of) that hosts regular podcast discussion meet-ups is EA York. This is their thoughts on running podcast discussion meetings:

Jamie: We have been running podcast discussions in York for around 4 months at the time of writing. I believe them to be some of the most valuable events we run and their success has led us to incorporate this format of discussion as a core component of our society’s event schedule. Thanks to the relaxed nature of meeting in a cafe at the weekend, the events have been great for getting to know the most engaged members of our (medium-sized) group better. Anecdotally, it also seems like the format is particularly successful compared to other types of event at getting members to both engage with new content and retain what they learn.

We have recently experimented with the discussion format by swapping the podcast with a long-form article and, following the success of the first event (based around Greg Lewis’ EA Forum post on Epistemic Modesty), we are now running these on alternating weeks with the podcast discussions. I would note that we differ from EA Southampton in the way that we invite members to the events. We use a Facebook messenger group which we find makes it easy to add interested people, link relevant content and set event reminders.

Morgan: To prepare for each discussion I produce a list of questions based on the topics discussed in the respective podcast or long-form article and note them down on flash cards. I try to loosely guide the discussion by presenting these questions to the group; that said if I feel as though the discussion is going in a productive direction which I didn’t initially intend, I try to limit my interference. The conversation is tracked by the growing number of ordered cards visible to the group. For any unexpected areas of discussion that occur, I try to make a note of what was discussed on blank flash cards and then insert them into the relevant position in the ordered group of cards. I think this provides a good structure to the events and makes it easy to review what was discussed once they end.

Conclusion:

This is quite a long post for what shapes up to be quite a simple concept, but podcast talks are something I think are worth their modest prep-time. They act well as community building exercises (off-hours meet-ups), as a way to get people involved more in EA ‘literature’, and providing an opportunity to have deeper conversations about effective altruism where you are assured everyone shares a basis of knowledge. I would love if more groups were to adopt a similar event and would be very interested to hear from anyone that had any thoughts/advice for this kind of event. Thanks for reading.

Below is general advice for groups planning to host podcast discussion meetings. I would recommend you read on if you fall into this category.

General Advice:

This section acts to be a comprehensive list of all the advice I would have for groups doing podcast discussion meet-ups (that was not already covered in the main body of this post).

  • The best podcast we have found so far is the 80,000 Hours podcast. The Rationally Speaking podcast has shorter episodes, if you want a lower-commitment event (though not fully EA aligned). A good individual podcast is the Will MacAskill episode of Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. This podcast was great for people with less knowledge on EA, but also proved a good podcast for us who knew lots about EA (Perhaps this would be a good first podcast for a group new to the format).
  • As outlined above, I will make notes about the podcast mostly in the form of questions. These act to both jog my memory of what was said and to start up conversation. This system works well for me, but if you believe you would have trouble remembering what was said in the podcast just from notes, 80,000 Hours podcasts have scripts which you could print off, highlight and annotate.
  • An important balance to strike is how much control the discussion leader takes. At Southampton discussion works well with my notes conducting much of what we talk about (whilst not being too overbearing or not allowing individual ideas etc.). However, other groups may find this restrictive. In that case, I would recommend using York’s system of cue cards.
  • Generally speaking, I have found people irritated by podcasts much longer than 2 hours. The perfect length is probably around 1 hour 30 minutes to 2 hours. The recent 80,000 Hours podcasts have unfortunately become too long for our group, but the earlier podcasts work very well. Also, if you have a lot of grumbling about the length, remind people that many podcast apps allow you to speed up podcasts. Some podcasts, also, split nicely in parts, and you could opt to do half the podcast one week and the other half the next etc.
  • It is very important to note that not all podcasts (not even all 80,000 Hours podcasts) have equal amounts of good topics of discussion for your group. This is why I would recommend listening to the podcast once before choosing it. Failing this (which I often have), you should try and discern whether the podcast is a good one to use. 80,000 Hours have a section on their website which describes each podcast and the questions raised in them. I would strongly recommend at least reading this before nominating a podcast. Also, I will leave a comment below with which 80,000 Hours podcasts Southampton has found good for creating discussion.
  • If you want to host a podcast discussion meet-up with a lot of people (probably around 9 or upwards) I would recommend splitting into 2 groups and having 2 discussion leaders.
  • It can be nice to wrap up a podcast discussion meet-up by the person leading the discussion overviewing the main discussion topics, the thoughts raised by the attendees, and the general opinion of the group. I have recently been experimenting with this wrap-up section. One thing we have tried is I will make some of the main talking points into a statement such as ‘We should put more resources into clean meat’, and each attendee will give a percentage of agreement with the statement. We will then average this to find what the group has decided on some of the main topics. However, we have found people to be quite confused by this system. We have also tried improving our wrap-up by me drawing a timeline with all the main talking points that came up. This helps to visualise the progress of the discussion. You can then send attendees a photo of this timeline (if you have legible handwriting).
  • The podcast discussion meet-up template can be used for other things, too. You could have EAGlobal video discussion meet-ups, you could have a more classic ‘book club’. One idea we have had (though have not implemented yet) is using the template to meet up and discuss each other’s dissertations. A few of us have EA related dissertations, and so these seem like they could be a fun, more personalised experience, and gives those writing the dissertation a chance to air their thoughts to a group. I would love to see someone hold a podcast discussion meet-up where the guest of the podcast was present at the meet-up.
  • I would mostly recommend using podcast discussion meet-ups as a side-event for a group, and not as a main event. Although there is opportunity for learning and exploring core EA concepts within this template, I believe these are better used to compliment this.

This post was written by Thomas Billington (Southampton Society), with sections from Jamie Gittins (York Society) and Morgan Simpson (York Society). Editing credits go to Jamie Gittins and Vicky Cox (Southampton Society).

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