How to keep your in-person meetup from being awkward

Hi, I'm awkward

There’s an online publication that I adore. I won’t name them in this article because I love them so much. They’ve built a publication and community around the geeky topics that I hold dear: superheroes & sci-fi (with a dash of fantasy and actual science). I read it religiously, multiple times a day. So when I saw that they were hosting a meetup in San Francisco, I felt like I had to attend.

You may not know that I’m an introvert. But you probably know that many fans of the aforementioned geeky topics are. So I went into the whole thing a little nervous, but also excited at the potential of being welcomed by my people.

Instead, it was an incredibly awkward experience. Although I did have a few nice conversations, I did not suddenly feel like I had reached the geeky promised land.

Why wasn’t this meetup a success? As a geeky community-builder is wont to do, I decided to analyze what made the event so awkward (for me, at least).


The event was announced on their site as a regular blog post – no RSVPing or ticket purchase, just the announcement. The normally-busy comments section was surprisingly quiet, mostly people saying “argh, I wish I were in San Francisco”. One or two fellow introverts spoke up and said they were going to try to come. The excitement I’m sure others felt was tamped down by the thought that, perhaps, nobody else was going. An introvert’s nightmare.

Solution: making people RSVP would have helped the organizers estimate attendance (for free events, expect 20-50% of RSVPs to show). Making people RSVP via comment would have started to build confidence about the event. Adding something fun – “leave a comment and your favorite gif if you’re attending” – would have been on-brand for the site and taken that confidence all the way to excitement.


The event took place at a coffee shop/scifi book store. While having the advantages of proximity to public transportation and being on-theme, it was not the best spot for a meetup. Caffeine generally doesn’t help with conversation, and the space was very loud.

Solution: while I don’t think alcohol solves many problems, it is a GREAT social lubricant. Hosting an event for introverts at a place with alcohol would have helped get discussions going. Bars are hard because they can be dark and loud; however, there are tons of spaces (both formal event spaces and private locations) that are booze- and meetup-friendly in the Bay Area.


I’ve sketched the layout below. There are a multitude of problems with it.

bad meetup layout

First: having any sort of bottleneck makes it awkward for new people to arrive. When you have a more open space, people can assess what’s going on, put their things down, get a drink, find a group to join, etc.

Second: having the Editor, the life of the party, right in the bottleneck forces you to talk to them. Which isn’t bad…except that it’s high-pressure (“Oh my god, she’s the one who started all this!”) and she’s in demand. I started chatting with her and then she quickly got distracted by people she knew arriving. There’s nothing wrong with that…but it meant that I had to stand there and smile politely until I could excuse myself from a conversation I was clearly not part of.

Third: having such a tight space meant it was hard to mingle, so you had choose a group and try to wrangle your way in.

Fourth: having very limited tables and seats meant that they were quickly filled, and new arrivals felt the opposite of welcome. “Welcome, please don’t take a seat because there are none”? Bad form.

Solution: host the event in a more open space. Have one seating area that only fits a few people, so standing and creating malleable groups is necessary. Put the drinks off to the side so newcomers can come in, put things down, get a drink and figure out how to enter the fray. Let the Editor flit around; don’t worry about greeting people, just have clear signage so people know they’re in the right place.


Turns out, even if you’re all frequenters of a geeky website, you can be into very different things. Some of us (*coughmecough*) were very into the latest comic trades. Some were really into deep, heavy sci-fi (which I appreciate but don’t read very often). Some were just into science. Some were a mix of the above. The result was awkward groping for common topics.

Solution: build in a way to break the ice. This could be as simple as a name tag with a few interests (boring, but totally effective). You could also go more fun: have a bunch of stickers that represent different interests (Marvel, DC, Spider-Man, X-Men, Star Trek, Star Wars, NASA, Game of Thrones, etc). Make it a bit of a challenge to assemble your unique set of stickers – fun, but also a great way to immediately know what to talk to someone about.

In the end, running real-world events requires that you really consider human dynamics. Something that might seem acceptable to you, the host, might be a nightmare for your introvert attendee who doesn’t know anyone. A great event doesn’t need to have fancy production values; it needs to be optimized for people to get to know each other and connect on a deeper level. Here’s hoping their next meetup manages this!

Awkward photo courtesy of Laura Barberis.

Sharing economy lessons from Lyft, Yerdle, & more

I recently had the pleasure of attending the San Francisco Community Manager Meetup‘s panel on the sharing economy and writing the official summary post. Here’s an excerpt:

“If there are 19 other drivers posting on the forum, you think ‘Ok, I’m gonna keep driving’.” Super-users were key to helping Lyft scale. Several months into a year in which their goal was launching 70 cities, they had launched exactly one city. They were struggling to find an office space and hiring local employees to work with drivers. Forced to innovate, they thought “what if, instead of having new drivers come into the office, we just have them meet an experienced driver in a parking lot?”

“It was scary,” David admits. “But it worked.” 

Check out the full article at CMX.

“If we make an exception for one customer, we’ll have to make them for everyone”

no parking signNo, you won’t.

What percentage of your customers contact customer support? 1%? 5%? Let’s be crazy-generous and say 10%.

What percentage of those ask for an exception? Maybe 50%.

So that’s 5% of your customers you’re giving an exception to.

Sure, maybe word spreads and now 75% of those contacting customer support are asking for an exception. That’s still only 7.5% of your customers.

Exceptions are possibly the most powerful tool you have in delighting customers. Who doesn’t rave about how a customer service agent bent the rules to do something nice for them? Zappos practically built their entire reputation and PR on bending the rules.

Yes, you need to have some restrictions so you don’t break the bank. But if 7.5% of your customers leave delighted and tell 5 friends each, you’ve just increased your userbase by 37%. Not too shabby.

Photo via Patricia H.

What if you subtracted “women” from that question?

For most* questions, if you replace “women” with “someone” and you get a different answer, there’s something wrong. Either there’s a institutional issue you should address, or you’re being sexist.

Take the case of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who was asked what advice he’d give to women who want a raise (and might be uncomfortable asking). If Nadella was not sexist, he would have two options:

1) Give the same advice he gives to men: meet with your boss, show all the good work you’ve done, and ask.  This advice probably wouldn’t be super-helpful, seeing as women make 78% as much as men, but it would have been ignorant instead of sexist.

2) Acknowledge that there are a lot institutional problems with gender and pay. Talk about how women are often called manipulative or bitchy when they are strong-willed in the workplace, but similar men are considered driven and ambitious. Talk about how that needs to change, and maybe outline some ways that someone powerful like, I don’t know, the CEO of Microsoft, could change things. This also wouldn’t be a super-helpful answer, but it would be honest and definitely not sexist.

By telling women “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along”, Nadella is being sexist.

You might argue that he doesn’t know about the huge wage gap between men and women. Maybe that’s the case (disappointing if so). But again:  if he thinks women get the same opportunities as men, why would he give them a different answer than he would give men?

As a straight white male, anyone I’ve ever asked for advice on getting a raise has told me to ask. You can find plenty of this advice on the web. You’re generally supposed to gather examples of your great work, do some basic research, and then ask. “It never hurts to ask”, “you’ll never get what you don’t ask for”, etc – this is the stuff I’ve heard many times.

Why didn’t Nadella give this advice? Because he treats women differently. And that’s sexist. Period, full stop.

Let’s hope this is a wake-up call for him. I know it’s a wake-up call to me and many consumers that to not buy any Microsoft products. In the meantime, I’d recommend women avoid applying  to work at Microsoft, unless you want to cross your fingers for your “good karma” to somehow net you a raise.

*I will admit that “My water just broke, what should I do?” should have a different response when coming from a man.

Your morning cup of empathy

tip jar

The kid who made my chai this morning was a disaster.

It was his first time on the register in the morning, unclear if he had ever made a chai. He couldn’t find the bring-your-own-cup discount on the register, tried to get the cook to make the chai, couldn’t find the nutmeg, put it in a paper cup instead of my mug, etc.

I remember when I worked at a coffee shop, between freshman and softmore year of college. It was a tiny little place in Nevada City that tended more towards the grab’n’go crowd rather than the lounge’n’sippers. I was terrified of screwing up (and I often did). The thing is, the customers see a sign that lists items they can buy, and they expect to be able to buy those exact items, made as specified by the sign. That’s very reasonable. But when you’re new and have maybe never made that item, don’t know that there’s usually a sprinkling of parsley, can’t get the foaming just right – it seems impossible. People are often impatient and condescending; THEY know how this thing is made, why don’t YOU? Again – it’s not unreasonable, but they don’t have the full context of a kitchen with 300 ingredients and various things tucked in corners you’ve never seen.

Why is this story important? Because empathy is key to community management, customer service, and (in my opinion) life.

I believe empathy is imbued at a very early age by the people around you. When I interview, it’s clear some people have this as a core part of their personality and some people find it foreign.

But just because you’re naturally inclined towards empathy doesn’t mean you’ll always have it. Like a natural inclination towards singing or athleticism, practice is required to keep your skills of empathy handy and top-notch.

I frequently hear folks in customer-facing roles – hell, myself included – say that they often don’t have empathy left for the world when they get out of work. They feel pessimistic and mean. It’s understandable; you’ve used a lot of energy being extremely empathetic.

But that doesn’t mean you should only be empathetic at work. If you want to do your best work for your customers, you need to keep this skill sharp. I could have easily been frustrated with my barista this morning, tapping my foot and criticizing and holding back my tip. Instead, I assured him that it was ok, agreed that the register seemed complicated, and gave him a nice tip.

Practice empathy as much as you can, and it’ll come easier when you’re in that tough situation with a customer yelling at you, or a significant other snapping at you.

Photo via Dennis Miyashiro.

Business is simple

“Business is simple. Management’s job is to take care of employees. The employees’ job is to take care of the customers. Happy customers take care of the shareholders. It’s a virtuous cycle.”

John Mackey, Founder and CEO, Whole Foods Market

Love this quote, which I spotted in Chip Conley’s book Peak. Somehow companies keep forgetting that their customers pay the bills. Why would you accept (even build, in some cases) anything that makes them unhappy?

On listening

I just finished reading Oliver Reichenstein’s fantastic piece, “Putting Thought Into Things”. It’s extremely, well, thought-provoking.

“Thinking is stressful. While stereotypes click together sweetly, thinking comes in bitter flavors. We recur to clichés rather than reflection, because they make us wise without listening, bright without reasoning, and smart without taking the risk of being imprecise, boring, annoying, wrong.”

Ouch. I have definitely done this, casually leveraging my experience and cliched tips in order to provide value without actually thinking through how valuable it is. Terrible habit.

“Listening is a masochist endeavor. To do it right you have to put everything down. Not just your phone, even pen and paper.”

I realize he’s being intentionally dramatic (sometimes you need a pen to note details), but I get the point. It’s too easily to, mentally or physically, prepare for your response or your solution or your protestation. Truly listening, internalizing what’s being said, empathizing – that’s a lot harder.

“The fog of boredom and emptiness when listening to people you don’t sympathize with can be a sign that they are boring, empty, or not making sense. It can also be a sign that you do not understand.”

Another one that hits too close to home. I can distinctly remember being bored with a conversation because I didn’t understand the point….then how quickly that boredom disappeared once I did.

“The ease of following protocol comes with the disappointment of running in circles. The bittersweet pain of progress comes hand in hand with the heartache of making mistakes.”

When was the last time you felt deeply satisfied from throwing something together, rather than thinking it through?

Thanks to Andrew Spittle for sharing this post originally!

How to turn customers into enemies

1) Build a habit

2) Ambush your customers and fine them for following that habit

If you’ve ever taken a MUNI bus or light rail here in San Francisco, you’ve probably paid and then got on your vehicle, like a normal person. Your bus driver has perhaps nodded or smiled at you, or more likely stared off into space while contemplating their next aggressive driving move.

MUNI sucks

Turns out, you’re supposed to get a receipt – though this receipt is confusingly called a “transfer”, even if you’re not transferring. You wouldn’t know this to ride the actual buses though, since I have never, ever seen a bus driver offer a transfer. (I’ve heard people request them on occasion, but I assumed that was because they needed to transfer, hence the name.)

Today I entered my bus and paid with cash instead of my normal Clipper card (which I had accidentally left at home). I entered through the front door and clearly put my money in the machine. When I exited the bus where I normally do, I was cornered by a MUNI cop of some sort who asked for verification that I had paid. Sure, they could have just asked the bus driver, but since I didn’t get this mysterious receipt that apparently everyone is supposed to get, I got fined $108.

Yes, this effort is intended to stop people sneaking on without paying. What has it done instead? It’s created an enemy. All I did was act like a perfectly upstanding citizen and take my public transit to work, and I got fined $108. That’s a slap in the face. I’ll be avoiding MUNI as much as possible going forward. I like supporting public transit but you can buy a lot of taxi rides with $108.

Good job MUNI. Zero fare-evaders stopped, one customer alienated.

Community Manager Breakfast Notes – August 12th – Internal Communication

August’s Community Manager Breakfast focused on Internal Communication, a challenge that many departments face but particularly vexes community departments. We had a fantastic group with a lot of similar challenges and some great suggestions (I’m implementing at least two of them). A selection of them are below, but for the full shebang you’ll want to attend our next breakfast.

Thanks to Krista Gambrel for taking notes! You can finger her on Twitter @kristagambrel and  her company @mindieapp.

Biggest Challenges

  • Getting Info: Many struggled with getting insight into roadmaps, what other departments were doing, etc.
  • Participation: Getting team members to participate on an intranet, give them images for social, just give feedback.
  • Brand Disconnect: On a similar note, a lot of CMs got negative feedback on certain posts but didn’t get any directional feedback about the brand to help shape those posts. Sometimes, even the general mission statement was a bit of a mystery.

Getting Info

Why is there a disconnect? Perhaps because people don’t understand the role of Community Management.

Show metrics if you can:

    • Do customers spend more? Are they more loyal? More satisfied?
    • What is the average case cost? The community answers questions for you and saves company money.

Not all products have metrics to report – some people don’t have sales goals. In that case, ask questions: What are the top 3 things your boss needs to have done? Come in with ideas and recommendations. Be diligent about following up.


Pro Tip: “What’s Up Wednesday?”

Four questions:

  • What are you excited about this week?

  • What are the challenges you face?

  • What is something you have read?

  • (One question cycles through)

Then follow up with public thank-you’s (people notice if their name isn’t in there, and feel bad). Helps set a habit for participation.

Is it spammy? Sure, but if it’s a small enough team and you have buy-in from management, it works.


  •  Ask for Forgiveness and not for permission – you gotta publish something
  • Try not to be defensive- feedback is really important
  • Ask them to describe the brand voice as a character – it helps!
  • Asking what did the person liked is more useful than what they didn’t like.

General Tips 

  • Forgive, forget and move on. It’s easy to get passive-aggressive. New day, new game.
  • Make time for direct communication. Make time for a “standing-meeting” and have direct communication to talk about main points.
  • Be empathetic to what your colleagues are looking for and elicit empathy.
  •  Know your motivators, and internal audience.
  •  Communication isn’t about what you say, but about how you act and how you say it and also how you listen.
  •  Don’t be afraid to ask questions and listen. Its so important in extracting information.