After last month’s magical revelation by Richard Wiseman, we bring you our second guest writer, Reed Esau. Anyone interested in socializing and swapping ideas with other skeptics will enjoy Reed’s insight. In this article, he tells us how to organise a Skepticamp.
Nine Steps to Organising Your First Skepticamp
A skepticamp is simply a skeptic conference where the attendees themselves create and present the content.
It’s a new breed of skeptic gathering based upon the wildly successful barcamp format. Where barcamp focuses on technology, skepticamp focuses instead on critical thinking, science, pseudoscience, alternative medicine and the many topics of interest to skeptics. Both barcamp and skepticamp turn the traditional conference on its head, stripping away the barriers to organizing events and providing a range of meaningful ways for everyone to participate.
These events can be organized by anyone, including yourself. The steps below serve as a guide to get you started.
STEP 1: Talk about it!
Gather with your local skeptics and propose hosting your very own skepticamp event. Explain how it works and what it might offer your group. To get an idea of what to expect, relate the experiences of earlier skepticamps. And barcamps too!
While there can be many people who can contribute to organizing the event, look amongst yourselves for one person to coordinate your first skepticamp â€” the lead. Anyone who is detail-oriented and able to delegate to others is ideal. Why delegation? Distributing the responsibility for the event gains you much and avoids any single person from bearing too large a burden.
STEP 2: Choose the time and place
Your first task is to collaborate with your fellow organizers to choose both a date and a venue.
In choosing a date, check the calendar to ensure there’s no conflict with another major event that could cause problems with traffic, parking, holidays, crowds, etc.
You’ll want to select a venue to match expected turnout. In small to medium-sized metropolitan areas, four or eight hours at a local library meeting room should work fine for a first event. These are usually inexpensive and often offer projectors and free wireless connectivity.
Note that changing the venue to accommodate a larger turnout will be less disruptive than changing the date of the event. For point of reference, the first and second skepticamps in Colorado had turnouts of 30 and 50, respectively.
STEP 3: Promote shamelessly
Now that you’ve got a date and perhaps a venue as well, create a web presence for the event — an Event Page which serves as the authoritative source for all details surrounding your skepticamp event. Feature a link to this page in all communications and promotion.
Contact your local and regional skeptics to publicize the event and to build buzz and excitement. To reach the widest possible audience and to reinforce the message, approach promotion from many different directions. Post in forums. Talk about it at meetings. Ask bloggers to give it a plug, offering each a hook to lend their post some exclusivity for their readers.
If there’s an influential skeptic in your community, talk with them about your plans. Explore ways in which they might help promote the event and participate.
STEP 4: Plan, but not too much!
Work closely with your fellow organizers to ensure that everything is on track.
The Event Page serves as a cork board for the planning and coordination of the event. It should be visible to all, including potential participants. Update the page regularly with the latest details to build confidence that planning is actively moving forward.
Include a prominent section for participants to RSVP their intentions. This not only hints at turnout but allows each speaker to publicize their involvement and the topic of their presentation.
Related tasks can often be combined into a larger role, such as food czar, suitable for filling by a volunteer organizer.
You’ll likely need donations as well. Be specific.
Your Event Page will resemble this:
- Mary (mary@…com) – An introduction to Pareidolia
- George (george@…org) – A Tour of Logical Fallacies
- Bob X – no talk planned
- Pat (patrick@…com) – Conspiracies at the Denver International Airport
- [ Add your name here! ]
- [ OPEN ] Lunch Czar – would you like to head up the lunch effort?
- Lead Organizer – Crystal (crystal@…com)
- Sponsor Wrangler – RichL (richl@…org; skype: ramboelmo)
- Venue Czarina – Elaine (elaine@…com)
- [ OPEN ] Lunch for 30 people (est $140) – would you like to sponsor all (or part) of the cost of lunch?
- 50 cans assorted soda – provided by Reed (reed@…org)
- Projector – provided by Geoff (rr@…org)
You’ll need to determine how talks will be scheduled. A popular approach is to let the speakers select their own time slots on the day of the event, negotiating amongst themselves and the organizers. Introductory talks are the exception and should be negotiated to the top of the schedule as many attendees will be new to skepticism and require some context for the talks that follow.
Resist the urge to plan every detail! A relaxed and adaptable approach will often produce better results than one that is formal and rigid. Also resist the urge to take too big a bite! A smaller event with heavy participation is better than a larger one with scant participation or otherwise beset with problems.
Finally, if you find yourself stressed by the planning, you should simplify. For example, if you’re distressed over not finding a sponsor, skip the t-shirts. You can offer them at an event the following year.
STEP 5: The care and feeding of speakers
The barcamp ideal is to have every attendee give some sort of talk or to volunteer in a substantive way. Among skeptics this may take some time as the culture adjusts. Nevertheless much is gained by encouraging first-time speakers. For instance, it’s a foot in the door towards bigger things.
When drumming up interest and excitement for your skepticamp event, ask everyone to consider giving a talk. Make it clear that talks need not be complex. One can simply get up and lead a group discussion on an interesting question or two. For some skeptics, all you need do is ask for a presentation â€” they’ve been waiting for the opportunity. Other skeptics need gentle encouragement. Note that personal appeals will have far greater impact than a spam-like call for speakers. Also, be clear at the outset about any restrictions on talk length and subject matter.
For those stumped for ideas, ask what drives their interest in skepticism and explore whether an interesting talk lies within. There might be a skeptical talk related to their profession or avocation. investigation of local lore.
One of the most surprising duties as a skepticamp organizer is to keep the speakers on track in their preparations. Having the aforementioned Event Page where speakers publicize their talks helps some, but you’ll nevertheless suffer a number of no-shows and those who arrive unprepared. Reduce attrition by staying in touch with your speakers in the weeks leading up to the event and expressing your interest the topic of their talks. Having doubts is natural, especially among new speakers, so you’ll often need to be supportive and offer constructive advice.
Most importantly, encourage everyone to practice their talks as you’ll want to maximize their impact within the allotted time.
Should the organizers themselves plan to do talks? Preferably not, as it’s a distraction from organizing duties and sets the expectation that organizers must present. Erecting such barriers to organizing events is not the skepticamp way.
STEP 6: Reaching out
Consider inviting local science bloggers, academics, researchers, grad students, librarians and teachers, asking each if they’d be interested in participating, perhaps to give a presentation in their field that would appeal to a skeptic audience. Ditto for psychologists and physicians. Be sure to explain what you mean by skepticism!
Similarly, contact local magic clubs about your event, asking for a presentation on misdirection, cold reading, spoon bending, etc.
Consider going way beyond everyone’s expectations by inviting those who don’t consider themselves skeptics but who may employ some of the tools…
- Local paranormal investigators (as featured at the Colorado skepticamps) to discuss their methodology and findings
- A police detective to talk about overcoming bias in criminal investigation
- Local clergy to discuss how critical thinking and science fit into their ideas about faith
- A professional sports referee on maintaining objectivity on the field during emotionally-charged games
- Local authors (science fiction, etc.) who have offered skeptical themes in their work
STEP 7: Finding sponsors
For small to medium-sized groups, the costs involved in mounting a first event will be minimal where sponsors won’t typically be needed. For established skeptic groups in larger metropolitan areas, you can likely drive sufficient turnout for a full-day event. In this case you’ll need to arrange for a meal and a larger venue, possibly with multiple rooms.
Sponsors make it possible to keep these events free to participants. While some barcamps have charged a fee to artificially limit the number of attendees, it’s not common practice and is generally discouraged.
Where to find sponsors? Find a student group at a local college or university that can obtain a free or inexpensive location for your event. Consult with other skepticamp organizers, local barcamp organizers and members of your group for ideas and contacts. Learn from the experiences of other barcamps.
National skeptic groups might be another source for sponsorship, but don’t neglect your local options. However, they can be a good source for free magazines and other swag to give away at the event. See also the Fund for Thought.
Sponsors aren’t limited to covering the cost of a venue and lunch. T-shirts are a popular item. Some barcamps also offer a party the evening before. The inaugural skepticamp featured an Apollo Moon Hoax talk at the pre-party to set the tone for the main event the next day.
STEP 8: The day of the event
The organizers open the day by explaining how the event will proceed, how the schedule will be determined and when breaks will happen. Be clear that skepticamps are interactive affairs, meaning that speakers should be prepared to take questions during their talks.
Encourage civil and polite discussion, especially if you’ve invited speakers who are unfamiliar with skepticism or traditionally distrustful of it.
Keep to the schedule, as attendees will grow restless and annoyed at any breach of the expectations you had set out at the start of the day. If necessary, cut off speakers who go long. Encourage tangential discussions to move into the hallway or an open room.
Try to fit in as many talks as the day and venue will allow.
Wrapping up, thank the sponsors, the organizers, those who gave talks, and especially the attendees who joined you for the day. Remind the attendees that the first rule of skepticamp is to talk about skepticamp. Ask the bloggers to write a post about the event. Ask non-bloggers to review and recap the event in the skeptic forums they frequent.
Encourage those who didn’t offer a talk to start working on one for the next event. Ask if anyone is interested in helping to organize the next event.
Ask that photos be posted on Flickr (or similar) tagged with both ‘skepticamp‘ and a tag associated with your specific event (‘skepticampcolorado2’, e.g.) Ask those who gave presentations to post their presentations to slideshare or a similar service.
Finally, ask everyone to assist in the clean up to leave the place as you found it. Then head out to socialize!
STEP 9: The post-mortem
Write to your sponsors to thank them. Be sure to let them know what transpired, pointing to all the reviews, recaps and pictures.
Talk with your fellow organizers a few days after the event. Assess what went wrong as well as what went right. Record it all in a Lessons Learned section on your Event Page where future organizers can benefit from your experience.
Don’t be troubled by minor problems. Skepticamp is an experiment where the unexpected will arise in spite of your best laid plans. Consider your event a success if you had fun putting it together and the attendees enjoyed the day. If everyone learned something and grew as skeptics, then consider it a big success.
About Reed Esau
Reed (center) is a software architect in Denver and an assistant organizer of the Denver Skeptics Meetup, the largest of the skeptic meetups. Thirteen years ago he created the Celebrity Atheist List, a popular website that has since been handed off to the Rational Response Squad.
Reed started thinking about skeptic-themed barcamps shortly after TAM5 in early 2007 and organized the inaugural skepticamp later that August along with Crystal Yates-White and Cowboy Skeptic Rich Ludwig.