The PC users clubs I support have experimented with various formats for meetings with some surprising results. The normal format, probably repeated around the world, is to have a formal presentation by either a guest or volunteer from the group followed by a question and answer period. These sessions use a projector and a group of people all generally facing the same way. The attendance is mostly seniors. The audience is mostly male, but that might be changing as I have noticed more women attending over the years.

Since these are clubs and not formal university classes, the presentations at meetings tend to be informal with lots of back and forth between speaker and audience. In years past, the speaker was often a professional representing a major provider with maybe some freebies to hand out or at least some discount coupons. That has not happened much lately. Since attendance at the clubs is still respectable, this lack is more likely due to the shrinking budget and tight economy than to a decreasing attendance and therefore decreasing interest by the providers.

In any club one will find a range of abilities and interests. A successful variation on the usual format is to have someone with more than the average background in something, for instance spreadsheets, host an entire session of simply answering questions about this specialty. The room might be arranged in a horseshoe fashion for more intimacy. The question and answer format seems to work best with a main presenter and an assistant who works at a laptop and brings up examples of the topic or problem at hand to project in response to specific questions about it. The main presenter can concentrate on addressing the question while the assistant arranges an example to illustrate the issue that is being questioned. Once everyone agrees the example is appropriate, then the assistant can do the keystrokes that the main presenter suggests. In this way, the audience, particularly the person who asked the question, can relate to the struggle the assistant has in following the directions. This is a more effective way of learning than simply having the presenter go zip, zip, zip. That solves the problem; did you see all the keystrokes? Want me to do it again?

A less successful format has been tried with several variations. At first glance this would seem to be a winner, but it is not. This format has been called something like PC-101 after the college nomenclature for an introductory course. At its simplest, a member could bring in a laptop, hook it to the projector, and proceed to list things that are bothersome. How do I copy a file to a flash drive? How can I make a .pdf file from a Word document? Why would I want to make a .pdf file? Do I need to respond to pleas for updates? Which anti-malware application is best? Why does my computer seem slow after I clicked on the pop-up window that said I had a bunch of viruses? You get the idea, any question is valid as long as it is not too esoteric.

Since most members are male (definitely not all!), one might dismiss the failure of this seeking help format as just another manifestation of the well-known reticence of males to ask for directions when driving. One supposes that we would rather be lost than have some stranger know that we do not know how to get to our destination — or fix a computer. But I think something else is going on, and it has to do with structure.

In the first two formats, there is a predictable flow of information even with a lot of improvisation. Everyone knows the general way things will go. Even in the open question and answer format, one knows that a member will ask a question and the presenter will field it. That sense of order is comforting and can lure members into joining the conversation and sharing thoughts. They are contributing to the order of things, but not defining it. The presenter defines the order.

Variations on Effective Club MeetingsBut in the PC-101format, the most important person, the one bringing a problem to the group, does not have the security of a set format to follow in the same way. The person bringing a problem by definition does not know what to do, and not knowing in front of a group is even worse for most people. Combine that with the likelihood that the person with the problem might be shy about speaking in front of a group, and you have the makings of a failure.

The same person who declined to bring a problem to the attention of the group in the PC-101 format would probably have participated openly in the question and answer format without hesitation. In that format, the person with the question is not in the spotlight. The presenter is. The end result in terms of transferring information might be the same in either case, but the student feels more comfortable not being at center stage.

Have other clubs found other ways to attract members and spark interest? What formats have you seen that work? Since a typical club functions as a self-help organization to learn new skills, which formats best meet that need?

Of course I have emphasized the learning aspect, but we cannot overlook the social aspect. Some people go to club meetings simply to meet other people with similar interests and socialize. (Yes, geeks, even senior geeks, do socialize — that is not an oxymoron.) I doubt if any club, no matter how well organized or how well prepared the presenters are, could survive without satisfying the members’ need for social interactions. After all, if you have trouble with spreadsheets, you could probably find a YouTube video explaining exactly how to do what you want to do without directly interacting with another human. That is stiff competition for clubs, but clubs survive so they must meet needs that the YouTube video does not. On the other hand, using the video to solve your problem and then bringing it to a meeting to share would make that experience much more valuable. Sharing is good.