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Designing Events

Dialogue & Deliberation is a process best pursued via an organized event format. Developing thoughtful agendas and effectively using space are among the key factors for holding inclusive Dialogue & Deliberation events that engage diverse audiences.

Designing a Thoughtful Event

Watch the video below to hear how ASTC Community Science Dialogue & Deliberation Fellows Sam Tayag (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles) and Wallis Boram (McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center) designed accessible Dialogue & Deliberation events.

Click the topics below to learn more.

When designing a Dialogue & Deliberation event, it is essential for organizers to carefully consider the centered community’s unique needs. A compelling topic and thoughtful agenda simply will not matter if there are practical or cultural barriers that prevent community participation. Event planning is a particularly important time for collaboration, as community partners will often have the clearest understanding of the community’s logistical and informational needs. In designing the event, organizers may ask:

  1. Who are the participants you are trying to engage? What backgrounds, geographies, educational experiences, professions, expertise, ages, etc. are you trying to bring into the room? What barriers to participation are experienced by this group (e.g., language translation, mobility issues)?
  2. How can these communities be reached? How (if at all) have they interacted with each other, your community partner, and your institution in the past? How can participants interact with their own ideas and those of others during the meeting (e.g., verbally, in writing, through art)?
  3. What information do participants need for the event to be successful? Is practical information regarding the time, location, and other logistics easily available and clear? What information do participants need about the topic to participate fully, and what is the best way to share it (e.g., issue guides, videos, presentations)?
  4. Where are you holding the event? Is it accessible by public transportation, walking paths, bike paths, etc.? Is the venue accessible for people with disabilities? Are you holding the event virtually? If so, what equipment and materials will participants need in advance to fully participate?
  5. When are you holding the event? Is it during traditional work hours? Is it during a time when parents need to care for their children, and if so, can you offer quality childcare? Is it during a mealtime, and if so, can you provide food?

Learn more about designing accessible meetings: Planning Accessible Meetings and Events (The American Bar Association)

While Dialogue & Deliberation events all share some key similarities, they can also be wildly different from one another in terms of their design. Some Dialogue & Deliberation events have fewer than 10 participants, while others have more than 1,000. They may take place as a single, hour-long session, or as multiple, iterative sessions happening over months or even years. They may be very tightly structured or be quite loose and follow the participants’ leads. All these factors, and more, will differ depending on the purpose of your Dialogue & Deliberation effort, and making the right choices based on community input and the highlighted topic is particularly important for a successful event.

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation describes many types of events in their Engagement Streams Framework. Among this guidance are four core Dialogue & Deliberation purposes—Exploration, Conflict Transformation, Decision Making, and Collaborative Action—and they indicate which types of events are best suited for each purpose. The described event types are not meant to be copied exactly, but rather provide inspiration as you design a unique event that best fits your community and topic. Here are a few examples:

  • Conversation Café – A one-time event that lasts about 90 minutes and involves one or more small groups. This is one of the simplest forms of Dialogue & Deliberation, and the straightforward format can help people feel at ease if they’re new to this kind of conversation.
  • Charettes – Intense working sessions that last several days, or sometimes even weeks, that involve a small group of professionals with expertise in the topic alongside a larger group of community stakeholders. The professionals work to iteratively refine a plan based on feedback from the stakeholders with the goal of reaching overarching consensus.
  • Intergroup Dialogue – Regular meetings held between people from at least two different social identity groups—for example, people of different faiths, races, professions, or political ideologies—designed to produce a deeper understanding of diversity and justice issues.

Learn more about the many different types of Dialogue & Deliberation events: Engagement Streams Framework (National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation)

Another important aspect of designing a Dialogue & Deliberation event is developing agendas and other materials for participants and facilitators to guide the event. Well-designed agendas help facilitators smoothly run an event while letting participants know what’s coming so they can remain focused on the conversation at hand. The agenda should strike a balance between structure and flexibility, and the right balance will be different depending on an event’s participants, topic, and available resources. One way to think about agenda design is to move from simpler, lighter questions earlier in the agenda to more complex, deeper questions later on. Starting with ice-breaking questions allows participants to become comfortable with one another and with the event’s format. Additionally, it can be beneficial for organizers, facilitators, and participants to collaboratively create ground rules early in the agenda that outline agreed-upon approaches, expectations, and values to uphold during the event

Another agenda consideration is to allow participants to interact in multiple modalities. For instance, some people may feel comfortable speaking in front of a large group, while others may prefer to write their thoughts down, draw a picture, or take a vote. Making space for several different modalities can help ensure that everyone is able to participate fully and comfortably. It is also important to plan regular breaks, including opportunities for people to take care of their physical needs as well as to socialize more casually with one another, so that these things do not interfere with the core discussion.

Other materials, like presentations or issue guides, can also help ground participants in the topic and give them shared language and information to jumpstart discussion. When the event is about a scientific topic, it is especially important to consider how you communicate background information. The materials should be accessible to all participants, meaning the information should be easily understood by people with a range of expertise and education. A well-designed issue guide avoids jargon, addresses common misinformation, and helps all participants feel comfortable discussing the topic. Depending on the preferred language(s) of your audience, you may also need to offer material translations or recordings. As with other elements of an event’s design, community partners may have better insight into what kinds of information should be included in materials based on their local knowledge and observations. These materials should not require significant study time or research—you may even want to consider creating space in the agenda for participants to review the materials—and they should clearly communicate key information necessary for participants to effectively engage in the discussion.

Learn more about preparing event materials: Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums (Kettering Foundation)