The Spark Camp Playbook

Part 2: Designing A Program

Campers at our Visionaries, Leadership and Management Spark Camp compete in an afternoon “Zing.”

Note: This the second of a four-part series from the founders of Spark Camp for anyone who enjoys throwing events or aspires to do so, and everyone wants to explore different approaches to bringing people together, whether for a meetup, conference, or party.

For the past five years, we’ve crafted an event series we think is somewhat unusual for the quality of the connections and insights it produces for participants. We published our reflections on what we’d learned back in 2013. Since then, we’ve experimented a lot, and learned countless more lessons along the way. So we wanted to produce a guide describing exactly what it is we do, how those practices have evolved over time, why they’ve developed that way, and where we think they still need refinement. In each posting, we’ll take you into a different part of our process.

Part 2: Designing A Program

No Spark Camp is alike. Instead of a precision-tuned formula, we’ve striven for more invention and iteration. The endless quest for a better Camp can be exhausting, for sure. But it’s led us to improve upon improvements, and to develop our own trademark techniques and formats that Campers seem to love and then re-use at work or events.

What we’re aiming for: Every Camp draws together a fascinating and diverse mix of people who are passionate about what they do. We host Spark Camps because we love being at Camp. We want to be present and engaged. We want to learn from Campers. We want to participate, too! So, we obsess over the social design of each Spark Camp, carefully considering how we’ll tailor each event to the space, place and attendees.

Starting Points

For each camp, we start by thinking through themes, conversations, activities and a vision for how we hope to activate our campers.

An expansive theme: Themes for Spark Camps range from “money” to “design” to “real-time” to “giving” to “storytelling.” See a trend? Our themes are specific enough that we can recruit attendees who will want to meet each other, but not so narrow that they limit the conversation.

A dynamic, responsive program: No matter how many hours we spend researching our attendees and the topic, we can’t predict which issues or conversations will be most meaningful to most attendees. So, we don’t try! Therefore, our program is a guiding framework, with modular elements. We are specific about when and where participants will be throughout the event, and what possible conversation or activity modules we might use to facilitate sessions. We aregenerally much less specific about what they’ll be discussing during that time.

It’s not until we’re actually at Camp that we, the organizers, can start sketching out most of what each module will include, which involves some of our hardest decisions. By the end of our opening night, we feel comfortable selecting discussion topics for the following day. By the end of that first full day, we’ve learned which attendees are most interesting to most Campers. These Campers are possible features for full-group activities.

A mix of pre-structured activities and on-the-spot improvisation: Our program is made up of small and large group activities that we can customize and rearrange, including introductions, facilitated discussions, voting & pitching, and our own trademark activities. It’s hard to know when the program is final. But we’ve learned that it’s ready when we feel we can depend on it.

A series of small and loosely-joined events: We’ve learned the hard way to divide Spark Camp into distinct activities and guide Campers through each one — introducing it and explaining its function and purpose. The first evening of Spark Camp is about welcoming our Campers: happy hour cocktails, welcome, dinner, pitching conversation ideas and then group discussion and voting on what to talk about. Lastly, we host a Story Hour (our very own variety show). We wait until the following morning to explain what the modules are and how sessions are facilitated. If we are doing our jobs right, each mini-event feels self-contained and purposeful.

A natural order: We break each Camp down into a beginning, middle and end. The beginning is important and has a specific purpose: putting people at ease. The middle is where and when most of the hard work gets done. Endings demand closure, so we allot ample time for goodbyes and rely on either our Spark Camp Swap or Slam — these are two activities where Campers offer concrete ways to help each other, or to share mementos they’ve brought for the group — to forge longer-term connections between attendees.

A collegial atmosphere: Why, you ask, even mention this? After all, a collegial atmosphere isn’t actually a “thing” that can be added to a program, like “bathroom breaks” or “lunch.” We prioritize it because no Camp can succeed without it. Compared to other events we’ve been to, we know that we devote a disproportionate amount of time to this effort. It begins at registration and happy hour, which happen simultaneously. We make an effort to memorize all names and faces in advance, so that we can greet Campers by name, as if we’re old friends being reunited. After we’ve checked them in, we immediately introduce Campers to each other using personal details (that again, we’ve spent the time and effort to internalize before the weekend begins). After dinner, we facilitate introductions for each Camper in front of the entire group. We’ve learned to be generous with our lunchtimes and dinnertimes, to help continue sparking connections.

“Sparkliness”: In the Part One, we attributed curiosity, generosity and humility to “sparkly” attendees. When it comes to programming, “sparkliness” refers to the activities that best draw out those qualities. We often tell attendees, This is the only time this group will ever be together. Our bespoke introductions celebrate people’s talents and triumphs. Our program devotes ample time for people to connect and meet each other.

Our Process

Step one: Storyboard. 
Every event is much like every story: each has a beginning, middle and end. We program for each phase, and have learned to allot a disproportionate amount of time to both the beginning and ending. Many events speed through a Welcome into a main event and then trail off at the end, with people leaving early to catch flights or skipping sessions to connect with friends. But we’ve learned that devoting ample time to both makes for a much better event. A strong beginning ensures that people participate, and a strong ending is an ideal time for reflection, feedback and connecting campers with each other. The middle is “work time,” when you make the most of having such an amazing group together. Every event is different, so it’s up to you to decide which formats and activities will work best for you.

Step two: Time block the beginning and ending.
We didn’t realize, until writing this Playbook, that our beginnings and endings account for a third to a half of every Camp. That’s a lot — but the effort pays dividends during the weekend and even after Camp concludes.

We prefer to start a Spark Camp in late afternoon and early evening, which ensures that the beginning is its own thing. When Campers arrive the following morning, we transition them into “work mode” — a.k.a. the middle. Spark Camps typically start on Thursday evening. After registration, we welcome campers, explaining how the Camp will work and introducing campers one by one. We now assign seats at dinner, intentionally partnering up people based on interests. Following dinner, we take to the stage and lead attendees through both a discussion pitching and then voting activity. If time allots, there’s a Story Hour. For attendees, we aim to both put them at ease and excite them. As organizers, we use the pitching & voting process to design the next day’s discussions.

When we first began organizing Spark Camps, we just set aside a block of time for all the activities above. But we’d often run late or rush essential parts of the process, which overwhelmed our Campers and often caused us to leave out important details. Now we block out time so we can organize each and every element.

Here’s an example of our learning in progress. At Spark Camp::Storytelling, we crammed too much together:

The program guide from Spark Camp::Storytelling

Our approach at Spark Camp::Management worked much better. It ensured that Campers had enough time to generate discussion topics and enjoy dinner.

The program guide from Spark Camp::Management

A strong ending has a different dynamic. If the event has gone well, the closing elements naturally build off people’s excitement. The difficult bit, as you know, is making sure everyone attends. People who live further away need to leave earlier.

Here’s a look at our last day for Spark Camp::Management, held in June 2014. We included just one discussion session, and then dedicated the remainder to our hallmark “closing elements,” like our AMA (inspired by Reddit’s AMA), feedback, the Spark Swap and final Campfire (we’ll explain how these formats, which are unique to Spark Camp, work later).

The closing program for Spark Camp::Management

Step three: Plan something special to reward everyone’s hard work.
Now that we’ve set aside enough time for our beginning and ending, it’s time to begin structuring the mid-section. We typically organize a local field trip. When in Boston for Spark Camp::Management, we brought Campers to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. The team was away, so we had the park to ourselves. After an exclusive, backstage tour, the concession stands opened up and Campers enjoyed a dinner with Fenway’s world-famous hot dogs and beer. After, one of the team’s executives hosted a Q&A with us in the stands, where we learned about the delights and challenges of managing the Red Sox. It was a unique opportunity for our Campers to share knowledge and experiences across industries. (Fast Company profiled Spark Camp and that evening at Management.)

Our Spark Camp::Management afternoon at Fenway Park.

Field trips are positioned toward the very end of the mid-section, providing Campers a chance to connect and reflect before Camp winds down.

Step four: Design the mid-section.
The backbone of any and every Spark Camp is the facilitated discussion. A Spark Camp typically has six to seven discussion blocks (or modules), each of which is made up of four unique discussion sections. This means that on average, a Spark Camp features two dozen facilitated discussions on a variety of subjects within the theme — and often more. Sessions usually last an hour and fifteen minutes, so Campers are in discussion mode for at least seven and a half hours.

Discussions are intense! They demand tremendous energy and concentration. We have learned to pace the flow so that Campers get enough variety without overdoing it. Looking back on our programs, we see that we’ve never organized any more than five modules — whether they are discussions or activities — on a given day. Later in this guide we share our best practices for facilitating discussions.

Since we began organizing Spark Camps, we’ve also experimented with different activities and formats, some of which we’ve adopted from other organizations or cultures. Other formats are some that we’ve made up on our own. Testing new module types on brilliant, talented people is a privilege — and occasionally a bit stressful. So, we often limit ourselves to a single, brand-new module per day. We also slot the most experimental or riskiest of formats for later in the Camp. By then, we’ve gained our Campers’ trust. People are also more relaxed and willing to experiment alongside us.

Step five: Edit for timing and pacing.
We then edit for timing and pacing. Spark Camps shouldn’t feel like boot camps; we’ve learned the hard way that people resent a too-early start to the day. What we originally considered “down time,” like a lunch or dinner, is just as much part of the program. We now make sure that there’s ample time for people to enjoy their food and some company––and to take a mental break, for those who need one.

Step six: “Finalize” the program. 
We don’t always know exactly which special activity we’ll run later in the Camp, but we will apportion enough time for whatever it is. A “final” program is submitted to the printer a week or two before the event.

Finalizing our program is an intense, challenging four-person effort. We rely on each other to spot needed corrections we’d otherwise miss. This is the final program and schedule for Spark Camp::Management:

What we’ve found:

Individual feedback from each of Spark Camp’s cofounders

The good:

  • Early Spark Camps were exhausting for participants. We’ve gotten better and better at ensuring ample downtime is built into each event, and that we properly space out the sessions. (Matt Thompson)
  • It’s really important to treat each element as its own mini-event. This means that you walk participants through one thing at a time. We didn’t do this to start, and found that we sometimes took to the stage and talked to participants about everything from where to park their cars to when to come in the next day to how to run a good session. It was too much. (Amanda Michel)
  • In our early Spark Camps we wanted to maximize everyone’s time together, which included pre-programmed evening activities. We learned that rather than scheduling the entire evening, we could instead designate a meeting place, some things to do, and then let our Campers relax and enjoy themselves. (Amy Webb)

The challenges:

  • We’ve gone back and forth on the question of whether to end on Saturday night or on Sunday. On the one hand, Sunday has provided some of the best, most memorable sessions in Spark Camps past. On the other, we always lose some Campers before sessions begin on Sunday, and the difficulty of getting a good Sunday afternoon flight means some attendees invariably have to leave early. (Matt Thompson)
  • We don’t record sessions and our event is largely off-the-record. We’re often asked, though, what happens at Camp and whether we shouldn’t be creating media from the event itself. We take photos. Sometimes StoryHour has been recorded, but we aren’t running the StoryHour format as often as we used to. It alone isn’t representative of Camp. This is an ongoing challenge, and we’d love any ideas or guidance on how to relay what Spark Camp is all about. (Amanda Michel)
  • It’s difficult for us to be flexible and iterative for each Camp because we work with outside vendors for some of our activities and for all of our meals, and we need to accommodate their schedules. For example, at our Storytelling Camp, we invited a master Japanese calligrapher to do a one-hour workshop for those who wanted to participate. It turned out that everyone wanted to try, but at that point in the day we didn’t have a big enough room to accommodate everyone, and we couldn’t move our calligrapher to a time when we’d have more space. Because we host Camps at unusual spaces (old mansions, museums, large houses), all of the rooms are of varying sizes. We have to guesstimate which sessions will likely have more attendees as we put them on the schedule at Camp, and allocating the right amount of space has been an ongoing challenge for us. (Amy Webb)

Ideas and questions:

  • When a new session format doesn’t go particularly well, its faults are often evident nearly immediately. We usually surmise that we could have discovered weaknesses in the format with some testing in a smaller context outside the Camp. We’ve discussed holding some standalone trials of our more experimental ideas for formats before the Camps themselves, but this requires some organization, that might detract from time we’d spend planning for the main event. We still think there might be a lo-fi way to test these formats, but we haven’t yet done it. (Matt Thompson)
  • We’ve written that discussions are the centerpiece of Spark Camps and that’s very much the case. So, as we experiment and develop new ways for participants to talk, it’s not clear to us how much we should vary the formats. Each new format needs to be explained. Each new format changes peoples’ expectations. New formats also accomplish something new and different. We’re still learning how to create a better mix. (Amanda Michel)
  • When is time to debut new formats during a Camp? On our first day, we reveal what Camp is and we let new folks in on our culture. Trying to explain all of our formats at once would be information overload. On the other hand, stopping to thoroughly explain each new format as the weekend goes on becomes too pedantic. We’re curious to find a happy medium between experience and explanation. (Amy Webb)

Spark Camp is a 501(c)(3) organization that brings extraordinary people together to discuss challenging topics confronting society. Spark Camp’s cofounders are Andrew Pergam, Amy Webb, Amanda Michel and Matt Thompson.

Read Part One of the Spark Camp Playbook.