What makes gatherings feel extraordinary?
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What do you consider are some of the elements of a memorable gathering?

Great food?

Interesting thought starters?

A beautiful surrounding?

Mind-blowing conversations?

All of the above?

Yes, probably.

Yet how does one go beyond just having another evening filled with small talk? And how does one go from that to a mind boggling dinner you and everyone else who sat at the table will think about, and possibly reflect on, for days or maybe even weeks?

What does it take to create an evening that doesn’t just help you learn more about yourself, but also helps you discover things about your friends you’d usually not think to ask?

Travis, the founder of Norn, a Berlin and London-based salon for meaningful conversations, told me he found these sort of conversations needed to be “ritualized.” In a way, the moment of a meaningful conversation needed to be elevated to allow for the conversation to unfold. The gatherer or host, however you’d like to call this person, needs to create a space, a platform even, where people feel safe. Then they need to gently guide the conversation without over-facilitating it; it doesn’t matter whether it’s a party of two or a larger group. As a host, it’s one’s task, and even one’s responsibility, to take the lead and create such a space.

The real question is, how do you start asking meaningful questions? How do you create such a platform?

If the (first) question comes out of nowhere – if you just ask – you might overwhelm the person you’re with.

It might make you come across as too forward. Too intense even.

I’ve been experimenting with meaningful questions myself. Last year, I bought a deck of cards with questions that help people self-reflect. They’re wonderful conversation starters when you’re out with a friend and want the conversation to have more substance. The card deck is very useful for group gatherings too.

It might be that it’s the cards that are professionally printed that create such a space. And maybe it’s also the reason why Norn prints a beautiful Conversation Menu to elevate the moment of the meaningful conversation. I know when I tried with a handwritten note featuring interesting questions, it didn’t feel the same way unfortunately.

If you’d like to experiment with such conversations yourself and are looking for good questions, you could get the cards from soheresone (which are the ones I carry around in my bag at all times). Look up Norn’s Instagram or subscribe to their newsletter or wait for the one’s Holstee is currently working on releasing. I’ve found the ones from the School of Life aren’t as good for groups, as they might be for when you want to reflect for yourself. Something that might also be worth elevating as a ritual with a good meal and maybe a glass of wine is an evening of meaningful conversations with yourself. Worth a try, I’d say.

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It’s a wrap! September 2018
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All I think of when I think about September is the LifeStartFest. At the end of August, we started organizing a careers festival for students in Bangor and I was lucky enough to be one of the key people in making the event happen. Luckily, I wasn’t responsible for the logistics because that would mean I’d order the pizza from the US and the balloons to Bangor in Northern Ireland as we happened to learn in the process. I was tasked with programming it all and making sure our attendees would have an incredible experience. You can read more about it in my case study.

Because of the LifeStart event, and next to my usual community work, I spent most of September thinking about hosting gatherings and creating inclusive environments. Over the years, I’ve been a part of many online initiatives and learning how to sort out conflict and create a friendly environment online. Yet with how the social web’s evolving, I’ve found an increasing joy in thinking about offline experiences. The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker is one of the most useful books, and just like Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle, it’s a must-read for everyone who deals with communities.

I was also fortunate enough to be invited to the Community Summit at the TechFest in Copenhagen organized by my friend Severin Matusek and his co-matter studio.

One of my highlights of the month was that I joined Norn.co as a founding member in Berlin. So far, I’ve participated in two events and it’s been incredible to witness how they facilitate gatherings. I feel like I have so much to learn from them. And so, if you ever get a chance to join one of their events, I’d highly recommend it.

In October, we’re opening a new round of LifeStart Challenges, which is what will be my focus of the month. If you have some small projects you want me to help out with, please let me know. I’d also love to get involved in creating event experiences, so if you think having a community strategist on board would be of value, please reach out.


LifeStartFest: A case study about organizing a careers event for students
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What would you say are the ingredients of an exceptional event? What has to happen for you to go home and feel like attending an event was worth your time?

To me, it’s always been about the connections I’ve made and the people I’ve met. The conference or networking event could’ve been just average, yet my experience could be elevated if I met someone worth meeting again. In my opinion, it’s something that can’t be fixed with great catering or good speakers. I firmly believe that how we feel at an event is what creates a lasting impression.

Now, let me turn the question around and ask from an events organizer’s perspective: how do you make sure that creating moments of connection isn’t serendipitous and only experienced by a lucky few? How do you help your audience make meaningful connections?

On my latest assignment, I thought about this a lot. I thought about how to make it my mission to help as many people in the audience meet someone and have a conversation that goes beyond small talk. I thought about how I can make sure attendees of the event, which I got to program, feel encouraged to talk with someone they just met again, all while making sure as many attendees as possible have a fun time they’ll remember fondly.

When I was first asked to organize a careers festival on behalf of the organization I work with, Student LifeStart, in Bangor, Wales, I was wondering if that was something I could pull off easily. My first question was: how will I ever get speakers when the budget doesn’t allow to fly some key people in? I knew I’d have to have some speakers, but I also knew I’d have to think of alternative ways to fill an afternoon in a way for students to feel inspired and encouraged to think about their careers differently.

Technically, one could say the event was “branded content.” Sponsored by Virgin Money and Virgin StartUp, the business objective was to create a space to build a positive relationship with the Virgin brand. Given Virgin brands are exceptional to work with, we had a lot of freedom and were able to approach a career event more like what I’d like a career event to be. Those who know my story, and how I went from studying interior architecture to working in digital strategy and writing three books on going freelance on the side, will realize that I’m hardly someone who would tell students to decide early on what to study and how that determines the rest of their lives. If anything, I always tell people to follow their curiosities, be open about their passions, and connect with others who care deeply about the same things. (Probably what Richard Branson would also tell people he meets. :) ) In my belief, there are many ways to making a career, and the more diverse things one knows and is interested in, the more exciting their career can become. Knowing this event was about creating a branded content experience, the feeling the students would leave with was key to how we thought about this experience.

When thinking about careers and the vicious circle students face of having to have work experience in order for them to get work experience, I knew I had to invite speakers who demonstrate different aspects of how to get into the doors of a company and land a job. Simultaneously, and as someone who’s now worked for several years, often it’s the people we meet and who we studied with and have developed a meaningful relationship with that will help us get ahead in life. The students might not yet realize that who will really help them get ahead are the people who sit with them in class or at an event, such as the LifeStartFest. Thus, my personal objective was to help as many attendees as possible make new connections. In the ideal scenario, I wanted all attendees to find a new friend and someone they can collaborate with on future projects, or at best, submit to a LifeStart Challenge as a team.

We had five hours to fill, and I decided to spend more than three of them helping students connect with others in the audience. When you think about it, there’s a lot of content online and at everyone’s fingertips. In my opinion, events nowadays play a different role. The role of an event organizer is no longer so much about curation as it is about facilitating connections.

To give you some background on the framework for this student career event, which we organized under the umbrella of the Student LifeStart Project;

LifeStart is a website and a growing community for students to take real business challenges, evolve their professional skills, and receive mentorship directly from associates who work in top UK companies. The platform’s concept is grouped around multiple pillars, and there are business challenges for students to solve, which can unlock great prizes. It’s insightful content to help understand the world of work, and most of all, it’s the community LifeStart has been created for (and with).

The LifeStartFest seemed like an opportunity to take all that makes LifeStart and bring it into the room. This is what we did and how the event was different from others...

The event started at 2pm. We were ready at the door to sign everyone in. My first goal was to break those apart who arrived as a group. I wanted to create a more inclusive environment and equalize everyone by making sure that they all start out alone in order for those who arrived by themselves not to feel left out. For that, we used 12-piece jigsaws that were all designed in different colors. That was crucial, as we wanted for the students to find their new group quickly. Each of the jigsaws featured a question for the students to answer. Questions such as, “If you could go on a holiday to any decade, where’d you go?” or “If you got paid in happiness, what job would make you rich?”. (Slightly provocative I know) With every new person arriving into the group, they’d have one more piece of the puzzle and would be closer to completing it. The challenge of this exercise to actually work out is that you need people to arrive simultaneously and also not give away too many different puzzles at once while making sure friends don’t have pieces to the same jigsaw. My tip after this event is to start with three to four puzzles and then introduce new colors, and not give away pieces from all puzzles one has prepared for the event. You want for people who arrive to have a welcoming experience and also make sure they can start the conversation you’ve designed quickly.

Once we had everyone in the room, the moderator, Cleo Anderson, set the tone of the event. We didn’t start with the program immediately. Instead, we focused on helping people feel comfortable by once again focusing on the audience instead of the speakers.

When we were planning the event, we were looking for an ice breaker that would work in such a large group. We felt like introducing yourself to the person next to you is something many event organizers ask for, yet you also end up saying the same thing over and over again. I can only speak for myself, but at 32, I’m quite bored by my own answers whenever I’m asked to do this. We decided to introduce the toilet paper game, which works as follows:

Right after Cleo welcomed everyone and explained the objectives for the day, she said we now needed to have a serious conversation. Another helper and I walked along the sides of the rows and handed out one toilet paper roll to the people sitting at the end of each side and per row. While handing out the toilet paper rolls, Cleo said everyone should take how much they usually take when they go to the bathroom. This is, of course, super awkward and everyone breaks out in laughter. The exercise is quite innocent because once everyone has their piece of toilet paper, the audience is asked to say something random about themselves for each tile they took off. Having set the tone of this exercise and making everyone laugh was key, and with this exercise, we knew we had them.

I happened to also be the photographer at this event (talk about wearing multiple hats) and can say there was a significant difference in everyone’s facial expression. I’ve hardly ever taken as many pictures of genuinely happy people as I have during this event. (You can look at them here.)

After the toilet paper game, Cleo asked the audience for the most interesting answers, which helped carry the tone that was set, and we expected for the audience to actively participate in the event. We wanted everyone to know they’ll be heard.

Then, the obvious part of the program began and Cleo introduced the first speaker. We had prepared four talks.

One on the dos and don'ts when applying for jobs online.

One about not having a set path, yet still making a great career.

One given by the former LifeStart winner, who happened to get a job after his work experience week, which was one of the rewards of the LifeStart competition.

And one on using social media and turning side projects into a portfolio to get the job one wants. (I gave that one as you can guess.)

I must admit, I only finalized the program and informed everyone the night before. I was so aware of the flow of the talks and how I wanted people to feel guided through the program that I didn’t leave much up to serendipity. Before the event, and given our speakers were doing this for the first time, we spoke with everyone at least once and helped them shape their story. In my head, the flow of the event went something like this:

Inform (Dos and don’ts...), make them feel safe and understood (No set path...), give them a challenge to solve as a group (to make them feel connected and invested), give them a break (and ice cream), announce the winners after the break (to ensure the students came back), have the last winner and Bangor alumni explain his journey from participating in three LifeStart Challenges and what he’s done to win (to take away the students’ fear), then announce the new round of LifeStart Challenges (the 10 minutes dedicated to the actual branded content), close off with an actionable talk on how to use social media and get the job one would love (which fulfilled the promise of the event), then finish off with pizzas to give everyone a chance to wind down and exchange contact details.

We planned about 20 minutes for all talks. Cleo introduced every speaker before their talk and explained what they did for a living, how we met them, and why we thought they had an interesting story to share with the audience. We made sure to contextualize before we handed over to the speakers. After each session, we opened up to Q&A. Cleo was instructed to have questions prepared for each speaker should no one from the audience ask anything. It was important to us to make sure all speakers feel valued and like people were listening to their stories. Thus, and in case no one would ask anything immediately, we didn’t just want to send the speaker off the stage without giving them a final opportunity to shine.

Given the platform’s main purpose has always been about challenges and proactive thinking, I wanted to recreate that experience in the room and have attendees work in groups by having them solve a mini challenge. This was also a great opportunity to give away prizes and demonstrate that solving a challenge isn’t too hard and that collaboration is key.

We had 50 minutes scheduled for this challenge: students had 20 minutes to brainstorm how they’d improve co-living communication between students who just moved in together, which we believed was a question everyone in the room had to deal with. While students were brainstorming in groups of four or five, we assigned them to a judge by giving them a balloon, asking them to go to the judge who had the same color balloon and present their ideas to them. We made sure each judge had four to five groups to give feedback to. For this exercise, we used the space outside the lecture hall and also in front of the building. We were lucky it was sunny and warm(ish). We asked every judge to select one winner from their groups, which meant we’d give four winning groups Virgin Experience Days Vouchers.

Given each judge finished with their groups at different times, we instructed the judges to let everyone off into their break, but tell the students when they needed to be back in the hall for the winner announcements. Breaks are usually when many students leave, so we wanted to make sure they were invested in the event and had a reason to come back.

The event went on until 7pm. After the last speech, Cleo came back on stage and contextualized and summarized the entire experience. She highlighted what she’s learned to help the audience reflect on what they’ve learned. It was important to us to appreciate the experience and appreciate everyone who joined us for the day. We then invited the attendees to join us for pizza, which gave the students an opportunity to approach the speakers individually and ask them the questions they weren’t able to ask during the Q&A. We also used this time to say thank you to our speakers. Of course, everyone also got a Virgin Experience Day Voucher :)

All in all, creating this event was a rewarding experience and something I’d like to do more often in the future. I’m grateful Virgin Money and Hanzo trusted me fully and allowed me to focus so much on connecting the audience, which also meant they waved off the toilet paper game, which I know raised many eyebrows when we first presented what we were planning to do. For that, I’m thankful.

Should you be organizing an event and want to work with a community strategist, please email hello@mkanokova.com.


It’s a wrap! August 2018

The biggest question I’ve asked myself in August was how do you organize an event where every attendee – even the shyest one – goes home with the contact details of at least one potential future friend. How do you create an unforgettable experience for 200 students?

Over the years, I’ve attended a number of conferences and have seen what experiences turn a conference into a great one. I believe there are three key things. To me, a good conference is when I go home with at least one new contact I’ll actually care to follow up with. Yet, in order for me to follow up with someone, I need to know what they are about. Thus, as a conference organizer, it’s key to make people connect over a task or a question that creates intimacy. Another key is making people laugh. And last but not least, you want people to have the space to chat freely, but you need to give them a subject to talk about or a question to answer to start with.

In August, I’ve been obsessing with icebreakers and team building exercises. I’ll definitely write a summary once the event I’m working on happens, but I do want to share one favorite exercise we found that we’ll definitely try. It’s called “the toilet paper game” and it works like this:

“The very premise of this game will get the group laughing. The group facilitator passes a roll of toilet paper around the room and asks each member to tear off how much they normally use when going to the toilet. After everyone has their tiles paper, ask them to tell the group one interesting fact about themselves for each piece of toilet paper they have.”

Please check back for the September summary to hear more about how the event went.

This past month, I’ve also worked on the activation strategy for an intranet of a global brand. As companies grow, the HQ needs tools to keep everyone on the team equally engaged and provide them with information and a loyalty program. Yet whenever someone introduces a technology, it takes time and effort to make sure people actually use it. Technology often feels intimidating, which is also a job of a community strategist to solve that challenge.

I was also asked to write a funding proposal to help a social startup get funds from the government. When writing proposals, what matters is putting the ideas into the social and societal context, which is where I usually step in.

One last thing I’ve worked on this past month was finally recording my Skillshare class on how to run a Kickstarter project. It’s framed for freelancers who want to position their business. I’ve gone in so much detail that everyone who’s planning to run a Kickstarter will find a lot of takeaways. At the end of the day, I did run five projects and not all of them went well, yet all of them succeeded. If you are planning to run a project or someone you know is, share the link with them. I don’t think there is any other resource as detailed as that one, besides, of course, the post Tim Ferriss shared in The 4-Hour Workweek.

As for recommendations, I was lucky to be invited to a Norn dinner, which most certainly was my favorite experience of the whole month. Norn is a salon for structured conversations on topics one doesn’t usually talk about the way the Norm team invites you to do. It’s incredibly insightful and feels intimate. I had the immediate feeling of belonging. It was lovely.

Last but not least, my inner panic monster has finally arrived and I’ve began writing my TedX talk. I cannot even describe in words how intimidating this feels and how long I’ve been procrastinating on this. The event’s on the 13th of October in Graz in case you want to attend and see me live.

I’m heading to the TechFest in Copenhagen and will also be traveling to London and Wales this month. Please reach out if you’re around and let me know what you’re working on. Would love to hear more about inspiring projects.

A Pocket-Sized Travel Guide to Berlin’s Café Scene, now on Etsy!

Do you remember my pocket sized guide to Berlin's café scene I launched on Kickstarter earlier this year? You can now get the cards on Etsy!

I've curated Berlin's 50 best coffee places and shared a little story explaining why I find them unique. 

Whether you’re visiting Berlin or have lived here for a while, you’ll most likely never run out of places to see. New cafés, bars, and neighborhood hangouts are popping up everywhere. It’s hard to keep track. Every neighborhood has some exceptional spots that are worth discovering.

Head over to Etsy to check out the offer. Plus, it's free shipping to all EU countries! 

New Skillshare class: From hobby to a creative career with Kickstarter
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If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, then you know Kickstarter was one of my main clients for two years. I got involved with them after launching my first Kickstarter project. After five successful projects, I’ve decided it’s time for me to summarize my learnings and share all my resources to help others launch their own projects on Kickstarter.

Here is the written summary that you can download as a PDF. Please also consider subscribing to my newsletter.

Here is the link to the Skillshare class if you’d much rather watch it as a video tutorial.

In the class I share tips on:

How to frame a creative project

Why Kickstarter makes sense

How to set up your page

How to calculate the costs of a Kickstarter project

How to prepare for the launch

And most of all, what to do when things aren’t going well

I really hope my learnings on how to run a Kickstarter will help you launch yours.

Your idea is worthless and yes, you can and should talk about it with everyone

Have you ever met someone who told you they have an idea for a project or a business but couldn’t talk about it?

I always wonder why that is; could it be they’re scared I’ll hear their idea, immediately drop everything I have been working on myself, and steal it? Are they scared that if they tell someone, they’ll have to finally do something about it? Or is it because they have an idea they think is good, but don’t actually want to commit themselves just yet and think no one else will start working on it because their idea is so unique and brilliant it hasn’t crossed anyone’s mind?

In the knowledge economy, I’d say ideas are worthless.

There are millions of ideas being shared online every second. It’s unlikely I haven’t heard or come across the idea this very person doesn’t want to share with me.

It’s very unlikely I’ll drop whatever I’m passionate about to start executing on something that doesn’t feel like a calling to me already.

If you share an idea with someone who works on their own projects, why should they suddenly make time to pursue someone else’s idea? Especially when the idea is no more no less than an idea; a worthless cloud of thoughts and imaginations.

Ideas aren’t special. It’s the execution that turns decent ideas into exceptional ones. It’s the networks one builds, and groups of fans and followers who prove an idea is worth pursuing.

The team at EyeEm started working on something very similar to Instagram around the same time Instagram was launched. Now everyone knows what Instagram is, but how many know of EyeEm? And how many knew EyeEm when it was just the German alternative to Instagram and not what it is today; a community-sourced stock photo platform.

Before Spotify there was Napster, and while we all know Napster, it was the execution the team at Spotify delivered that made it a successful company worth talking about; they most likely all knew Napster after it was launched. I doubt anyone at Spotify would’ve tried building Spotify if it wasn’t for Napster; a company that was up and running, yet very differently.

How many times have we all heard, “I also had the idea for Facebook, Sims, period panties...whatever?!” Would we know any of those brilliant ideas if they hadn’t been executed with such dedication and excellence by the people who went through the pain of turning an idea into reality?

If someone shares an idea with me, my immediate reaction is I want to help them succeed at turning their ideas into reality, So the next time someone wants to know more about your idea, share it with them. They will much more likely become your fans than your competitors.  

It's a wrap! July 2018
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It feels like it’s been two days since I last posted an update here. But then it also somehow feels like it’s been two years since I signed a rental contract in Berlin and turned my entire life upside down. I’ve been wishing to write more. But then had to assemble a bed. I wanted to finally shoot the Skillshare video I started working on in January, yet there I was, trying to unbox and sort through my things.

It would be a lie if I said I was fully focused on work this month. It’s actually surprising how much has happened in the past four weeks.

First of all, I was fortunate to join the Hanzo team for a series of workshops in Wales. It was a user research workshop to learn more about the challenges of academia.

I have also signed a contract with the Upskill Digital team to become one of their associated trainers. And then, the biggest highlight was that I was contacted by the TedXLend team asking if I’d be up for speaking at the upcoming event in October.

For LifeStart, we have organized a series of mentorship events in London to connect students with professionals over dinner or an afternoon tea. We use these events to connect with students offline. To us, it’s a great way to induce small offline highlights and give students a real reason to connect with the initiative online. We also use the conversations the students and mentors are having at the table as a base for our content strategy online. In August, we’ll be rolling out a Youtube channel and a blog. I’m very much looking forward to what’s ahead of us regarding this wonderful initiative facilitated by Virgin Money.

I will be updating my imprint soon, given I had to found a company in Germany and close my Austrian one. It’s been a lot of bureaucracy, but it feels good to finally feel a little more settled. What I think is the most wonderful thing is how much I feel I am in the right place right now.

Last but not least, I’d love to recommend you the following reads:

Some thoughts on what might drive space exploration

https://medium.com/s/futurehuman/survival-of-the-richest-9ef6cddd0cc1

How to share your user research

https://medium.com/mixed-methods/8-creative-ways-to-share-your-user-research-746fae501e2c

What to do when nobody notices your art

https://artplusmarketing.com/what-to-do-when-nobody-notices-you-the-power-of-the-300-rule-e132efa6b51a

Enjoy your summer!