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At the Head of the Table: Leading a Community Discussion

From the moment I heard about the community roundtables, I was excited to be part of the conversation. I knew this was a crucial part of our primary research, and as one of the research directors, I felt responsible for ensuring it was successful. I began to prepare for this two-day event by (of course) researching tips on leading a group discussion. But I also knew it was important to trust myself during the discussions, and go with the flow of it all. If you ever find yourself in a similar role, here are some tips I found out before and during the community roundtables that may help!

Set the stage, early

Getting to the meeting space early is key to any event. For me, it helped calm my nerves to see where I would sit and how the residents would sit around me. It also gave me time to

Leading a Discussion with Point Pleasant residents | Source: David Smith

practice projecting my voice. Helping set up the event always puts me into a calm, focused mindspace that’s needed for a group discussion. I also felt that spending a few hours in the space before the room fills up also helped me feel relaxed.

Be ready to go off plan

As someone who is a notorious over-planner (I’m talking “read the menu on the way

to the restaurant over-planing”), it was key to remember that everything might not go 100% according to your plan. People can be share vastly different opinions, be more passionate about specific topics, and overall be a bit unpredictable. But that’s what makes it fun! Having to roll with it all and bend your probe questions to fit the atmosphere better helped make my experience feel even more exciting. A probe question is a follow-up question that you’ll ask for further clarification or get more information.

Be your own type of leader

In addition to majoring in Strategic Communications at West Virginia University, I also minor in Leadership Studies. This minor taught me that there are various types of leaders. As a soft-spoken person, I worried that my voice wouldn’t carry at the roundtables, and that I may not be taken seriously. As a non-directive type of leader, I knew it was important to listen, clarify any comments, and encourage everyone to participate. If you aren’t sure what type of leader you are, I suggest finding out! It is helpful to know in all situations and brought clarity to my mind. There are many great resources to read that can help you figure that out, but I’d suggest starting with this!

Always have your phone on you - or at least a voicemail set up

For our roundtables, residents had to RSVP either by emailing BrandJRNY or calling me. Many residents called, and it was a fun experience to get to know some of them before the event even happened. But, as someone who works and goes to school, I can’t always answer my phone right away. If you’re in charge of RSVPs like I was, it’s key to have a professional voicemail set up if you can’t answer. I had people list their name and number, so I knew who to get back to right away.

Remember it’s just a conversation

As ready as I felt for the event, of course, I felt nervous as it was starting. It was important to breathe and remember that I was just having a conversation with Point Pleasant residents. It

Talking with a Point Pleasant resident | Source: David Smith

was a huge relief to have already met some of the residents and see some familiar faces at the table. Once I remembered that, I felt much more comfortable. Don’t think that the conversation is over after the event either! Many people came up to me after to talk more, and that was my favorite part of it all.

My name is Chelsea Harper. I am one of the Research Directors for BrandJRNY’s Point Pleasant project. The love of my life is my 100-pound dog, Olive. Follow me through our journey, and unreasonable amounts of dog pics --- @chelseaharperrr

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