Getting your Café started.
How to choose a speaker.
How to choose a subject.
Getting your Café started
Decide to do it.
You’ve been thinking and reading about it long enough; time to get started. You are the organizer, so get organized.
Form a committee.
Ask a few people you know to help with the Café. Some helpers will be your good friend(s) who come every time, put flyers on the tables, greet people, and do whatever you can’t do. Others will help you locate and decide about speakers and topics. You don’t need actually to meet except by email. Our committee turns over slowly, and includes students at the colleges (who can identify the best, prize-winning teachers), faculty friends, especially from other schools whose departments the organizer doesn’t know, people from the high-tech industry, science writers, and other Café organizers. If a Café attendee emails us more than once with good suggestions for speakers or topics, she will usually find that she is now a committee member.
Collect a few dollars.
The Café can be amazingly inexpensive, or you can spend all you can get of someone else’s money. You should try very hard not to have to pay for the room. Establish that speakers do not get an honorarium (in Denver in 10 years no one has ever asked). If there are not enough speakers in your area, you may need to help with travel expenses. Printing flyers can often be bootlegged on someone’s Xerox. You’ll want to treat the speaker to dinner and beer, and if you can afford it, think of it as the least you could do for the new friend you’ve just made. A website is really important; in the UK you can contact http://www.cafescientifique.org/ and get them to post for you. A commercial host will cost less than US$100/year, and it takes little time to learn to put up a site. Students are very helpful here. If you can't afford to pay for a hosted site, set up a free page on Facebook. You can get your Café started before you have your own website, though.
Choose your first couple of speakers.
The first speaker needs to be a surefire hit, ideally one of the committee, because if anything can go wrong, this is when it will; and if it’s a friend he or she will still talk to you. And it’s important to be able to tell your first audience who’s on next so they get the feeling that this is going to be a regular event.
Think about the best time.
Though this may depend on the location, you should have a good idea of how you want to do it. In some places the Café meets at lunch time or mid-afternoon. This seems less relaxing than an evening session, after the day’s work is over. In the US, many Cafés start at 6:30; in Europe, a bit later. Think about where your audience will be coming from and how long it will take them to get there. Will you meet monthly? If so, on what day? Tuesday seems to be the favorite day, as it’s the slowest at most pubs, and owners will be more willing to let you have a room for free than on other nights they could charge for.
Find your room.
This is the tough one for a lot of people. If you work at a college or museum, for example, you may be tempted to just book a room there; resist it if you can. Going off-campus makes everyone—speaker, organizer, audience—equal. Pubs, coffee-houses, even bookstores are all more cozy than the average campus. How big a space do you need? Most Cafés will start with 25-50 people, and some will grow, so it’s good to have a back-up plan to expand the space if necessary.
Some owners will say that if they don’t bill some arbitrary amount at your Café, you’ll have to make up the difference. This is NO GOOD! If they don’t understand what is going on, try to explain; if they won’t listen, keep looking. In some places, if you are an employee of a non-profit, the owner can claim what would have been the room charge as a tax deduction. Also point out that the goodwill generated is worth far more than he would earn at the Café. Remember to thank the management (round of applause!) at every meeting, and make sure that the waiters get tips or small presents. For this you can pass the hat. After pointing out how filthy money is, we pass a biohazard bucket.
Work out logistics with the manager.
In most Cafés it seems awkward to have food service during the discussion because of noise and waiters trying to reach customers. In coffee houses, you may have to arrange for the espresso machine to be turned off. Poured drinks are a bit easier; in Denver we have our own bar right in the meeting room. Round tables are good, of whatever size the house has. Make plans for overflow, such as a few racks of extra chairs that can be set out in a hurry. Do they want people out of the room until it’s set up? Can people mill about afterwards, or is the room needed for another function? Remember it’s their house and you must work to keep them happy.
Some Cafés want to avoid a microphone because it’s a layer of separation between speaker and audience, but it’s often necessary (if so, wireless is what you want for speaker mobility). Many pubs have speaker systems for music that you can tap into, or if necessary a portable sound system can be rented for not very much. Make sure to test it, and have someone available to help if it develops problems. A smart thing is to bring fresh batteries and put them in the microphone just before starting.
We discuss the issue of slides, video, PowerPoint elsewhere. This is a question of personal preference, though in Denver we do not use them (we allow 1-2 page handouts for essential visuals). If you are going to use them, discuss how with the manager; will the house provide the projector and screen? Test everything beforehand, this is the system with the highest failure rate. Will all the audience be able to see? If that’s a real problem, remember that you can do without.
Make a flyer.
Create a flyer that tells event, time, place, directions, speaker, topic, a blurb (as exciting as you can make it without blatant lies), and a contact person or website. Do not overload it with bitmapped graphics because the size will overwhelm some people’s emailbox. Save it as a PDF file, which is most compact. Print it and put it up everywhere you can, and send it to your committee to post where they work, too. Get the pub to post it, and if they have one, put it on their website. Email it to everyone you know, and get your committee to email it to their lists. At the beginning you don’t need a web site, but pretty soon people will want to know more and it will become essential; besides, it’s so 21st century. Our Denver Café site http://CafeSciColorado.org gets 100 hits on an ordinary day, 1,600 the day it was mentioned in a New York Times article.
Prior to the first Café, visualize everything.
How do people get there? Where do they park? If these are issues, address them in your flyer or the cover email or on the website.
Will they eat in the house? How much time will that take? Are there enough seats, and are the waiters and kitchen ready?
In Denver, the Café starts at 6:30, and people who want to eat before come as early as 5:00 for a pub dinner (they leave their coats in the meeting room to save a seat.) Others eat afterwards, at 8 PM.
What will you do if the speaker doesn’t show up??? Make sure they have your mobile phone number and you have theirs.
Get there early and see the lay of the land.
On each table, put out flyers for the next month’s Café, handouts if the speaker wants them, and sign-up sheets where people can write down their name and email address for future reminders.
Test the AV equipment if any.
Greet your guests at the door, tell them what they need to know about food and drink.
At H hour, introduce yourself, tell them some Café history (especially “there are no stupid questions”), the house rules, and remind them to sign up their email address.
Introduce the speaker.
Manage unruly questioners (rare; the worst are other experts who ask technical questions.) Our organizer will leap up and say something like “All right, take that sort of thing outside, will you.” Keep things running on time, and otherwise stay out of the way.