Anchoring like a Pro 2/3 - Crafting a great discussion

This is the second installment in our series on Anchoring great discussions. It's all about how to design a great discussion "card" (our name for the discussion setup within Civility). The first post was on selecting a topic, and the final post is on on running the discussion itself.


Being a great discussion anchor is like leading a group of brave explorers on an adventure through the uncharted wilderness. The goal is to have a fun, rewarding, and memorable journey - even make some friends along the way, and occasionally find buried treasures.

But every guide knows that half the battle is making sure folks come prepared before setting off. For us, this means properly designing the discussion before it gets started, to make sure everyone brings the right gear and knows what to expect.

The second thing every guide knows is the importance of adhering to certain rules along the journey, to make it a fun and enjoyable experience for everyone. For us, this means enforcing certain norms of civil and respectful conduct during the discussion.

Finally, every guide knows that the point of the expedition, the reason everyone is there, is because you’ve designed a memorable and rewarding journey. Some journeys are very well defined, some are more open; some reward the brave, others reward the patient. Keep in mind that how you get your group there may be unique, but ultimately, everyone has joined you on your journey to have a great discussion.

This post will focus on the design step. But, keep in mind that you’re not just describing a journey, you’re also enticing others to take that journey with you. The best discussion creators make every element of the page simultaneously informative and alluring.

The keys to designing a great discussion are great content, proper scheduling, and sharing.

Below is an extensive guide to each item in the discussion-creation process. You don't have to read through all of this in detail before starting a discussion, but feel free to refer back to the specific parts you're interested in when you need to.

I. Let's start with the content. Namely, the Topic, the Motivation statement, and the preparation material.

  1. The Topic: Short and catchy

    Your topic is going to be the first thing users read about your discussion. It should be short and interesting. With just a handful of words, your discussion should appeal to exactly the kind of person you hope to attract to your discussion. Do you want your discussion to appeal to the emotions? To reason? Should it attract people with an interest in politics? Are you primarily targeting people with an interest in big-picture science, or ancient Greek philosophy? Consider your audience, and consider what you can say to spark their curiosity.

  2. The Motivation: What will we be talking about and why does it matter?

    Your motivation is where you have the space to fully describe what you want to talk about, why you want to talk about it, and how you want to talk about it. Whether you’d like discussion to be - open ended, narrow, wonky, lighthearted, nuanced, scientific, spiritual, or anything else, you should describe it here. Whether you know exactly what you want to talk about, or only have a hazy conception, lay out what you hope the journey will look like and where you think you and your team of explorers might end up. Feel free to make this section as long as you feel it needs to be to get your point across and entice the right people to join your discussion.

  3. The Preparations: Bringing the right gear

    This is an important and often-overlooked aspect of almost every single discussion. This is where you ask hopeful participants to do something before they come to the discussion. This can be almost anything, but in general you want people to show up to the discussion ready to ask each other questions on the subject at hand and ready to get engaged. Discussions are potlucks formulated around a specific topic you’ve described, but you need to tell people to actually bring things for the occasion.

    a. Questions: Questions are where you can ask your users to think of specific issues around the topic you’re describing and come prepared to discuss these with other participants. For example, a discussion on the subject of personal pandemic preparedness might be: “What are some items you suggest people stock up on prior to a pandemic that they don’t currently stock up on?”. A discussion comparing the history of Cuba and modern day Venezuela might have a question like “What lessons did Venezuela learn from Cuba’s communist revolution?”. Your questions should spark people to take notes on their answers so they can bring those notes to the discussion.

    b. Instructions: This is where you tell participants what they should do prior to coming to the discussion. For example, an instruction for a discussion on the environment might be to participate in a beach cleanup before attending the discussion. A discussion on homelessness might include an instruction to go and speak with 3 homeless folks in your area and ask them how they ended up in their situation. A discussion on finding love and a life partner might include joining a dating app and going on a few dates. Feel free to be creative.

    c. Links: This is where you can give potential signups specific sources to read, watch, or listen to before they come to the discussion. If you have multiple links or want to do something complicated with your links (such as “Read link 1 OR listen to link 2), it’s best to include an instruction (in the instruction material) for which links participants should read or how they should work with the material. Your links can be as intense or simple as you’d like them to be, based on what you want your discussion to be, but keep in mind how long it will take participants to go through your material. Even a short blog post on the subject you’ll be discussing can go a long way towards preparing people to talk about the subject for an hour or two. On the other hand, if you want participants to watch 10 hours of video before they attend, you’ll want to consider things like scheduling your discussion a good few weeks out to give people time to do their prep work (including time to sign up for the discussion as well).

  4. The banner image: You have the option to use one from our archives or to upload your own. Keep in mind that, with a bit of effort, a picture can be worth a thousand words. We prefer artistically inspired images, and of course, images should be connected with the subject matter of the discussion. One place to look is in archives of older paintings or art that is in the public domain. Feel free to get creative here. As expected, we reserve the right to remove any image we feel are inappropriate. If you can’t think of a good image, we’re happy to add one in for you.

    Update: Don't worry about selecting the image for now, we're taking care of that step for all users at the moment! It will be done automatically after you create the discussion.

II. Scheduling and other items:
  1. Scheduling: Things to keep in mind when scheduling

    a. What time would be most convenient for me and for potential participants? Keep in mind the average Civility user is likely to be in the US, and will likely be working and/or busy before 6P local time, but Civility does have a significant minority of users connecting from other parts of the world.

    b. How much leadtime should I provide for users to find my discussion and signup? What about friends I might invite? Unless you can share the discussion link quickly with your friends, it’s usually best to assume it will take at least a few days for people to sign-up to attend the discussion.

  2. Other items:

    a. Prior knowledge: let’s you state clearly if you expect your discussion participants to show up with significant prior knowledge on the subject at hand. For example, for a discussion on the economics of the Universal Basic Income, you may want people to come with a healthy background in formal economics. For a discussion on modern film noir, you may want participants to come with a good background in the genre. Make sure to mention which prior knowledge you’re referring to in the motivation section.

    b. Anonymity: This option allows you to hide your username from the “Anchored by” section of the discussion card. This is helpful if you don’t want it to be public knowledge that you’re having a discussion on a particularly sensitive topic. An example of this might be if you’re discussing a controversial political issue and you’re worried about work colleagues hearing about the discussion - or if you’re wanting to discuss a sensitive religious issue and you don’t want your family to worry about the implications of your discussions, if they happen to come across the
    discussion card.

    c. Once you've finished creating the discussion, the only thing left is to post it. It'll be live the moment you hit "Create", although it won't show up on the homepage until we attach a photo to it, which usually takes a couple of hours.
III. Sharing: Last but perhaps most important is sharing your newly created discussion to anyone who may be interested. This is easy, just share the page URL (your discussion URL is unique).  There are many good places you can share your discussion to - friends on social media, messaging specific people, or posting about it to specific subreddits, forums, or other communities. The important thing is to find people or places that are likely to be interested in your specific discussion topic. If your discussion is on philosophy, post it to places where a lot of philosophically inclined people tend to hang out. If it's about robotics, post it where people interested in robotics, engineering, of technology might be gathered. Use your imagination, and be tactful. Remember, the more enthusiastic your participants are about the discussion, the better the discussion will go.

Congratulations for making it this far, you're ready to craft discussions like a pro! The next and final post is about how to guide your discussion itself, like a pro.