Scheduling a Weekly Lunch-and-Learn

Photo of Curtis Lusmore Curtis Lusmore,

Early last year, before COVID, I joined an initiative in my squad at work to boost employee engagement. There were four of us in the group and we were each tasked with running a series of events for the members of our squad. I volunteered to organise a monthly lunch-and-learn session at the office, where each month a member of our squad would present on a topic of their choosing during our lunch break.

We already had these going on an ad-hoc basis sporadically throughout the year, usually individually organised by the speaker, but I wanted to make this a regular event at the office. Unfortunately lockdown struck before we could run the first session, and so we had to change plans. With everybody working from home employee engagement felt more important than ever, so we quickly pivoted to online sessions and we decided to temporarily up the frequency from monthly to weekly, at least for as long as momentum could carry us.

Since then we’ve continued to run these weekly, having just passed 41 sessions, and having missed only a handful of weeks due to holidays or clashes with all-hands. Here’s my top 10 tips for you to try this at your work.

1. Pick a regular day and time and try your best to stick to it. We run at 12:30AEDT every Wednesday because this is prime lunchtime for our biggest audience, and a manageable late breakfast for our Perth team. Picking a regular time helps your audience get into a predictable routine—they can block it out in their calendar every week and know that it’ll be an enjoyable way to spend their lunch break.

2. Frictionless speaker registration. You don’t want to introduce any barriers to people interested in signing up to present. We started with a self-service spreadsheet attached to our Microsoft Teams meeting, and eventually migrated to a SharePoint list, but I made sure to let people know that they can also just reach out to me directly if they need a hand signing up.

3. Seed the speaker list. You need momentum to get going. There are likely some people who have talks ready to go from meetups, conferences, or internal/client presentations—ask them if you can add them to the list. Don’t lock in dates for all of them just yet, you want to leave some slots open for new speakers, and you want to save some of these ringers for later when you need to fill a slot in a hurry. Just check how much notice they need and keep them on your backup list.

4. Seed the audience. Get your friends to come, encourage speakers to invite their friends, encourage others to buddy up. Remind people at every event that it’s a regular session that they should try to slot into their routine. You don’t need a huge audience, but speakers will feel weird if it’s just you and them.

5. Make the event as inclusive as possible for all speakers. If anybody is even remotely curious about public speaking, this should be the easiest possible way to get started. Accept any topic, any format, any length, from any speaker. Provide topic suggestions for anybody who needs them. Let your speakers know what to expect. Remind them that it’s a welcoming audience, that it’s normal to feel weird presenting to a silent virtual audience, that it’s normal to not get any questions if people are just passing time over lunch, and that they don’t need to over-prepare.

6. Topic suggestions. There are a few reasons that you should come up with a list of topics you’d be interested to hear about: to give to people who want to speak but can’t decide on a topic, to help you think of speakers to target, and to make sure that the sessions are at least interesting to you! Some bbvious topics are interesting new tech and angry rants, but I like extra-curriculars too—things that people do outside of the regular responsibilities. We’ve had Twitch streaming, Pluralsight authoring, YouTube publishing, blogging, and side hussles. Remember, It’s your lunch break, it doesn’t need to be directly work-related.

7. Hunt for speakers. It can take people a few weeks to prepare a talk, so it’s good to have a small backlog of confirmed speakers and then a few who are still preparing. Look at your topic list, find people who could present and then reach out to see who’s interested. Keep the people on your “preparing” list warm by reaching out every few weeks to see if they’re ready, or if they want to drop out.

8. Double-check your upcoming speaker a few days in advance. Sometimes stuff comes up, they have to pull out and they forget to tell you, or they forget which week they’re scheduled for. Our slot is on Wednesday so I always confirm with the speaker on Monday morning. We’ve caught a few late cancellations this way, and kicked a few speakers into gear to start preparing!

9. Remind your audience on the day. We use a recurring Microsoft Teams meeting, and in the morning before the event I’ll bump the thread by tagging our team, introducing the speaker and the topic and reminding people of the time. I then send out another reminder 15 minutes before we kick off (without the tag).

10. If all else fails, be prepared to fill in at the last moment. I try to keep a couple of topics handy that I could present with no notice. It could be a slidedeck I’m preparing for a conference/meetup, a demo of something I’ve done recently, or just a live-coding session. If you run this long enough, eventually you just won’t be able to find somebody in time, or you’ll have a last-minute cancellation, and it’s good to try to keep the momentum going if you can.

These are my top 10 tips for running a regular lunch-and-learn at work. This has kept ours running for 41 sessions so far, and hopefully many more to come still. If you try this yourself, good luck and let me know how it goes!