Over the past 30 years, I’ve led many workshops that attempted to hone the skills of fledgling book discussion leaders. In spite of starting out with the same outline and notes, no two workshops ever turned out quite the same way — rather like multiple discussions of the same book. These programs have a way of taking on a life of their own, as the attendees become immersed in the specifics of the training and begin asking questions about each aspect of the activity as it is introduced. After experiencing this process a few times, I knew I needed to find a way to keep myself (and my students) on track, and thus I came up with what I call the “Five Easy Pieces” approach — five areas of discussion leading that must be covered in the time allotted, regardless of tangents the group tends to take, following the topics (and sub-topics) that especially interest them, but which may not be the most important points we need to explore.
This is how the “Five Easy Pieces” break down — and I realize they might not be so easy for every discussion leader to achieve. So that’s what we particularly emphasize, how to make these essential pieces easier than anyone ever thought they could be.
1. Choose discussable books.
2. Going into the discussion, be as familiar as you possibly can be with the book and also, background information about the author.
3. Prior to the discussion, prepare a list of thought-provoking questions to get the discussion started and to reenergize the discussion should it begin to lag.
4. During the discussion, make an effort to get everyone in the group to participate, at least once.
5. Be prepared to control anyone who tries to take over the discussion and makes it difficult for others to participate.
No matter how you start talking about leading book discussions, these are the primary topics you always find yourself coming back to. These are the matters that discussion leaders most want to explore over and over again, because they seem to be at the very core of planning and leading a successful discussion.
So the crucial topics may be easy enough to identify — but is dealing with them all that easy? How do you define “discussable” books? What aspects of the story (and the author’s background) are most important to know in detail in terms of presenting them to the book group? What kinds of questions stimulate the most satisfying discussions? How do you interact effectively with reluctant participants as well as dominating know-it-alls?
Perhaps you have success stories to share — victories achieved through trial and error. If so, we’d like to hear them. All of us can learn from experience — our own, as well as others’. Tell us how you organize your discussions and make them work. And I won’t be surprised if they fall into a pattern similar to “Five Easy Pieces.”