Stacy Oliver is the founder of Christian Book Previews and The BookClub Kit, known widely for being decorating challenged and for her prolific consumption of Diet Coke. She is married to her best friend Dan, and they have two lego-obsessed sons and a fairy princess daughter, who all share a passion for the Sovereign Lord and the written word.
Who Me? A Book Club Discussion Leader?
Once you get past the initial shock at hearing you’ll be leading the next book club, you may wonder where to start. With a little bit of planning, and some helpful strategies in place, you’ll be ready to take on the club!
Keep in mind that in facilitating a book club discussion, you don’t need to alter your personality to fit into some predefined leadership mold. Use your own gifts and abilities, stretching some and reining in others, and put your own stamp on the role.
First, of course, you need to read through your book selection. What I like to do is to take a piece of paper folded in half (making it my bookmark in the process) and note any quotes, characters, writing style, locations, favorite scenes, and questions I have while reading. Don’t forget to reference page numbers so you can find it in the book again. It’s also helpful to observe reactions to scenes: disbelief, surprise, relief, etc.
Second, look for suggested discussion questions in the back of the book, on the author’s or publisher’s Web site, or in other book club sources. Having a list of topics and avenues of dialogue is a great tool for running a smooth book club meeting. If you can’t find anything (drat!), several lists of more generic questions that may fit your particular book can be found on the Internet. Do a Google search for “general book club questions” and you’ll find many helpful resources. For more in-depth questions, read “5 Book Club Questions that Sizzle” at 5 Book Club Questions That Sizzle.
Before you plan the meeting itself, consider the kind of group you lead. Is it purely social with a book thrown in? Is it more seriously committed to literature analysis? Somewhere in-between? Depending on your answer, the flow of your meeting either can drift at will or you will need to keep it on topic.
The first way is, of course, much easier as a leader. You simply get the chat started and let it go, being ready to kick-start it with another question if there’s a lull.
For most groups, it is a combination of social and analytical. Managing the conversation is easier when you tell the group what to expect from the beginning:
Today we’re going to talk about [book]. We’ll start by discussing the storyline, next we’ll evaluate the characters and their relationships, and then we can go into some of the author’s themes. Be thinking about your favorite scene, and we can share those at the end.
That’s just an example of how to set the tone for the meeting. Or you can jump in by asking a general question that simply opens the floor for any and all comments. In either case, having questions prepared ahead will help to move the conversation along.
Facilitate the Meeting
Perhaps what causes you the most anxiety is mediating the flow of conversation. Relax! You’ll enjoy this part if you keep a few strategies in mind.
First, encourage input by not dominating the discussion. Even if you tend to be shy, the inclination is to talk whenever there’s a gap, or out of nervousness to read through all the notes you’ve taken. Instead, pull others in with a prompt: “Sally, what are your thoughts on this theme?”
Second, watch for others dominating the group. This can be tricky. Try giving encouragement or affirmation on what that person is contributing and then redirect the conversation to another member: “Jane, those are some insightful comments. Does anyone else want to share any thoughts on this?”
Third, in the same way be aware of rabbit trails. If you see the discussion wandering off topic, deftly affirm and redirect: “That’s a fascinating point. I’m wondering if anyone has a favorite quote . . .”
The second and third strategies typically go together, with one or two of your members dominating, carrying the conversation in their own direction. But with gentleness and discretion, you can gracefully steer the talk back to your plan.
Last, be aware of the time, and give everyone a “heads up” when you are about ten minutes from your ending time. This will give others a chance to wrap up their thoughts and to share anything that they’ve been waiting to say. You can close with a brief summary of the opinions expressed (for example, “Most of you liked this book, and it might be fun to read the sequel over the summer”), and for the sake of your host, suggest that those who want to continue the discussion can meet at the Starbucks at the corner. Even if your host doesn’t mind the discussion continuing, a member or two may need to leave on time, and giving this break will make it easier for all.
That’s it! If you take a little time preparing questions and thinking about your group’s dynamic, you’ll be ready to get some experience leading a group. Over time, most of these ideas I’ve given you will seem second nature, and you’ll be able to handle all sorts of unexpected situations.
Remember above all, our goal is to serve others so that God is given the credit: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:10–11 ESV).