Tackling the Challenges of Modern Community with Michael Williams

Set in the age of Amazon and online content, with a backdrop of funding cuts to the arts, how does a Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas make its way in the world? The Wheeler Centre  provides a forum for conversation, with extremely varied topics, from erotic literature to human rights, so its community is not a homogenous group. However, that doesn’t mean that its members are any less engaged.Hosting around 250 public events every year, around 80% of which are free, the Wheeler Centre has limited barriers to entry for those wishing to participate.

Director Michael Williams discusses how in an online world people are increasingly searching for connection to generate a sense of identity. The Wheeler Centre has developed a strong and engaged community by providing a supportive environment for investigating ideas. In today’s episode of Be The Drop, Michael talks about implementing a contract to conversation, having pride in your expertise and being a part of something bigger than yourself…


Sign a contract to conversation.

Conversation is a two-way street. Michael advocates signing a “contract to conversation” and through this, make a commitment to your community that they will both be heard and also responded to. The Wheeler Centre engages with their community several times a week, talking to them and hearing them; the conversations are the community. Community is an active concept rather than a passive one, so give and take must be part of what you do.

Don’t assume that conversation on social media can be a substitute for real life interaction, Michael warns. However, he does admit that The Wheeler Centre has successfully harnessed the power of digital to extend their community’s reach to those that can’t physically attend an event. After all, their remit is about dissemination, not about creating a “walled garden”. There should be no barriers to being involved.

Listen to Michael’s Be The Drop podcast episode here:

Checklist your output.

Define yourself, establish your values, then turn them into a checklist. Make sure that what you’re doing ticks those boxes.

The Wheeler Centre was created as a literary organisation, but its output is public conversation. Its events are defined within three areas – as Smart, Passionate and Entertaining. Smart, but not exclusive; we all have interests, and we bring our curiosity and intelligence to them, whatever they are. Passionate, because The Wheeler Centre is not a think tank; its speakers and members have personal engagement with their topic. Entertaining, because if you’re not enjoying what you’re witnessing, what’s the point in participating?

The combination of those 3 things is crucially important to The Wheeler Centre.

Ask yourself: Is your output reflecting your core values?

Be an authentic authority.

Be proud of your expertise and your authority. When you’re talking to people, use your authentic voice. You don’t need to speak the way you think your industry or a particular topic requires you to; that’s not how you have authority.

The people that participate in the events, activities and conversations of The Wheeler Centre do so using their own words. Find your own language and apply it to the situation, don’t bend your words to the language of others. The way to be authoritative is by finding that authentic voice. First, talk about something you’re passionate about; that voice is your authentic voice. Then apply that voice to other topics. Respect that you have a right to be heard, then that confidence and belief that you have something of value to say will allow you to be an authority.

Consider modern self-identification.

Your community is built because people self-identify with who or what you are; they self-identify as caring about your success or failure. We are intensely tribal beings and we self-select what communities support our sense of identity.

Members of The Wheeler Centre identify with being a part of public discussion. They don’t necessarily sit in a hall and listen to someone talk in order to do this, but they do in some way engage in the conversations the community is having; they want to belong, to be involved in something bigger than themselves.

However, nowadays we self-identify with a wide range of communities and through a variety of channels. The old idea of community, Michael believes, needs to be reassessed. In the 21st century, we opt in and opt out. We are casual members of multiple communities, so if you’re building a community you need to allow for this.


Thank you again for tuning in and listening to the BTD podcast, I can’t wait for this next installment to bring you more inspiring people talking about their strategies for connecting with and building a positive community.

Amelia xx


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About the Author: Amelia Veale

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