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TickTalk (formerly named Tempo) is a way of structuring a conversation that allows you to cover a wide range of interesting subjects in a short amount of time, in a way that tries to ensure everyone gets a chance to share their thoughts. TickTalk structures the conversation into a series of rounds, with a mixed mechanism designed to keep the conversation on topics that are interesting to the group. Each round is 5-10 minutes, with a singlequestion defining the topic that round.

TickTalk started out as a fork of lean coffee, adapted to deal with my frustrations with the basic design of the system. It's very much still a work in progress. I ran a couple sessions of it at PyCon UK, where it was referred to as variant lean coffee, and TickTalk is the evolution of that system.


You will need:

  • A large stack of index cards
  • Pens for everyone
  • A five minute timer (you can use a phone, but we're probably going to use a sand timer for the next one)
  • A thirty second timer (once again, you can use a phone or a sand timer)
  • Some easily holdable object to use to designate who is allowed to speak. e.g. I've used a deck of cards or a rubiks cube.

Decide on responsibilities: You need someone to facilitate, and ideally someone to take notes. These should not be the same person (too much cognitive load).

The layout is that you need somewhere in the center for the talking object and the current topic to go. The facilitator should also have enough space in front of them to lay out a bunch of face up cards and have a stack of face down cards, and people need enough space to be able to write on cards.

Running a round

A round starts with a motivating question, proposed by one of the participants. The question for the first round is always "What sorts of things would we like to talk about today?", proposed by the facilitator.

Once the question has been proposed, everyone may ask clarifying questions of the person presenting it (implicitly the facilitator for the first round). These should be short questions (not comments!) that resolve some ambiguity in the proposed question. The proposer may briefly answer the question to clarify their intent.

Once the question is clear to everyone, a vote is taken. If a majority of participants wish to discuss the topic, the timer starts and they now have five minutes to discuss it. Once the five minutes are up, another vote is taken as to whether to extend the round for a further five minutes. No third vote to extend the round is possible, but once the time is finished, everyone who wishes to may have the opportunity to make a closing remark.

During the round (including in the clarifying questions and closing remarks), only the person who is holding the talking object may speak. Once they are done, they should put the talking object back in the middle, and anyone who wants to speak may pick it up.

Once the round is over, if the question was discussed it is put face up in front of the facilitator (this will be used to ensure that there are no more questions proposed by the same person until everyone has had a go), otherwise it is put face down in the done pile.

Talking Object Etiquette

  • It is important not to snatch the talking object. Pause, see if other people want it. If more than one person is reaching for it, the one who has spoken least recently takes priority.
  • People should not hold on to the talking object for an excessive amount of time. We're still working out how to track this (possibly the 30 second timer? It may be too much overhead), but in the meantime people should use their judgement. When someone needs to stop talking, people (especially the facilitator) should start waving at them. They now should finish their sentence and stop.
  • If they take longer than a second or two to do this, the facilitator should verbally interrupt them (this is the only time it is OK to talk during the round without a talking object).

We've tentatively found so far that people are quite good at self-policing on talking object use, but it may be that we had a well selected group.

Selecting a Question

Once the first round is over, give everyone five minutes to write down their name and a question on as many index cards as they like. These are all shuffled together and form the question deck. Anyone may add to the question deck at any time, and their card gets shuffled in to the deck. This initial question setting is just to get the deck stuffed.

As well as the questions deck, maintain a stack of "later" cards (initially empty).

Beginning the second round onwards a question is selected as follows:

  1. If the questions deck is empty, put all of the currently face up cards face down in the done pile, and shuffle the "later" deck to become the question deck.
  2. The top card is drawn from the questions deck.
  3. If the proposer's name is currently face up, the card is added to the "later" pile.
  4. Otherwise, the proposer has an opportunity to withdraw it, in which case the card goes immediately to done.
  5. The question is now voted on as described above.

Joining Midway Through

It is easy to join a tempo session midway through. Wait for the current round to finish and then just join in as normal.

Leaving Midway Through

If someone has to pop out, put any cards with their name in them in the "later" pile as they come up. If someone leaves permanently, put any cards with their name on them in the "done" pile.

Splitting the group

The optimal size for a tempo session is probably about 5-8 people. Once you've hit ten or more people, it's time to split the group (feel free to experiment with this number).

To do this, put the later pile and the questions deck back together, sort the cards by name, and hand them out to their proposers. Decide how your group wants to divide up (I recommend at random) and then combine the relevant cards for the new groups together to form two new decks, one per group. Find appropriate table space to separate, and resume as normal.

Ending the Session

Unlike lean coffee, there is no predefined set of cards that people work through, so there is no well defined end to the session. As a result there is no real set ending rule, but the session can be ended after any round, and it's generally useful for scheduling purposes to set a rough end time up front.