Notes on “The Art of Gathering”
“Many of the best things in life happen when people gather. So it’s remarkable how little conscious intent goes into planning such moments. Thank goodness for this book. It opens up new ways of thinking about wonderful gatherings with a delicious confection of smartly-defined concepts and detailed examples. Hosts of all kinds, this is a must-read!”
—Chris Anderson, owner and curator of TED
Here are some notes on The Art of Gathering which I found to be a really useful book to help add structure to thoughts I had from time spent organising and participating in events as well as adding lots of new ways to improve future ones. Gathering is meant to encompass many things, from dance parties to academic conferences to weekly work meetings, and the ideas in this book can be applied in various situations.
The book points out regularly that these aren’t prescriptive solutions, maybe certain ideas work in certain situations and sometimes doing the opposite will lead to a memorable event. Hopefully there is something useful in here (and in the book, which I would definitely recommend) for anyone who hosts an event at some point in their life.
Reviews here: Goodreads
Summary of notes
Decide the purpose of gathering, a meaningful reason for coming together that can act as a decision filter for every other part of the event
Exclude with purpose (use purpose as your bouncer)
Think about the scripts a venue has, as well as space and density
Use generous authority to benefit everyone rather than allowing an event to be hijacked
Protect your guests from each other, from boredom and from phones
Equalise and connect your guests
Create a temporary alternate world
Use explicit rules to help with purpose and overcome differences
Prime your guests
Never start or end with logistics
Start with purpose
Help guests to be real
Create an intentional ending to allow guests to look inwards and also turn outwards
1. Decide Why You’re Really Gathering
A category is a not a purpose, whether its a strategy meeting, discussion group or a party, commit to gathering about “something”
Is there a meaningful reason for coming together, does it take a stand and is it willing to unsettle the guests/hosts in a way that not everyone will agree with the purpose? If the purpose is indisputable, it isn’t a decision filter
An example is a wedding where the purpose is love versus one where the purpose is about a ceremonial repayment to family that have supported you, that will help decide how to allocate the last guest space between inviting another uncle or another friend
Aim for specificity (but get the balance right)
On the website Meetup, groups tend to have more success if they have a more specific description, i.e. LGBT hiking with dogs meetup rather than LGBT meetup. You’d probably struggle with a group called LGBT couples with math degrees and a love of pottery hiking with dogs as it’s too specific
Aim for uniqueness, unique from other meetings. Japanese saying—Ichi-go ichi-e “one moment in your life that will never happen again”
Zoom out to find meaning, keep on asking why rather than what. Think about what problem this gathering could solve
Meetings should be organised around a desired outcome rather than defined by process
Use purpose as your bouncer—it decides what is and is not part of the gathering
2. Close Doors
Exclude with purpose—kindness of exclusion
Meeting up with old friends can allow everyone to be honest whereas having one new person might stop people from opening up
Thoughtful exclusion can be defining—communicates to guests what the gathering is about, if everyone is there it can lose meaning
Who fits and fulfills the gatherings purpose?
Who threatens the purpose?
Who, despite being irrelevant to purpose, do you feel obliged to invite?
People who aren’t fulfilling the purpose of the gathering are detracting from it, other guests will want to make this person feel welcome rather than connecting with purpose
In smaller gatherings, every person affects the group dynamic
If there are multiple hosts, think about “who is this gathering for first?”, this helps make decisions
Good exclusion activates diversity, you can get profound breakthroughs rather than just interesting conversations
An example being discussion groups focused on one specific relationship (black/white, jewish/arab, LGBT/Republican)
For decision making and intimacy it is usually best to have 6 or fewer people
For good conversation and intimacy it usually maxes out at about 12-15 people
People usually feel most comfortable with up to 3 others in a conversation
A venue is a nudge, when you choose for logistics, it overrides purpose
Venues come with scripts, setting should embody the reason to meet
This can be as simple as reconfiguring the chairs in a room, putting them in a circle rather than classroom style
Displacement—break people out of habit
An example is the photographer Platon who has photographed many world leaders and every living president. They use an old white crate box for the subject to sit on, which gets them into Platons “office”. Even if they only have 5 minutes in a hotel room, the white box takes them out of a normal context and into the context of every other photoshoot
Perimeter—gathering space is best when contained
Can be a picnic blanket in the park or switching to a smaller room.
Rather than having 6 people sat opposite each other at dinner on 3 small tables next to each other, get rid of one table and have the two extra people sit at either end. This encloses the space and allows everyone to talk as a group rather than splitting into separate conversations
If the density is too low it can lead to people sticking to the groups they already know rather than mixing
You can see this at house parties when people gather in the kitchen, people want to maintain the density of what they expect at a party
3. Don’t be a Chill Host
If you step back then other guests can fill the power vacuum with a different purpose than the one you intended
They may bore the guests with an hour long monologue on their favourite niche interests—this is “casual evening oppression”
Authority is an ongoing commitment, not just sending out invites and doing introductions—chill can be selfishness disguised as kindness
Does “talk to whoever you want” help the shy guest speak? Or should it be turn based?
Does open seating help newcomers or would seat placement be better
Generous authority uses power to achieve outcomes that are generous for others
Protect your guests—from each other, from boredom, from phones
The Alamo cinema kicks out viewers for using their phone, if they left enforcement to others it would likely make it a worse experience for the majority for the benefit of a few people who don’t care about the film
Audience questions for panel—good moderators are prepared to ask if an audience member can turn a statement into a question or to cut them off for the benefit of the majority
Anticipate and intercept peoples tendencies when they’re not considering the betterment of the whole group and experience
Equalise your guests—reduce hierarchy and status differences (whether real or perceived)
Use name tags with large first names and small/no last names
Leave talk about occupations out of conversations
Connect your quests—go from lots of host-guest connections to guest-guest connections provides each participant an opportunity for meaningful small group conversations
Hints on a card on arrival to find someone with a similar interest
Tell people you want them to make new friends
Tell people what they have in common
Short introductions with name, what they do, what they enjoy
Avoid ungenerous authority—bossing people around or tricking people
This can be common in institutional gatherings where predictability and structure is preferred, for example getting community leaders together in the White House and then subjecting them to 3 talks in a row rather than allowing them to connect with each other or spend time with the president in small group conversations
Avoid putting the host as the star of the event
4. Create a Temporary Alternate World
Design the gathering as an event that will only exist once
The rise of rules—it’s becoming more common for gatherings to be experimental in what they ask of guests
Example rules: guests do not discuss career or give their last name, can only speak to the whole table, can’t pour your own drink, people who confirm but don’t attend will not be invited again, no phones/cameras
These rules can seem unreasonably demanding but they can be used to replace unspoken etiquette
“Replacing the passive-aggressive, exclusionary, glacially conservative commandments of etiquette with something more experimental and democratic”
Within communities and professions it is often helpful to have a common set of norms and behaviours, it allows people to coordinate and avoid embarrassing themselves or others. If these are not written down and shared it can take a while to learn what the actual rules are
Etiquette works well in closed, homogeneous and stable groups but today there are more and more gatherings where there are people with different backgrounds and learned etiquettes. This might be one explanation for an increase in “pop-up rules”. If implicit etiquette is useful for gatherings of closed tribes, explicit pop-up rules are better for gathering across differences, despite being controlling they bring new freedom and openness
Rules vs Phones—relying on etiquette to stop people from using phones often fails, making it an explicit rule for that gathering can allow people to be present
Knowing that you are committed to one place for the next few hours removes the low level anxiety caused by using every moment to anticipate the next
Spending longer time together can also lead to deeper conversation and stronger connections. 12 hours in a row probably does more to help this than 3 hour gatherings on four separate occasions
Sometimes etiquette meant for politeness has become entrenched and leads to issues
At conferences people can be stuck in conversations where there are strong norms to feign interest and it might be useful to create a norm where people leave conversations if they feel they aren’t learning or contributing (but don’t leave in a way that hurts other people)
A company was having board meetings where they often overran and members were constantly asking clarifying questions and so the chair created a rule that you could only ask questions that built on information already there and it led to more difficult but productive conversations.
5. Never Start a Funeral with Logistics
Priming—the gathering begins when when guests first learn about it—the moment of discovery
You can use the time between discovery and formal opening to prime them
Most hosts focus on preparing things rather than preparing people and hope that people can sort themselves out
An example of a missed opportunity is the hours before a political rally with people waiting to hear a speech. This time could be used to get people into small groups to discuss why they were there and build community connections. Organisers often see this time as not part of the event even though they have the complete attention of thousands of people
You can prime for special behaviours or norms that you want to see at the gathering
This could be sending an article, asking questions, asking people to spend time thinking about a certain topic or to bring an object
Priming people for a quiet conversation makes it harder to turn the event into a dance party
It’s useful to ask questions that help guests connect to the purpose of the event and also to prepare them to be honest about sharing ideas on the nature of the challenge this event might try to solve
What are the most pressing questions this team needs to address?
Why did you join this organisation?
What is your earliest memory of coming into contact with poverty?
How are you core principles the same/different than 5 years ago?
A secondary benefit of asking questions is creating a connection between the host and guests
A gathering is a social contract, often implicit, where there are expectations of the host and guests. This often doesn’t become apparent until there is conflict.
Asking friends to a social gathering and than expecting them to spend four hours helping you decide a logo for your new business could be a violation of this contract
You don’t want your guests to think “Hey! I never signed up for this”
It can be important to frame the event right if you want to help people understand the social contract
Writing down on an invite whether a funeral is gathering to “grieve and mark” or “celebrate and remember” will change how people mentally prepare
This doesn’t mean we should make events completely transactional, just that every gathering has some kind of implicit deal. And when this contract isn’t carefully crafted than expectations can be out of step with the hosts and other guests, leading to problems
You should definitely warn guests if you plan to take away their phone for a whole day
Naming an event can be one of the biggest signals of what it is about
Choose a name that primes people for the main purpose
A creative community founder introduced an “artist mixer” but no-one turned up until the name was changed to “happy hour”, when they asked the artists they said that mixer seemed too corporate
Ushering—creating a threshold for guests to cross to indicate the event is starting, capturing people’s attention and allowing them to cross the starting line as a collective
An obvious example is at the front door, you can set the tone by how you welcome people in
This doesn’t have to be a physical threshold, it could be a welcoming announcement, pouring everyone a special drink or changing the lighting
Some studies have suggested that people disproportionately remember the first and last five minutes of a talk. Often these moments get neglected by speakers, when audience attention can be highest and this is probably true of gatherings as well
Don’t start with logistics
A minister got up to speak at a funeral and started by talking about parking for the event afterwards when it may have been more apt to start by offering words of comfort
This may be obvious for personal gatherings but it’s also important for formal events and meetings. Even if logistics seems pressing, this is the best chance to get across purpose.
George Lucas had to pay a $250,000 fine to the directors guild for not starting Star Wars with credits, but some would argue it was worth it for creating a memorable opening
Fuse your guests, help individuals feel like a community, getting guests to acknowledge one another is often skipped over but can help people feel connected
Tough mudder uses a pledge at the start line as well as making obstacles that require teamwork to overcome on the 10km obstacle course
Giving a short intro to each person as they arrive to a gathering can give people an opening to talk to that person later, especially if you add 1 or 2 extra bits of info that isn’t related to their career
Conferences can be terrible at this with lots of vertical connection but very few horizontal ones linking guests to each other
Even whilst speaking to a crowd you can turn a question from an audience member into a way for them to all connect by asking them as a group to think if this issue has affected them, or to talk to the person next to them
6. Keep Your Best Self Out of My Gathering
If everyone is trying to show off accomplishments it can be harder to actually make progress on issues. Even when there isn’t competitive conversations they can remain superficially intellectual with little realness or risk taking
Vulnerability can lead to people wanting to help, so allowing people to be vulnerable with each other allows them to help each other
Realness can be designed. In addition to the right environment (private space, low light, food and wine), the approach can set the right tone for a group to jettison their pretentiousness.
Can remind people at the beginning to leave their successes behind, or to ask them to say things that might surprise the other guests
Avoid stump speeches, the well prepared stories that people have and can often be quite tedious and removed of all weaknesses. Ask questions that lead to people thinking about ideas that they have not prepared in depth
To get more realness push for experience rather than ideas, people also find it easier to tell stories about their life
Allow for dark themes rather than always trying to keep things light, it helps conversations to take on more depth.
The themes that seemed to work best in a series of gatherings called “15 toasts” were the ones that let people show weakness, confusion and moral greyness. The themes that are often exiled from professional gatherings
Facilitators can set the depth of the event by sharing vulnerable or personal stories at the beginning
Risk management—it’s important to think about the needs of different guests, some may not want to share a deeply personal story, so it helps to have this framed as a choice rather than mandatory
7. Cause Good Controversy
Controversy can provide energy as well as clarity
Sometimes the elevation of harmony over everything else can make a gathering dull and pointless as well as taking away from the main purpose
When making a decision you can force groups of people to pick sides rather than allow them to defer
There are risks with controversy, but it is usually better to surface them with structure rather than let them bubble under or derail a gathering with no preparation
Good controversy helps people look more closely at what they care about when there is costs but also benefits to doing so. It is generative rather than preservationist and can help communities move forward in their thinking
To add structure you can move it from implicit to explicit by ritualising it, creating a temporary alternate world
To find out where the heat may be you can ask questions of them about the community
What are people avoiding that they don’t think they’re avoiding?
What are the sacred cows?
What goes unsaid?
What are we trying to protect and why?
What do you think is the most needed conversation for this group to have?
Setting up ground rules can be useful to allow people to open up, especially if the guests contribute to the rules rather than have them dictated (just asking these questions can prime people to start acting this way)
What do you need to feel safe here?
What do you need from this group to be willing to take risks in this conversation today?
Should ask yourself if it is worth the risk to bring good controversy to your gathering
8. Accept That There is an End
Often we close without closing, it’s expected that it will just happen
Dinner parties that fizzle out and people slowly drift off, conferences that meander into nothingness at 4.30pm Sunday
We don’t take stock of what has been learnt, how much buy in there was, how we might change our lives in the future
A political philosophy professor has a two year long course that ends with handing in a year long thesis. They tell their class to bring the thesis at 5pm Friday, normally this would just be posting it into a mail slot. But in this case you get welcomed into post thesis life with a tequila shot and a surprise party with the professor and other students. It’s a simple action but turns a perfunctory ending into a memorable closing
Accept the end, find a way to create an intentional closing that gives it a chance to endure in memories rather than trying to prolong
Last call—the beginning of the ushering, allows people to leave if they want to but doesn’t make them feel forced out
It’s hard to take into account everyone, some people will be tired and want to leave early and others will want to talk until the early hours, giving an out will allow those people to leave without feeling rude and also allow those who want to stay, to stay. You can do this by changing rooms or venues.
Sometimes it is better to let guests decide their own ending, if they think they are coming to a breakthrough in a conversation
A strong closing has two phases—looking inward and turning outward
Looking inward to take a moment to reflect on what has happened
Turning outward to part from one another and to rejoin the rest of the world
For a gathering to have a better chance of affecting change it is important to help people find meaning at the end, it is mainly something individual, but a good gathering can help that process
Meaning can come from what has happened, but also from who we’ve connected to
If you have forged a group and created something of a temporary alternate world, it is worth helping them to “take the set down” and walk back to their other worlds. This can be implicit or explicit
What of this experience do I want to bring with me?
If we see people again what are our agreements about what and how we’ll talk about what occurred here?
You can help people find a thread to connect the world of the gathering to the world outside, this can be written or verbal
One conference gives guests an opportunity to make a public pledge of what they will do differently moving forward, and often have a wall that people can write their pledge on
A message to a guests future self in a self-addressed letter that can be mailed out at a future date
A thread could also be a physical symbol that helps connect the two worlds
Don’t close with logistics or thank yous (they can go second last)
Don’t even have a thank you slide in your presentations
Also with thank yous, don’t just say thank you but find a way to honour the people you are thanking, don’t just describe their job
A good and meaningful closing may not conform to any particular rule or form, even a minimalist closing can acknowledge what transpired and offer a release
Teachers that end their class with a story vs ones that end with an assignment
Walking your guests to the door versus having them let themselves out
Keeping the last chapter in mind, take a minute to think about one way you can change the next event you organise to make it more purposeful, and hopefully lead to a more flourishing world