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

Overview

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

Who

  • 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

Where

  • 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

Fi­nal Point

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