The Art of Gathering

Last month, I shared with you my positive review of “The Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker, a master facilitator, strategic advisor, and author. In that blog, I talked about her three-step process for planning a gathering that has purpose.

 But once the planning happens, you also have to be able to guide the event, in the moment, toward your intended purpose. We all know how easy it is even for corporate or nonprofit board meetings to get off track. Casual and semi-social events can lose their way even more easily. For example, if the purpose of the event is to create networking opportunities, you can’t let everyone just hug the wall and talk to people they already know! As the host, you need to insist that people network – and provide easy ways for them to get started! 

Parker calls this “hosting with authority,” and all of us who sometimes host events should be prepared to bring some order to our events.

(If you are interested in attending one of my events, please let me know. I’ll soon be launching an event series called, “Cocktails and Connections.” (If you want to receive a “save the date,” please email me.)

Hosting with Authority: More than just keeping people on topic

Often when we think about the value of skilled facilitation, we are thinking of someone who can keep a meeting on its agenda. But every gathering should have someone who is committed to the event’s purpose. Whether it’s a board strategic planning retreat, a fundraising event for a nonprofit, or a sales event for a software startup, every event should have a clear purpose and a host that is committed to that purpose. Sometimes that host is naturally an “in-house” leader – but sometimes you need to bring in a professional facilitator, someone who can devote themselves entirely to keeping the event’s purpose at the forefront.

In her book, Parker shared advice from a master gatherer, Nora Abousteit, a New York entrepreneur.  She talks about how events need to be both comfortable and structured. In fact, a bit of structure can enhance the joy of the event – because people feel like their expectations were met. 

Her advice for throwing a dinner party provides key takeaways for any corporate or nonprofit event:

  • You are the Boss – Hosting is not democratic.  Structure helps make good parties. Be explicit about what you want. This might be simple like “no phones during dinner” or more complex like “let’s concentrate on this one topic during the entree.” Tell people why. “No phone during dinner, because I want us all to concentrate on talking about our goals for next year.” 
  • Be generous with food, wine, compliments, and introductions. (Introduce people a lot!) 
  • Always be deliberate about seating placement – put everyone next to someone who is different from them – and then help them see what they have in common.  

From beginning to end, how to chart the experience of a gathering 

Always remember that your gathering begins the moment your guests first learn of it. The way you talk about the event from the beginning will prime your guests for a great experience. Imagine if a friend asked you to come over for wine on her deck, but when you got there you realized it was wine on her deck *during a baby shower for someone you barely know.* You would feel uncomfortable, right? People’s first impression – including what you call the event – is important. Select your name with care! 

Whether the event is a corporate retreat, a strategic planning session or a networking reception, the dynamic is the same – you need to actively work to set the stage for what people can expect.  About 90% of what makes a gathering successful is put in place beforehand! 

Be especially thoughtful about any pre-work or tasks that you ask of guests. Usually, these tasks should be less about the actual work they are doing and more about establishing a mood.

This thoughtfulness should continue as guests arrive. Be deliberate about how people are greeted and ushered into the event – and how you will open the event.  Too often we start with logistical information like “the bathroom is down the hall.” Instead, you should plan to grab your guests’ attention from the beginning. Open by connecting your guests to the event’s purpose. (And maybe put up some signs to help them find the bathroom!)

Planning the ending: Don’t “ghost” on the purpose

Some events have a clear ending – like a wedding where we all walk outside to see the couple off and then leave ourselves. Other events, by necessity, are open-ended, with people leaving as they need to because of other obligations, childcare arrangements, etc. But a purposeful event will still be deliberate about how people disengage. 

Do you have a parting gift for them at the door? (Perhaps a journal, if the event was about planning life changes.) Or is someone stationed by the door to thank them for coming and advise them on follow-up activities? “We will be reaching out to you soon about the next step in our campaign!” Is it appropriate to send a thank you card or personal note? 

You’ve planned a purposeful event that should leave people invigorated – don’t forget to stick the landing.

Again, please let me know if you’re interested in attending my event series, Cocktails and Connections. And if you are planning an event and need some help – from brainstorming its purpose to leading the strategic planning portions – please reach out.

So when a good friend of mine, Karin Copeland of CreateXchange, shared a book recommendation with me, I could tell by the title that I would eat it up. “The Art of Gathering” was written by Priya Parker, a master facilitator, strategic advisor and author.

While there is no substitute for reading this great book, I wanted to share some of my key takeaways with you. I’m going to do this in two parts. First, in this blog, we will talk about defining the purpose of an event and planning the details around that purpose. Next month, I will share some of what I loved about Parker’s take on “hosting with authority.”

(And if you love events as much as I do, be on the lookout for a new event series I am launching called, “Cocktails and Connections”. These events will be hosted at my home with the purpose of bringing together social innovators in our community, creating new connections and celebrating the wins and stumbles of life along the way. If you want to receive a “save the date”, email me. I’m looking forward to these gatherings!)

Gathering with Purpose: A 3-step process

After the last two years, many of us want to get together just because we can. That’s understandable! But as we move forward, we should do so realizing that getting people together is powerful and should be done with intention.  Parker suggests a 3-step process.

Step 1: A meaningful gathering requires a bold, sharp purpose.

For example, even if you are planning a birthday party for yourself, Parker argues that you shouldn’t think about this in a boring, uninspired way. “Marking another year” is an obvious reason for a birthday party – but it’s not sharp or bold.

Drill down into the reason why you want to have a birthday party, and you may find a better purpose. Maybe you feel stuck in a rut and want to get out of your comfort zone. In that case, the party itself should be well outside your comfort zone – think skydiving or rock-climbing. Or maybe you want to celebrate the people in your life that are special to you as you ring in a new year – how about giving gifts to your guests that signify the special role they play in your life.  Now we’re talking about a gathering with purpose! 

The birthday party is a personal event, but most gatherings are naturally more about community. Whether you are wanting a teambuilding event for your staff or board, a fundraising event for your nonprofit organization, or a neighborhood potluck, the first part of planning should be honestly identifying your “why?”

Do you need a team retreat because you have several new team members and people simply don’t know each other? Or have the last two years of remote work created a distance between people that have worked together for many years.  Is your organization considering new strategies for growth and change and need to build alignment among your key players?  Have a couple of hard decisions left your board distrustful of each other? Those different “whys” should produce very different events.

Step 2 – Choosing “who” will support your “why”

Knowing your purpose should help you to decide who to invite.

Those calculations may be harder when it’s something like a fundraising event or a networking opportunity. When planning these events, we need to think about who helps fulfill the gathering’s purpose – and who threatens that purpose.

Pay special attention to the names that you feel obligated to invite – even though they don’t really fit the purpose of the event. Sometimes you need to “exclude” well, by reframing in your mind what you mean when you think about generosity. You want to be generous to your guests, by honoring the purpose of the event.

Step 3 – Choosing a place that supports your purpose

Most of us have had the experience of a gathering that was badly placed. Perhaps it was a serious discussion at a too loud restaurant, or an outdoor gathering in bad weather. We know the frustration of having an environment that obviously didn’t match the purpose. But sometimes the mismatch is more subtle.

We behave differently in boardrooms than we do in picnic pavilions. We bring out a different side of ourselves at a nature lodge, compared to a downtown hotel conference room. Seek a setting that embodies the reason for your convening. When a place embodies an idea, it brings a person’s whole being into the experience, not just their minds.

Following through on your event’s purpose

Of course, we all have attended events that got highjacked – a board retreat that was supposed to be about strategic planning and turned into a rehash of the recently unveiled logo, or a “meet the new executive director” reception that ended up talking more about the outgoing executive director. Once you have the right purpose, people and place for your event, Parker says you need to follow through and “host with authority.”

That means setting expectations, speaking frankly about your purpose, and being thoughtful about how people arrive and exit (both literally and metaphorically) your event.

I’m going to talk about that more next month! In the meantime, check out the book and remember to email me if you want to be included in “Cocktails and Connections.”

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