For many the pandemic caused us to pause and ponder certain elements of our life – our careers, maybe our relationships, or our values. For many businesses and organizations, it sparked an overhaul of our focus or operations. At Startup Colorado, we began a yearslong reassessment of how and why we bring entrepreneurs together and the value we offer at these events. At first this was an act of necessity, but as restrictions eased and we began to venture back out into the real world, we discovered that our values in connections had evolved.
It was serendipitous, then, that we found Priya Parker’s game changing book The Art of Gathering. A facilitator and strategic advisor, Parker demands we rethink our events, whether that’s a dinner party or UN thinktank. Her book is a challenging, but insightful read for event organizers. That’s why we conducted an informal book club with participants who enjoy bringing people together in one form or another.
Because The Art of Gathering was rife with profound takeaways, we decided to breakdown the chapters that were most insightful to us. Discover our responses below and if you’ve read The Art of Gathering, share your feedback in the comments section below.
Thoughts on Purpose and Exclusion (The Good Kind) – Margaret Hedderman
Margaret is Startup Colorado’s Director of Communications & Editorial. She’s also a writer and event organizer, most recently producing The Women Outside Adventure Forum in Durango.
Anyone who reads the first two chapters of The Art of Gathering will feel like everything they know—or thought they knew—about event management has been blown out of the water. Priya challenges the fundamentals of bringing people together, demanding that we ask WHY before HOW. In the very first chapter, we’re asked to stop thinking about logistics, to-do lists, and planning and really understand why we are bringing people together. A book club, happy hour, or networking event is not a purpose. It’s a category. Instead, we need to step back and examine why we want people to connect and what we hope they get out of the experience.
Which, inadvertently, is another difficult chapter—on closing doors. Priya counters that excluding people from your event is necessary to achieve its purpose. Which isn’t to say that you exclude based on factors such as race or gender, but rather whether or not having someone at your event serves its purpose. I think we’ve all been in the situation where we feel obligated to invite someone as a nicety, even if that person detracts from the event. (Priya calls this person Bob. He’s a nice guy, maybe he even brings a bottle of wine, but he has no real reason to be included. In fact, his presence throws off the important dynamics of the gathering.) Throughout these first two chapters—in fact, the entire book—we’re asked to sacrifice ourselves as the organizers for the sake of the event and its participants.
Thoughts on Hosting & Creating Alternate Worlds – Vanessa McCrann
Vanessa is the Community Manager at Startup Colorado. In addition to managing our network for rural entrepreneurs, she also facilitates online and in-person events throughout the state.
Parker strongly cautions against being a ‘chill’ host, with mortifyingly familiar examples of what will go wrong. This chapter empowers hosts to be ‘active’ by three guiding principles; protect, equalize, and connect your guests. I found validation in this chapter when Parker explains that to be a good active host, you must sometimes self-sacrifice your reputation by enforcing the rules of a gathering. She calls this ‘generous authority’ and her examples are priceless stories.
In Chapter 4, Parker focuses on creating an alternative world for your guests. Nowadays we all have different views on social etiquette. Modern technology is increasingly addictive. How do you get everyone to be present at the same time? This chapter explores the rising trend in rules. ‘No cellphones’, ‘No first names’, ‘Must RSVP’ – These might be jarring to hear the first time, but when instituted well, rules give everyone a foundation to connect. Her examples are compelling; when we don’t allow guests to lead with certain information—like your professional title—the connections are more authentic, more human, and more memorable. These rules don’t exist everywhere; they start and end with the temporary world you’ve created, tailored to your audience.
Thoughts on Logistics & Vulnerability – Kayleen Cohen
Kayleen is the founder of Mtn. Dog Media and the Lead Organizer of West Slope Startup Week. She teaches workshops throughout Colorado on an array of digital marketing subjects and enjoys working with entrepreneurs and startup founders.
In “Never Start a Funeral With Logistics,” the fifth chapter of the Art of Gathering, Priya discusses how we welcome people to our events and make our guests feel “seen.” Priya compares the start of several events and shows how events with welcoming transitions are overall better and more memorable than those that start with logistics. Think, for example, about the last conference you attended. Most likely the hosts came out on stage and kicked off the event with a long, prattling list of sponsors. Imagine instead, a theatrical entrance where you are welcomed and transitioned into the “new world” of your events.
Then in Chapter 6, Priya encourages us to think of creative, new ways to encourage event participants to be vulnerable and authentic in gatherings. Instead of “stump speeches” Priya asks guests at a professional retreat to give “spout speeches” where they open up about moments of challenge and growth in their lives. These vulnerable moments bring people together in a more meaningful, memorable, and productive ways. Priya also encourages event organizers to consider how they can facilitate and moderate conversations with conflict to help teams and individuals break into challenging and difficult subjects.
She cautions, however, that we should set expectations for our events starting with the invitations. If guests are going to be expected to have prepared a speech, or digested specific reading materials, clearly outlining that expectation before guests gather is essential for success. As the Lead Organizer of West Slope Startup Week, this resonated as a fantastic opportunity to reevaluate the event’s marketing and promotional efforts for how we set expectations leading up to the event. Can we make our participants feel like they have been extended an invitation to a very exclusive opportunity using our marketing language?
Thoughts on Controversy and Ending an Event – Heather Kuhnheim
Heather is the founder of A Project Called Life and a Cal Berkeley Certified Executive Coach. She offers professional coaching, conscious communication training and strategic advising to purpose-driven brands and communities.
How do we turn up the heat without letting things crash and burn?
When bringing good controversy into a gathering, we want to invite people to look more closely at what they care about and re-examine what they hold dear. Issues have heat when they affect or threaten people’s fears, needs and sense of self. As such, good controversy needs to be designed for and carefully structured to create an emotionally safe space for all involved.
Working through conflict in a safe, regulated, constructive way is particularly important within communities, organization and intimate relationships. When working with clients 1:1, I often say, “when we tuck our emotions away in the basement, they go down and lift weights.” I deeply appreciate the gentle nudge from Priya to bring this reminder into gathering spaces. As facilitators and hosts, we are called to hold space for people to navigate and move through the sticky stuff. When done well, real transformation can occur.
The book suitably ends with a conversation on ending. The widespread tendency is to close events without really closing. Hosts either a) let things fizzle out on their own, or b) try to sustain what is best surrendered. So how do you end a gathering on a high?
After reading this chapter, I cringed as I reflected on the countless gatherings I have ended with a logistical sendoff (woof) or an invitation to a WhatsApp group that fizzed within a week. Thank you Priya for teaching us such an important final lesson in hosting impactful events, as I now understand that great hosts solidify the memory of the experience in the final moments of a gathering. I feel a sense of completion as I end the book knowing that to close an event with a sense of meaning is the final step to truly mastering The Art of Gathering.