Seven tips that facilitators (or anyone) can use when planning and leading their next event inspired by Priya Parker.
“The way we gather matters.” The opening line of Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering elegantly and succinctly sums up the focus of this book, which is jam-packed with useful and inspiring information for anyone who hosts events. As someone who facilitates design sprints and innovation workshops for a living, I found Parker’s book to be incredibly enlightening, and in reading it, I added more than a few new tools to my repertoire.
One of the things I appreciate about The Art of Gathering is that it comes from a different perspective than many of the books I’ve read on the subject; namely, her book is not rooted in the design or innovation spaces. Trained in group dialogue and conflict resolution, Parker comes at the topic with a broad definition of gatherings — they can be big or small, personal or public, casual or high-stakes.
This book is relevant not just to those working in start-ups or corporate settings but to anyone. From dinner parties and baby showers to family reunions and funerals, Parker tells us how to gather more effectively.
There are many practical takeaways from The Art of Gathering, but below, I share the seven that I’ll carry forward with me in my work as an innovation facilitator.
1. Have a Clear Purpose
One of the first things Parker writes about is that before you gather, you should be crystal clear about why you’re meeting. You may think you know why you’re meeting, but Parker says: “A category is not a purpose.” In other words, a purpose is not: “I’m getting married” or “I’m hosting a meeting about our new product release.”
Parker urges readers to get really specific about what they want to accomplish and achieve through a gathering. She says: “drill baby drill” — ask “why?” until you find an articulation of what you truly need to accomplish. By doing this, you will move from a “basic, boring purpose” to one that is “specific, unique, and disputable.”
“The purpose of your gathering is more than an inspiring concept. It is a tool, a filter that helps you determine all the details, grand and trivial.” — Priya Parker
Parker shares that when you have a good purpose, it helps you make better decisions. Your purpose is your “bouncer.” It lets you know what is right and wrong for your particular event.
2. It’s Not “The More, The Merrier”
After you have your specific purpose nailed down, deciding who should be at your gathering is the next order of business. Parker writes about the need to exclude people from events. It’s completely ok and even necessary, she says: “Thoughtful, considered exclusion is vital to any gathering.” (This is a topic I often have to bring up with clients when planning design sprints; too many people lead to an ineffective sprint, so I’m always encouraging a limited and focused participant list.)
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But, what’s wrong with over-including, if you can? Parker feels that overinclusion is a reflection that you don’t know and aren’t committed to your purpose. She urges those planning gatherings to ask themselves questions such as: Who fits and helps fulfill the purpose? Who threatens it? Who do I feel obliged to invite? Parker says we must be courageous enough to keep away our “Bobs” (the people we feel obliged to include). There’s nothing wrong with “Bobs,” but they don’t necessarily fulfill the event’s purpose.
“When I talk about generous exclusion, I am speaking of ways of bounding a gathering that allows diversity in it to be heightened and sharpened, rather than diluted in a hodgepodge of people.” — Priya Parker
3. Don’t Forget “The Chateau Principle”
Parker writes about something that I hold to be very true as well — where your gathering happens has a tremendous impact on the outcomes of the event. As Parker says: “venues come with scripts.” In other words, we will act more formally in a courtroom than in a meeting on a comfy couch.
“You should…seek a setting that embodies the reason for your convening. When a place embodies an idea, it brings a person’s body and whole being into the experience, not only their minds.” — Priya Parker
Parker calls this “The Chateau Principle,” which means you shouldn’t host a meeting in a chateau if you don’t want to “remind the French of their greatness.” (The name comes from a story she shares about an ill-fated corporate merger meeting that was hosted in a castle in France.)
Spaces embody the vibe we are going for in our gathering. The surroundings we choose for a meeting or party can make or break the mood, support or undermine our purpose, and encourage or discourage attendees to escape from their typical mindsets.
4. The Non-Chill Host
We often think it is ideal to be laid back and relaxed as a host of a gathering, but Parker reminds us that this is not the case. Guests want their host or facilitator to be in control of the event. As she puts it: “Who wants to sail on a skipperless ship?”
It’s more than ok to set up rules and keep to the agenda that you have set for a gathering. When you don’t steer the ship as the host, you create a vacuum for others to fill, and they might not do it in the way you want.
“A gathering run on generous authority is run with a strong, confidenthand, but is run selflessly, for the sake of others.” — Priya Parker
Parker talks about “generous authority” as a guiding principle for hosts. It is a way to behave that protects, equalizes, and connects your guests. She suggests exuding what she calls “half-Egyptian and half-German authority” (inspired by a friend of hers), which combines the right balance of warmth and order during your gathering.
5. Pregame is Everything
Typically we think that events begin when they begin. Parker reminds us that events actually start long before: they are initiated in how guests are prepared for the gathering. According to Parker: “90% of what makes a gathering successful is put in place beforehand.” For example, you may take time to individually meet with stakeholders before a big meeting, or maybe you send an inspiring article to the attendees of an upcoming dinner party.
Parker shares helpful tidbits about how to positively “prime” your attendees before an event. It’s everything from how your name your gathering (is it a “lockdown” or “brainstorm”?) to how you greet attendees. and usher them into a gathering space. To illustrate the concept of ushering, she talked about the immersive theater experience Then She Fell, where the audience was seated in a small reception area and given a special elixir and a set of keys before entering the alternative world of the show.
Whatever you do, resist the urge to start your gathering with logistics and, instead, launch in a way that sets the tone for the rest of your time together.
6. Don’t Be Afraid of Heat
We’ve been told again and again not to talk about things like politics and religion during gatherings, but Parker has some contrary thinking here as well: “Good controversy can make a gathering matter more.” She feels that too much harmony can make an event dull. Furthermore, in shying away from difficult topics, you might not accomplish what you need to in your gathering.
“I bring good controversy to a gathering only when I believe some good can come out of it — enough good to outweigh the risks and harm.” — Priya Parker
Parker shared how she once encouraged well-mannered architects to dig into potentially controversial work topics. She designed a moment where the architects would have to participate in a virtual “cage match” to debate divergent strategies for the future of their firm. For Parker, “good controversy” can be just that, but it requires someone to design the structure and space for it to happen.
7. How to Say Goodbye
Finally, Parker urges us to think carefully about how our gatherings end so they don’t peter out with a whimper. “Close with a closing,” she says. She tells us never to start a meeting with logistics and we shouldn’t close with them either.
“A good and meaningful closing doesn’t conform to any particular rules or form. It’s something you have to build yourself, in keeping with the spirit of your gathering, in proportion to how big a deal you want to make of it.” — Priya Parker
She suggests a couple of natural ways to close an event. First, you can encourage the guests to make meaning and reflect on what happened. Second, you can have guests share how they are going to reenter the world with the new information they’ve received from the gathering. It’s about connecting our gatherings back to our daily lives. How can a piece of the event stay with attendees? Parker states: “Part of preparing guests for reentry is helping them find a thread to connect the world of the gathering to the world outside.”
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