Why do you gather?
It may sound like a strange question, but really — why do you gather? Do you throw birthday parties to reflect upon your last year and set intentions for the next one? Or do you throw them because it’s what you’re supposed to do? Do you have games at baby showers so the mom-to-be can absorb advice from veteran mothers about how to take on the new role? Or do you have your baby shower attendees engage in games because you’ve played games at every shower you’ve attended?
Too often, we gather for reasons and in ways we have always done it. What’s worse, we don’t often challenge the rituals we engage in. For example, is the dollar dance at weddings a true celebration of the union of two people? Or is it more of a prosaic tradition, the origin and intention of which is debatable?
Enter Priya Parker
Without getting too cynical about it, we want to point out just how often we gather with no purpose, no direction, and no discretion about the activities in which we commonly engage. Being that Studio/E is part tools and methodology, part community, and part experiences, it has become increasingly important to ensure we’re hosting gatherings with purpose. With more clarity on our intentions around events, we brought Priya Parker, master facilitator, strategic advisor, and author of the book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters to Studio/E for an incredible (and memorable, if we do say so ourselves) event.
Priya’s work reveals why gatherings so often go wrong and what to consider in order to create meaningful experiences big and small. In her book, Priya breaks down her bold approach to transforming gatherings into eight chapters, each a valuable lesson on its own. During our event, she welcomed us into her world and we were able to experience a great gathering first-hand.
We’ve collected some of Priya’s most powerful suggestions for creating gatherings that matter, both from her book and from our time spent with her. If you want to bring your gatherings to the next level; if you want people to find meaning in the events you host; we suggest taking a page from Priya’s book — literally and figuratively.
Here are some of Priya’s many tips for gathering greatly:
Give your gathering a purpose.
Priya is hard on this point, and with good reason. She says one of the biggest mistakes we make when gathering is assuming we know why we’re gathering in the first place. Too often, we confuse category with purpose. A birthday party, for example, is a category — not a purpose. This quinceañera, on the other hand, had a distinct purpose. The birthday girl, Aleida, not only used her party as an opportunity to encourage her guests to vote in upcoming elections, but she also invited the Latino youth advocacy group Jolt Initiative to help register her guests to vote.
If you’re hard-pressed to figure out a purpose, ask yourself what need you and a specific group of people could address by gathering, just like Aleida did. Think about your personal purpose (or what we call your Desire) and see if that might inspire something. Whatever the purpose of your event, make sure it is specific and disputable. People should be able to disagree with the purpose, which brings us to another one of Priya’s tips for artful gatherings:
Exclude people generously.
A powerful purpose will act as a bouncer for your gathering because it won’t appease everyone. Even if you’re of the more the merrier mindset, you still want to pick and choose who your gathering is for. This creates focus for the event and camaraderie among the guests. If you’re worried about offending people, don’t be (we know this is easier said than done) and think about it this way instead: It’s actually generous of you to exclude someone from an event who doesn’t agree with its purpose. You’re respecting their time while providing more value to those who are in attendance.
Turn a space into a place.
The whole world is a stage, so let your venue be your script. When you walk into a dance club versus a living room versus a graveyard, all of a sudden you begin to play the role the venue signals is appropriate. So once you decide on the purpose of your gathering, think about how a venue could either interrupt the script everyone’s stuck in (like a bar for a bachelor party, for example), or how the venue could serve the purpose. Priya explains with a great birthday party example below:
Ideas need names; so do gatherings.
Priya says naming your gatherings is half the battle of creating meaning. A gathering is a social contract and by naming it (and having a clear purpose), you’re preparing guests for what the future event is and how they are expected to show up. It’s important to keep in mind that the point of discovery for your event is the moment the guests receive their invitations, whether via letterpressed cards or an abbreviated text message. This is when the event begins, and from then until the end of your event, you are the host.
Mind the magic number
Priya is of the (professional) opinion that the number of guests should serve your purpose. Six is a great number for intimacy and conversations, but it can be risky because you can’t bear any dead weight. If you want a lively conversation, 12 – 14 is the magic number, but you’ll want two people among the group to serve as hosts and guides, as it can be easy to hide in groups of this size. Twenty to 30 people make a gathering a party, and 120 is about the size of a tribe. If you’re throwing a wedding, 120 people is large enough for the couple to feel like they’re truly surrounded by their community and small enough where they can look everyone in the eye and know their names.
Design opportunities for eye contact
Like all of Priya’s ideas about how to create meaningful gatherings, this is important for events both big and small. For a dinner party of six, consider putting two people at the head seats and two per side, rather than three per side like a restaurant would ordinarily situate a table. This contains the group and creates an opportunity for everyone to be able to see everyone. Similarly, in bigger gatherings, consider how you can configure the space so people aren’t looking at the backs of others’ heads. For our event 140-person event with Priya, she requested we had seating in the round. This worked beautifully and gave everyone a unique perspective.
This is by no means an exhaustive list (Priya’s book has dozens of other suggestions if you want more), but if you intend to gather artfully, remember to:
- Have a purpose
- Exclude generously
- Turn a space into a place
- Name your gathering
- Heed the magic number
- Design opportunities for eye contact