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Making Meetings Meaningful

A few months ago, I noticed that a top-selling book at online bookseller was not the usual John Grisham or Colleen Hoover novel. Instead, it was a 281-page nonfiction book by Priya Parker titled “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters.” I had to find out more, so I ordered it.

Parker, a facilitator and strategic adviser, urges us to think deeper about why we bring people together. Her goal is to make gatherings more meaningful and effective by focusing on the needs of the people who are gathering and breaking out of the patterns and routines we all fall into.

The book’s not a how-to but rather a call to think harder and more creatively about why and how we gather. Here are a few highlights.

Why are you gathering?

Determining a gathering’s purpose should always be the first step in planning an event, Parker says. And yet, it is often overlooked as planners instead concentrate on creating Martha Stewart-like tablescapes or choosing Travel + Leisure worthy venues. Purpose must come first, Parker points out, because it should drive every other decision, from meeting site to food served. The goal, she says, is to pen purposes that are specific and detailed. For example, instead of “to focus on the year ahead,” as the purpose for a company off-site meeting, come up with a bolder, more personalized purpose like “to build and practice a culture of candor” or “to focus on the fractured relationship between sales and marketing, which is hurting everything else.”

Who and where?

Inviting people is easy; excluding them is hard. Yet, Parker says it is often important to “exclude with purpose.” She recalls a conference of 40 leaders whose goal was to agree on a common vision. One leader asked to bring a guest; organizers said no. Why? Having that person present, they realized, would distract the leader and make him less likely to engage as fully with the others. Parker says organizers trying to create a guest list should ask these two questions: “Who fits and also helps fulfill the gathering’s purpose?” and “Who threatens the purpose?” Then, with purpose and guest list in hand, planners can choose a venue, seeking a space that complements the gathering’s purpose. For example, a venue in the Hollywood Hills overlooking L.A. for an architecture group discussing urban design or a quiet monastery for a faith-based group discussing the future of their church.

Take the reins

Many event organizers take a laissez-faire approach to hosting, Parker says. But she points out attendees want and need to be gently and respectfully governed. They dread the board meeting that is allowed to veer off topic, run long and ultimately accomplish little. Effective gatherings are governed by generous authority, Parker says. The best hosts protect guests, perhaps from one another or from distracting technology. They equalize guests by eliminating hierarchy. An example? Thomas Jefferson’s seating at formal state dinners — there were no assigned seats, and diners seated themselves as they arrived. And the best hosts also find ways to connect guests. At a 120-person conference Parker helped plan, she had attendees change tables each time a new session began. Each time they moved, attendees introduced themselves to their new tablemates. By the day’s end, attendees had met most everyone at the conference. They told Parker they’d never felt so connected to so many people so quickly.

Make your own rules

After you establish purpose, people and place, shake things up a bit by creating a set of “rules” for your event — what Parker calls “pop-up etiquette.” Rather than being authoritarian, Parker says these rules can make an event more democratic because they can be followed by people from all backgrounds. The rules can aid communication — a no-devices policy perhaps — or guide discussion by giving guidelines to limit topics. Parker’s best example of how rules can help bring people together as equals is Diner en Blanc, a one-night, pop-up dinner held in cities all over the world. There are many rules: Diners must bring their own food, drink, china, silverware and small table; everything, from clothing to shoes and tablecloths must be white; everyone puts their tables together in a long line and dines together. A reporter who attended the dinner in Washington, D.C., said it was a refreshing break from typical social climbing events in the capital. “I couldn’t tell who was rich and poor. No one was looking over their neighbor’s shoulder to see who they should really be talking to.”

Begin with a bang; make endings memorable

The chapter “Never Start a Funeral with Logistics” brings a knowing laugh. We’ve all been there, seated at the event that kicks off with a droning recitation of thank yous or announcements about where lunch will be. It’s a huge disappointment for people who come to conferences hoping to be inspired. Find ways, to “honor and awe” an audience at the start, Parker says. In the same vein, events shouldn’t end with thank yous and logistics. Endings are an opportunity to remind participants why their time has been well spent. A closing exercise at a conference could be as simple as giving participants a chance to share a favorite moment. Or have association members merrily depart to music that’s been the event’s theme song as leaders stand along the aisle and applaud them.