Artisans of Meetings: Reflections from Priya Parker’s “The Art of Gathering”

When we discover the universal meaning behind our day-to-day activities, we can connect our job with the greater good and, ultimately, move towards our objectives with much more enthusiasm and determination, virtues that, when strengthened, can have a significant impact on the satisfaction and motivation of the current world’s workforce.

In this year’s final edition of HQ, instead of the usual Kenes Group PCO Insights, I will share a few reflections from “The Art of Gathering,” a book from 2018 that found its place on my night table during my exploration of the meetings sector’s higher purpose.

The author, Priya Parker, draws from approximately 140 case studies and examples to illustrate why and how humans gather, providing profound inspiration for us, as event organisers, to guide the process of meetings and create meaningful experiences.

A Category (networking or celebration) is Not a Purpose

Priya Parker invites us to create meetings that take a stand by committing to a purpose that is specific, singular, and open to question. She points out that meetings designed to please everyone are rarely exciting ones. She also offers a couple of practical approaches to define the purpose of a gathering:

 To step back and consider where our meeting fits into the bigger picture.
 To scrutinize it by questioning each of the initial statements regarding why we want to host this gathering. “Don’t ask yourself what your country can do for your meeting but what your meeting can do for your country,” Parker exemplifies.
 To apply reverse engineering from the desired result, starting by considering the expected outcomes of the meetings and working backwards until the purpose becomes clear.
 Without a genuine purpose, give people their time back and refrain from organising a gathering.

A well-defined Purpose serves as a Filter

The individuals invited to the event, as well as the venue in which it is held, should embody the purpose.
Parker elaborates on the “kindness of exclusion” for those who will not contribute to achieving the expected outcomes as a gesture of appreciation to the attendees. “People who don’t fulfil the purpose of the meeting subtract value from it,” she writes. The author encourages hosts to reflect upon the following three questions to create a purpose-oriented guest list:

 Who, aside from fitting the purpose of the meeting, helps in achieving it?
 Who jeopardises the purpose of the meeting?
 Who is irrelevant to the purpose of the meeting, but you feel obliged to invite?

A thorough discussion about inclusion follows in the book, where Parker argues that over-inclusion can lead to superficial connections, and she discusses the values that take precedence in groups of different sizes. For instance, intimacy and exchange are fostered in groups of up to six people; an exciting and inclusive conversation occurs in groups of between eight and twelve, with enough diversity of opinions for decision-making; groups of thirty already create a vibrant, party-like atmosphere; groups of 150 to 200 resemble a tribe, according to some anthropologists, and anything over that number, she describes as “tides of humanity,” tapping into a convulsive energy.

Create a Temporary Alternative World

Regarding the venue, Parker suggests that each location comes with its own script and, therefore, brings forth a certain version of people. She conveys that logistics are often prioritised over purpose in the choice of a venue. “You should, for starters, seek a setting that embodies the reason for your gathering. When a place embodies an idea, it engages a person’s body and whole being in the experience, not just their mind,” she explains. Other factors like perimeter, area, and density are also considered.

The book includes many examples to show how a place can either contribute to a purpose or completely sabotage it. Parker recounts a story that gave rise to the “Château Principle” – a multimillion-dollar deal between US and French telecommunication companies that fell apart after two years of amicable discussions when a castle in France replaced the original, more neutral location, upsetting the sense of equity among the organisations’ leaders.

Beyond the venue, Parker elaborates on how pop-up rules that only apply during meetings help transport attendees to a temporary alternative world that only exists while the gathering takes place. She also discusses the significance of physically or metaphorically transporting guests in and out of the meeting through a corridor that will guide them in leaving an inauthentic version of themselves outside of the experience. And reminds us that the event begins before the official opening, from the moment the invitation is sent out until the guests return to their original worlds.

A Good Controversy, the Beginning and the End

Some of the key lessons of this book concern what the author calls the “generous authority” of the organisers, referring to the hosts’ ability to serve the audience as well as skillfully lead a good argument in favour of the expected outcomes. “Don’t be a chill host. ‘Chill’ is selfishness disguised as kindness,” is one of the book section’s heading.

Another interesting principle she delves into is based on studies showing that event attendees tend to remember the first and last five per cent of the gathering with a much higher level of accuracy and emotional involvement. Parker places strong emphasis on both the beginning and the end of a meeting, explicitly encouraging hosts to avoid squandering these moments on announcements, logistics, or acknowledgements and, instead, connect them back to the purpose.

Gathering, when embraced as an Art

The stories and experiences compiled by Priya Parker in “The Art of Gathering” are evidence of her life’s work, fully dedicated to embracing the act of meeting as a complex and wholesome expression of a core human need. They are intelligent and humorous illustrations of what happens in society when people are placed at the centre of an event, rather than operations and logistics, and what happens when the opposite is the case.

While 2023 ends with a lively discussion about the talents that will prevail in the face of the rise of artificial intelligence and other technologies of our era, “The Art of Gathering” presents a compelling proposition: when embraced as an art form, our work in this niche – which I personally refuse to call an “industry” – reveals its higher purpose of enabling meaningful connections, creating alternative worlds, elevating conversations, shifting mindsets, and changing outdated structures to give birth to entirely new societies.

Kenes Group Media & Communications Manager, Estefanía Zárate Angarita

This article was originally published in HeadQuarters Magazine by Meeting Media Group – Issue # 112 November 2023 “How to attract the Next Generation of talent to your organization?”: