The Art Of Gathering Online: Two steps to make or break your virtual event, before you even send an invite!

Real-Life Gatherings were never disappointing! (-said no one ever)

Virtual events are billed as a poor replacement for in-person gatherings. And there is certainly room for criticism, which you’ll find all over the internet starting long before lockdowns and travel restrictions in 2020.

But, let’s be honest, we’ve all been to plenty of disappointing real-life events too. 

No doubt, you’ll recall droning speeches at weddings or meetings, events where guests were just a messy logistic of promoting a brand message, or dinners and gatherings that made you wonder why you were there in the first place. 

So, it’s not like all in-person get-togethers are amazing.

Perhaps if we could understand what makes the difference between an inspiring, energetic real-life event compared to a boring one, we might be able to create virtual events that are much better than a lot of real-life events!

The good news is someone has done the heavy thinking for you!

Priya Parker, the author of “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters,” has spent 15 years figuring out the deeper themes and threads involved in creating meaningful gatherings.

Priya didn’t write her book thinking about online events, but the lessons still apply as long as you’re human! And in this article, you’ll find ways to use her ideas to create meaningful events that resonate with your online guests today.

Virtual events are billed as a poor replacement for in-person gatherings. And there is certainly room for criticism, which you’ll find all over the internet starting long before lockdowns and travel restrictions in 2020.

But, let’s be honest, we’ve all been to plenty of disappointing real-life events too. 

No doubt, you’ll recall droning speeches at weddings or meetings, events where guests were just a messy logistic of promoting a brand message, or dinners and gatherings that made you wonder why you were there in the first place. 

So, it’s not like all in-person get-togethers are amazing.

Perhaps if we could understand what makes the difference between an inspiring, energetic real-life event compared to a boring one, we might be able to create virtual events that are much better than a lot of real-life events!

The good news is someone has done the heavy thinking for you!

Priya Parker, the author of “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters,” has spent 15 years figuring out the deeper themes and threads involved in creating meaningful gatherings.

Priya didn’t write her book thinking about online events, but the lessons still apply as long as you’re human! And in this article, you’ll find ways to use her ideas to create meaningful events that resonate with your online guests today.

So let’s get started with…

The 90% Rule

“90 percent of what makes a gathering successful is put in place beforehand.” Randa Slim, quoted by Priya Parker.

The first steps that can guarantee any event’s success need to happen long before your guests knock at your door or log in to your event.

In her book, Priya Parker mentions two foundational bedrocks for the preparation phase of your event. And we are going to translate those two fundamentals into an easy application for your virtual events. They are clarity of purpose for your event and the magic of Priming.

These two tools work together and will make a night and day difference for your event with just a little bit of thought and care for your guest’s experience. Ready? 

If so, take a brief moment and ask yourselves. 

What is the true purpose of my gathering? Why is it important that we get together? How does my gathering stand out in the minds of my guests? And, why gather at all?

What differentiates a monotonous Friday night get-together with work colleagues from a well-planned farewell party for a workmate that sparks warmth and nostalgia? 

If you don’t have the answers to these questions, you are not alone. So, let’s dive right in and uncover the underrated value of purpose for your events! 

You see, oftentimes, people gather to share a special moment even if they don’t know it! Whether it is face-to-face or online, our ultimate goal is to achieve something by meeting. Whether that is to shake up our mundane reality by connecting with others, or to challenge ourselves by being exposed to new points of view. 

Paradoxically, you might easily achieve all of these quite easily in an unplanned business meeting or a coincidental chat with a stranger on the street. 

Then, why is it that we struggle so much to make our events meaningful and memorable once we actually start planning it at scale? What are we missing out on?

As Priya Parker says, “Much of the time we spend in gatherings with other people disappoints us (…) Most of us remain on autopilot when we bring people together, following stale formulas, hoping that the chemistry of a good meeting, conference, or party will somehow take care of itself, that thrilling results will magically emerge from the usual staid inputs. It is almost always a vain hope.” 

So, what usually happens is that we get stuck fussing over the details of logistics and material details of an event, and quite frankly, poison the possibility of excitement and memorability of our events. 

Which venue to choose? What platform to use? What should the dress code be? Who should be invited? Where to get the cake?, What colors should the theme be? But, why let logistics take over the true potential of your event? 

As the host, you have the opportunity to go beyond the logistics and create a transformative moment. 

Even for a simple dinner party, imagine having your guests openly talk about how their views on life have changed as an adult, versus an unexciting discussion about  the weather or sports.

To help your guests create special moments, you’ll begin by finding a unique purpose for your event. And, to find that unique purpose, you have to dig a little deeper than you are used to. 

The secret is to move away from questions that start with what, where, and who. Instead, keep asking yourself why until you hit a core belief and value that connects with your gathering. 

For example, let’s take an annual gala night at the community theatre, which will run virtually this year through video conferencing. Here are our questions to the host.

  • Why are you running this gala? 
    Because we care about our patrons, and it is an opportunity for us to collect donations for our community theatre.
  • Why do you have one every year? 
    Because this has been the tradition, and our patrons like to get together this time of the year. 
  • Why do they like to get together this time of the year? 
    Hmm, I guess it is a way of reconnecting with the theatre community and appreciating art. A-ha!
  • And why is that important? 
    Because we wholeheartedly care about theatre, so reconnecting with like-minded people reminds us how our community contributes to the bond we forged over time and comforts us because we are passing this tradition along to our children, who will carry the torch to future generations.

A-ha! Now, we got to something meaningful, valuable, and unique. Imagine the event that you’d design around that final answer! 

Once you specify your gathering’s purpose, you will notice that the activities around it are only your canvas, not the reason for gathering or the focus of the relationship you build with your guests. 


And speaking of building those relationships with your guests. Now that you understand the importance of a strong purpose for your event you right to the second step of your planning: Priming

Your event starts waaaay before the actual start date of your event…

In an ideal world, guests would show up to events breathlessly excited for the experience they’re about to have, and ready to contribute to creating a great event with you…

But too often, we end up with a lackluster atmosphere as guests enter our event spaces, as we cross our fingers and hope that people will have a good time.

The good news is that you can stop hoping because you can ensure that your guests are in the mood and ready for a great time with a simple tool!

Earlier, we discussed the importance of a clear purpose for your event. Through the lens of that purpose, you already have some idea of how you want guests to be feeling once they arrive. And Priming is the magic tool to create those feelings of anticipation, expectation, and excitement a long time before your guests arrive.

Because the event doesn’t start when guests show up at the door.

Your event starts as soon as your guests find out about your event!

Now, Priming might sound like a big job, but it’s not, especially when you already have a purpose for your event. Just a little bit of attention to detail in your initial communication with your guests can build a snowball of excitement by the time your event rolls around. 

And, Priming doesn’t need to be complicated, but there’s a lot to consider…

If you were running an offline event, Priming might consist of: “what kind of paper should I use for the invite?”; “is formal language on the invitation going set the tone better than informal language?”; “should I ask the guest to wear a tux, or formal evening wear?” And so on.

At a slightly more profound level, you would ask, what should the guest expect of the event? AND very importantly, what does the event expect of the guest? (I’ll get back to this question in a moment)

These questions connect back to the fundamental question, what emotions do I want the guest to be feeling when they arrive at my event?

And they are crucial questions, but you can handle them easily…

Here’s a quick example of how simple Priming can be…

“When the Walt Disney Company sent out invitations to its Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiere, the company reassured its guests that “parking for your Landspeeder, Sandcrawler or other transportation vehicle will be provided.” Simple as that (this message communicated that): This gathering will be playful, and it is for die-hards who live and breathe Star Wars.”

Excerpt From: Priya Parker. “The Art of Gathering.” iBooks. 

You can imagine that guests for that premier were already smiling about the event as they read the invitation.

Now, if you think about online events, it’s not a giant leap to apply these ideas. You can begin to create an atmosphere of fun just by the emails that you send out (and you don’t even need to think about which paper to choose!).

And there are other simple things you can do to create energy and excitement in your guests that they will pour into your event once it starts. One of these things is to ask your guest to do something to contribute to the event. In offline events, we often request guests to bring something, but this can be a wasted opportunity (even in the offline world!).

Think about it like this; your guest actively preparing for your event is a massive win for everyone when the event happens!

First of all, your active guest feels more ownership and contribution to the event. All the other guests are buoyed by seeing fellow guests actively involved in participating in the event. And, you, the host, get to rest easy in the knowledge that your guests are (creating) and having a great time!

So what could this preparation look like?

Well, guests can’t bring a potato salad, cornbread, or curry to share at your online event. But they can bring a glass of wine, or wear a certain type of clothing or have a meaningful photo at hand to share when they’re at their webcam!

Look at these possibilities…

Making a toast together is just as meaningful online as offline. Feeling a moment of shared commonality and laughter as everyone shows up wearing a feather boa can be all your guests need to break the ice and start authentic conversations with each other. And the vulnerability of sharing a meaningful story about a special photograph can create empathy and connection between guests regardless of how many time zones separate them.

If all your guests can have something in common to create a shared moment together, they can feel immediately connected to the other guests and the event’s unique purpose.

Parker’s examples for her gatherings involve having guests fill out and return a small workbook with six to ten questions. The questions usually allow the guest to reflect on their own sense of purpose for the event. And also, let the guest share with the host some of the challenges they personally face related to the purpose of the event.

The guests who fill out those workbooks have now invested themselves in the event. They’ve also given the event organizer valuable information that will shape the event to the guests’ needs. And finally, the guest and host have begun a relationship based on sharing confidences and vulnerabilities.

You can see there are a lot of ways to make priming work for your guests and events…

And, as you can imagine, this is not an exhaustive discussion of what’s possible with purpose & priming. But, just knowing what you want guests to feel and what kind of atmosphere they will be enjoying (and creating at your event) will give you more than enough fuel to create impactful and memorable experiences wherever you meet.

You see… “Online events present an opportunity to demonstrate how to effectively, respectfully, honorably, and authentically communicate and interact online and develop meaningful, long-lasting relationships. We have an opportunity on this platform to stimulate productive collaboration.” – George C. Huang, Director of Customer Success at Remo

Especially, as we go through these unprecedented times, it is necessary to acknowledge that we may not be able to change or control everything in the external world. Still, we can choose to shift our attention to making things better and look for the silver linings of this ongoing virtual challenge. 

“Every adversity brings with it the seed of an equivalent advantage” – Napoleon Hill, the author of Think and Grow Rich.

So, whether you are hosting in-person gatherings, or you’re using technology to create virtual events, you, as the event host, now have two crucial tools to create moments your guests will cherish when you bring them together. 

As a pioneer of this dramatic transformation from real-life to virtual, this is THE moment to push your creative edge as you plan out your coming events. You have the opportunity to contribute to designing and leading how people gather, in ways that no other generation has before. 

Are you ready to be the catalyst for change?

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