Professor Joe Goldblatt reviews The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker.
Professor Goldblatt is the author, co – author and editor of 39 of books in the field of events management.
When I first experienced the author Priya Parker and her husband Anan Giridharadas at the virtual SXSW Festival in March of 2021 I was fascinated at the immeditately obvious chemistry between these two successful people. It almost appeared that as one individual would inhale a thought or aspiration the other would seamlessly exhale an additional thought or ambition. They are indeed kindred spirits and therefore it was interesting to see Anan so effectively interview his wife who in 2019 wrote this very well received book.
My intrigue of course deepened from the author’s first response about how she came to write the book as I had thirty years earlier written a book on a similar theme entitled “Special Events, The Art and Science of Celebration” (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1989). My interest and respect for her views was then finally and firmly solidified after reading her very well conceived and effectively written book.
Priya Parker has not actually produced the types of events I am most familiar with such as major sports ceremonies, world’s fairs, international exhibitions, or even bar and bat mitzvahs. However, what she has done is to become a well respected observer, scholar and consultant of why people gather and how to make these gatherings more meaningful.
Her interest in gathering first developed as a college student when she became interested in the human dynamics of race relations. I suppose my own interest in why and how people gather also developed from my generation’s commitment to human rights in the nineteen sixties as we marched in the streets to end the war in Vietnam or to boycott lettuce in protest over the working conditions of migrant workers in Texas and California.
Therefore, from the first page of her well researched and exhaustively evidenced book I felt as though I was, thirty years later, seeing the new world of gatherings through a fresh and sharp pair of eyes. For example, she emphasises early on in the book that the way a group of people is gathered determines what happens in it and how successful it is. She explains in this same section that her book is part personal journey and part guidebook and that indeed it is.
Priya Parker provides significant evidence of what can happen if you do not take the necessary time to decide why you are really gathering. She describes this fundemental step as convening people meaningfully and provides many valuable expamples of how to move from general gather to highly specific techniques for convening unique groups. As I read these pages, I imagined a well equipped laboratory where Professor Parker and her lab assistants were experimenting with giant petri dishes filled with different personality types to seek out the best possible reaction when these groups are combined in one setting. Her observations reminded me of my original theory of the Five W’s for the research stage for event development that include why the event must occur, who should be including, when it should be held, where it should be located and what are the constraintes, opportunities and outcomes that are desired.
Priya Parker also introduces the reader to many interesting sources of academic research such as the anthropologist Robin Dunbar who famously established a theory entitled Dunbar’s Number. Professor Dunbar identified the number 150 as the maximum number of people that may meet at one time and still meet everyone who is present at the gathering. She couples this academic evidence with dozens of highly relevant social and business case studies to illustrate why details such as the venue size are critically important to the outcome of the gathering.
As I used my highlighter marking device to help me remember key important elements of this book, I found myself eventually practically dipping the entire manuscript in the bright yellow marking colour because I found so many good ideas that supported my earlier research and professional experience.
However, I also began to feel as though that at some point her very interesting and precise prescriptions for successful gatherings should also be more carefully scrutinized from my own five decades of professional and academic experience in this field.
During my experience as both guest and host, I have come to realise that whilst individuals have different motivations for attending multiple types of gatherings, they all share one common goal and that is to have been successful in delivering and / or achieving an outcome that is enjoyed, valued, cherished and remembered in a positive manner. Parker suggests that this often happens through the leadership of the host. She offers numerous examples of what happens when there is not a strong leader for the event and whilst I agree this element is important, I also believe, as does Parker that one size or type of host will never fit all manner of events.
I have often returned to Julia Rutherford Silver’s Six A’s for the Anatomy of the Event for guidance in terms of the best practice formula for arranging events. Silvers, who wrote four very popular books in the field of event management argues that anticipation, arrival, atmosphere, activity, appetite and amenities provide the spinal structure that enables an event to progress logically, creatively, seamlessly and ultimately successfully.
As I completed Ms. Parker’s innovative and in many ways groundbreaking book, I wondered if in the second edition of this book, she might incorporate additional literature from the canon of events management text books in order to offer further gravitas for her often very wise and very interesting observations. In fact, she concludes her book by describing one very creative gathering where the guests wondered how to designate a proper departure for their gathering and they agreed to simply and quietly one by one leave the venue without saying good bye. As I imagined these guests wandering into the night I hoped that one day they might return and experience what I describe as the ultimate verdict of a successful event.
When our two sons hosted our twenty – fifth wedding anniversary celebration in New Orleans, Louisana the rowdy and happy occassion included a jazz band and guests actually dancing on top of their chairs. As the official ending time of the party approached my eldest son turned to me and whispered “Papa, how do we stop this? We have only paid for the band to play for another fifteen minutes.” I told him that most events with music wind down following the last song from the band and therefore recommended that our sons invite the band to play “When the Saints Come Marching In” and to lead the 25 guests from the restaurant onto the street.” My son smiled with great relief and a few minutes later we were all happily dancing in the street. Indeed, in my view, the best measure of success of a gathering is when no one wants to leave.
In Priya Parker’s fascinating book, she actually interviewed one of the greatest of all party planners, whom I also interviewed in 1988. Lady Elizabeth Anson (1941 – 2020) was a first cousin to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and owned and operated a successful party production business in London for many decades. She confided to Parker that the only regret she ever had in producing an event was when she allowed a host to force her to have the band play an additional song after the final song at the event. The party ended with a thud because instead of having twenty ecstatic people on the dance floor holding on for dear life to a happy memory the party was forced to peter out with a few people to its final sad death.
I am convinced, having witnessed the magnetic chemistry between Priya Parker and Anand Giridharadas and digesting her pioneering tome, that the art of future gathering is in very good hands indeed. Priya and Anand bring with them the three essential elements that create successful and memorable gatherings.
Firstly, they individually and together they respect the power of groups to collectively change the world.
Second, they honour the role of the host as a kind of catalyst whose expermiments may produce new outcomes from these groups.
Third and most importantly, although it is not overtly obvious, I sense from their spirit that they know that gatherings, despite the best of plans, often become even greater due to the magic and mystery of unplanned experiences that happen when humans gather. For all these reasons and too many more to list in this brief review, I strongly recommend your obtain and read this inspiring book to help insure your future gatherings have purpose, meaning and greater success.
Therefore, here is to much more magic and mystery in and from the lives of Priya and Anand through the important work they shall do individually and together in the future and in so doing improve the world immesaurably, one gathering at a time.