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The Art of Gathering Online

April 18, 2020
Patrick Woods
Co-Founder & CEO
The Art of Gathering Online
Welcome to The Observatory, the community newsletter from Orbit.

Each week we go down rabbit holes so you don't have to. We share tactics, trends and valuable resources we've observed in the world of community building.

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  • Organizers should rethink online gatherings from the ground up
  • Each gathering should start with a well-defined and actionable purpose
  • Don’t conflate the category of the event with its purpose
  • From the guest list to event format, organizers should make purposeful decisions, even if they feel hard to make
  • Asking guests to contribute to a gathering ahead of time can increase the quality of the gathering
  • At the event, skip the opening logistics and dive right into the experience
Image comparing horse-drawn carriage to early automobile

When automobiles first appeared on roads around the world, they looked a lot like their predecessors: the horse carriage.

For many years, the perception of cars was just that: “horseless carriages,” and designers and engineers seemed constrained by this paradigm. It would take many years for them to explore cars as an entirely new platform divorced from the expectations and limitations of carriages and to imagine an entirely new reality.

Thanks to COVID-19, the community of community builders finds itself at the beginning of the exact same transition with the shift of in-person to online gatherings.

A recent tweet from David Spinks sums up the challenge and opportunity well.

How can we begin to rethink our events from the ground up?

I recently read The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker, and I think it holds many clues. It’s a must-read for anyone building communities, and I think it provides community builders with a set of questions and ideas that will help us all thoughtfully transition to a world defined by the need to connect in virtual spaces. Here are some of the highlights.

Clarify why you’re gathering

"When we gather, we often make the mistake of conflating category with purpose."

We talk about "online events" and "online conferences," but they're really all just gatherings, and according to Parker, all gatherings need a clearly defined purpose.

Often, though, organizers often get trapped in circular logic when defining their purpose. For example, “We're hosting an online event so we can meet our community online.”

Have you thought about why you’re planning an online event? From the attendees’ perspective, are you trying to educate and inform? To increase connection between community members? To give folks a platform to show off their projects?

From your company’s perspective, is your goal to engage existing community members? To find new ones? To generate leads?

If your answer is, “Yeah, all that,” then you probably haven’t done enough planning. Says Parker,

“Specificity is a crucial ingredient. The more focused and particular a gathering is, the more narrowly it frames itself and the more passion it arouses.”

The driving purpose for your online event shouldn’t be just because “Our in-person events have been canceled.” Instead, your purpose should provide a clear desired outcome that will be guide and inform each planning decision.

How do you know if you’ve arrived at a good purpose? One trait of a powerful and actionable purpose is that it will be disputable.

“If you say the purpose of your wedding is to celebrate love, you may bring a smile to people’s faces, but you aren’t really committing to anything, because who would dispute that purpose?"

For example, a baby shower to celebrate a coming baby is not disputable or particularly actionable. On the other hand, a baby shower that celebrates the equality and contribution of both parents, and involves women and men, would, in many circles, seem like a disputable purpose.

Instead of hosting a general purpose live coding session, what if you created an event for “Devs who Used to Hate JavaScript and Still Do."

Defining your why and discussing and stating your gathering’s purpose in this way will help you plan the right experience and achieve the results you really need.

Make choices that serve your purpose

Michael Porter, godfather of competitive strategy, said “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do." This essence applies specifically to your guest list and agenda, both of which you should consider strictly in service of your gathering’s purpose.

For many community folks, the idea of excluding anyone from an event might seem unimaginable. But according to Parker,

“If everyone is invited, no one is invited—in the sense of being truly held by the group. By closing the door, you create the room.”

Based on your stated purpose, who should be invited to the gathering? Have you built a target list, or are you simply hoping the signup form will attract the right people?

In addition to choices about your guest list, you should decide what format will most effectively serve your purpose. Would a one-to-many webinar make the most sense, or would a 12-person coffee meeting?

"In a world of infinite choices, choosing one thing is the revolutionary act. Imposing that restriction is actually liberating."

Nail the pregame

For many, the bulk of event planning revolves around the day of the event itself—the content and flow, which platform to use, who will MC. But according to Parker, "90 percent of what makes a gathering successful is put in place beforehand."

For the majority of online events I’ve participated in, the bulk of the pre-work on the participant's part is simply to complete a registration form. And ahead of time, the only communications I’ve received from the organizers are template reminders about the event date and time.

But what if asking your participants to do some prep before the event helped achieve your gathering’s purpose?

For a recent event hosted by Heavybit, the speaker, Connie Kwan, asked the participants to complete her Storyteller Type quiz beforehand as a way to educate the audience and set the context for the seminar.

By taking the quiz before the event, I learned just enough about my storyteller type to prepare me for the session and get me excited about asking questions and learning more.

"Asking guests to contribute to a gathering ahead of time changes their perception of it. Many of us have no trouble asking guests to bring a bottle of wine or a side dish, but rarely do we consider what else we might demand of them in advance."

In the world of online-only gatherings, you can’t really ask someone to bring a dessert, but there are definitely ways to help folks download the event’s context and set their intention.

Finally, don’t forget to consider the name of your online gathering—it matters. For example, are you hosting an online meetup, a live coding session, a webinar, or a keyboard party? The choice tells the audience what to expect and how to prepare.

Create a new world

Here’s a mistake that I’ve made many times: kicking things off by going over logistics. "The first change you should make if you want to launch well is to quit starting with logistics.” Most gatherings begin with a few minutes of AV issues, jokes about Zoom backgrounds, then the host describes the ins and outs of the agenda, and that the slides will be available later.

By the time the content or discussion begins, most of the audience will have tuned out to check Slack or email.

Logistical info is important, but starting with logistics signals to those gatheried that they’re in for business-as-usual. Parker encourages organizers to aspire to something greater:

"Anticipation builds between the initial clap of thunder and the first drops of rain; hope and anxiety mingle. And then when that opening moment finally comes, it is time to give your guests a message: A magical kingdom exists, and you are invited inside."

For in-person events, it can be as simple as lighting a candle, dimming the nights, ringing a gong, pouring a special drink for everyone, or taking a few moments to meditate silently.

What might this look like for online gatherings?


I look forward to the creativity and innovation we’re likely to see as we work together to define what community means in a post-COVID era. It will take time for skills and intuition of community leaders to translate into an online-only context, but by asking hard questions and clarifying our purpose, we’ll discover new ways to impact and empower our communities, unlocking the unique benefits of online gathering, and moving beyond the “horseless carriage” era of online meetups.

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