Meetings, events, networking and sometimes lectures or talks, get a bad wrap these days. The fear of imposing or worse having a bad event that people can’t wait to get out of is a real dilemma for anyone who gathers people together.

In Ms. Parker’s excellent book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, she lays out why meetings and gatherings of people fail and how make a real difference in your own events whether they be for business or in your personal life.

One of the first items that Ms. Parker addresses is that we rarely define and share what the purpose of a meeting is, and to make matter worse when we do, we often confuse category with purpose. For example, what is the purpose of birthday party, wedding, dinner party, or baby shower? If thoughts immediately turn to celebrate getting one year older, getting married, food with friends, or a celebration of pregnancy; Ms. Parker points out that these are the categories of the event not the purpose. To think about why we have a birthday party on a particular year allows us to create something with more meaning at a moment in time.

In addition, The Art of Gathering shows that people meet in particular forms as a type of ritual. We continue with the ritual form because it can show belonging to a group or hierarchy – or just because change is hard. However, the purpose of the meeting may no longer fit the ritual, or the purpose may have drifted over time. Baby showers, for example, were originally held with the purpose of helping to prepare new parents to become a family. While in the past, looking after children was the sole responsibility of women, and so a woman only baby shower made sense; today most parents share parenting duties. Does is therefore still make sense to make a baby shower a female only affair? Likewise does a newsroom need to hold a single mid-morning meeting to decide on what will be printed on tomorrow’s front page, when articles can be published online as soon as they are written and will have a potentially higher readership? In a time before the internet, the front page of a newspaper could often be the make or break or a reporter’s career or a newspaper’s business – those days have gone, but the rituals often continue.  

Gatherings with purpose take a stand. This will not be liked by everyone; however, rarely are gatherings where everyone is happy enthralling. The more focused and narrow the purpose, the more passion it is likely to provoke. When we stop thinking about “what” and start thinking about “why” we start to find the beliefs and values that create purpose. Working backward from an outcome can also help figure out whether a meeting should even happen in the first place.

The Art of Gathering covers purpose, preparation, invitations, content, the host’s role, starting and endings, and why all of these matter. We can’t complaint about lackluster meetings if we are not prepared to think about the why and how we are meeting. And since we so rarely think about these things Ms. Parker’s book is breath of fresh air and an invaluable management tool.