Never Start a Funeral with Logistics



Never Start a Funeral with Logistics

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Until now, we have explored how to give your gathering a purpose, and how to start making decisions based on it. We’ve discussed choosing guests and a location in keeping with that purpose. We’ve talked about finding your voice as a host to keep your gathering true to that purpose. We’ve experimented with formats and rules that may spice things up.

At some point, though, the big day itself will arrive, and our thoughts must turn from preparation to operation. What do you actually do with these people?


Before your event starts, it has begun

Your gathering begins at the moment your guests first learn of it. This may sound obvious, but it’s not. If it were obvious, hosts wouldn’t fail to host the pregame for their gathering as often as they do. In my experience, hosts often think of their event as beginning when you call the meeting to order or take your seats at the wedding or walk into your dinner party. In each of these cases, your guests have been thinking about and preparing for and anticipating your gathering well in advance of that moment. They have been experiencing your gathering from what I call the moment of discovery. The intentional gatherer begins to host not from the formal start of the event but from that moment of discovery.

This window of time between the discovery and the formal beginning is an opportunity to prime your guests. It is a chance to shape their journey into your gathering. If this chance is squandered, logistics can again overrun the human imperative of getting the most out of your guests and offering them the most your gathering can. Moreover, the less priming you do in this pregame window, the more work awaits you during the gathering itself.

Because so much gathering advice comes from experts in food and decor rather than from facilitators, that advice almost invariably focuses on preparing things instead of preparing people. This advice makes the pregame window about physical setup rather than human initiation, about the gathering space and not what it holds: people.

For example, Martha Stewart has published on her website a “Party-Planning Guide.” It contains a helpful twenty-nine-item checklist for would-be hosts. Stewart covers what must be done weeks in advance (“Choose the type of party you want to throw”) and what must be done in the hours before showtime (“Set up the bar, if it is not already done”). What struck me, though, is that only three of Stewart’s steps involve communicating with guests, and each of these is logistical: mail or email invitations; let guests know what to make if it’s a potluck; chase guests who haven’t yet RSVP’d.

In this vision, people are to be corralled, not prepared. Compare this lack of human preparation to the kind of preparation that Stewart suggests for things: “1 Day Before: Wash and prepare salad greens and other vegetables, and blanch vegetables for crudités (keep these wrapped in paper towels). Refrigerate all separately, in airtight containers.” This encapsulates the prevailing approach to gathering that I hope to change: fussing over the crudités and hoping for the best when it comes to the human beings. We deserve better.

One finds similar counsel from Rashelle Isip, a blogger, a consultant, and the author of How to Plan a Great Event in 60 DaysShe breaks creating a gathering into the “10 Lists You Need to Make to Plan a Great Party or Event.” There is the “Theme list,” the “Budget list,” the “Decoration list,” the “Music playlist,” and so on. The tips are helpful, but all ten focus on the logistics of things and people, not on the priming of the guests. It’s not that these logistics don’t matter. They absolutely do. But it is remarkable how little space there is in advice guides like this for getting people ready.

Contrast this approach with what occurs when hosts focus during the pregame window on preparing human beings and not crudités.

Four months after he got engaged, Felix Barrett, a prominent London-based theater director, received a key in the mail in an envelope marked “To be continued.” He heard nothing else for months. “It was blissful torture,” he later said, “the whole world suddenly took on a heightened hyper-real feeling, and everything was shrouded in mystery.”

Barrett was no stranger to mysterious experiences, but he was used to being in the driver’s seat when they happened. The artistic director of Punchdrunk, an immersive theater company in Britain, Barrett has shaken up his field with his staging of daring interactive plays. In his New York City version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, titled Sleep No More, your belongings are taken from you at the entrance, you are separated from your party, and you are given a white mask to wear for the duration of the show, a shot of liquor, and an invitation to explore five floors of an abandoned warehouse in Chelsea.

Now the tables were turned on Barrett. After that first envelope arrived, he waited. Eventually, another letter arrived: “Now we can begin.” A suitcase was delivered to him at work. Inside, he later told The New York Times, he found a tide table, map coordinates, and a small shovel. He followed the coordinates and found himself on the banks of the River Thames. There, he dug up a box full of photographs of words on a computer screen. Those photographs told him that if he completed a series of challenges, he would be welcomed into a secret society.

For weeks, he would receive bizarre prompts from odd messengers: strangers, the words on a cat collar, letters in remote vacation spots. Each prompt included some kind of challenge that he would have to complete were he to enter this secret society. Barrett being Barrett, he obliged. He found himself doing half marathons and climbing between boats on ropes. Each individual challenge presumably took him one step closer to that secret society.

Then suddenly one day he was blindfolded, kidnapped, and taken to an old manor house where he was greeted by thirty men in hooded robes. They were his best friends. He was at the bachelor party of a lifetime—his own.

Barrett’s friends understood two things well in organizing his bachelor party. First, that a gathering starts long before guests walk through the door. The clock of the gathering starts, so to speak, from the moment a guest becomes aware of its existence. For Barrett, the moment he received the key in the envelope, his journey into the gathering had begun. And from that moment onward, his friends knew that they were hosting Barrett all the way to the actual gathering. And that how they hosted him would shape how he showed up to the gathering.

The 90 percent rule

A colleague in the conflict-resolution field taught me a principle I have never forgotten: 90 percent of what makes a gathering successful is put in place beforehand.

Randa Slim is the director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Raised amid the traumas of the Lebanese civil war, she emigrated to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She has since become one of the leading practitioners of track-one-and-a-half and track-two diplomacy, in which current and former officials, alongside influential private citizens from multiple sides of a conflict, take part in dialogue in their personal capacities, to complement official diplomacy—often by having more honest exchanges than are possible in official negotiations. Over the past twenty years, Slim has run some of the most ambitious ongoing group dialogues in the Middle East.

One such project was a dialogue series in which she brought leaders from the United States and Europe together with leading Arab Islamic and secular opposition leaders. The group met three times a year, for three days at a time, for three years, to build trust and find ground for new relationships between their respective countries. The group consisted of twenty influential citizens with the ear of their governments, but the freedom to speak as individuals.

Before the visas were obtained, before the agenda was built, before anyone got on a plane, Slim spent two years flying around the Middle East, using her own contacts, deep credibility, and fluent Arabic to identify the right guests and prepare them for the dialogue. In some cases, she would build trust with potential participants by sitting for hours while having tea with their family. In other cases, she had to convince party leaders to overturn established policies prohibiting meetings with former U.S. officials. She traveled vast distances into disputed territories to demonstrate goodwill, to prove that she was willing to take risks, much as she was asking her guests to do. For two years, Slim focused on securing political permission for the participants and preparing her guests for the dialogue. She knew how vital it was that her interlocutors trust her. You “need from the beginning to reinforce your interlocutors’ belief that you will never bullshit them; you will never promise what you cannot deliver; that you will always be straightforward with them; that there are no hidden agendas,” she told me. This is what she is getting at when she says that 90 percent of the gathering’s success is set in motion before the actual convening. She calls it “the pre-dialogue dialogue phase.”

Now, most of us aren’t going to spend two years flying around the Middle East to pregame our gathering. I am telling you about Slim not to suggest that you copy her methods, but because there are lessons to be learned from the philosophy underpinning her approach.

One of those lessons has to do with the scale of the ask and the scale of the preparation. The bigger the ask—say, if you’re having people travel long distances to attend your gathering—the more care, attention, and detail should be put into the pregame phase. You need to attend to your guests in this pregame window in proportion to the risk and effort you are demanding of them.

Another lesson is that the pregame should sow in guests any special behaviors you want to blossom right at the outset. If you are planning a corporate brainstorming session and you’re going to be counting on your employees’ creativity, think about how you might prime them to be bold and imaginative from the beginning. Perhaps by sending them an article on unleashing your wildest ideas a few days beforehand. If, for example, you are planning a session on mentorship in your firm, and you need people to show up with their guards down, send an email out ahead of time that includes real, heartfelt testimonials from three senior leaders sharing personal, specific examples of the transformative power that a mentor had on them. In Slim’s case, she knew she was going to need her participants to behave with an almost irrational degree of trust. They would have to trust the process, trust her, trust the selection of interlocutors on the other side, trust that nothing terrible would happen to them when they returned home. Slim couldn’t afford to cultivate that trusting behavior in them after they showed up. Because it would be important from the get-go, she nurtured it during the pregame.

One other lesson is that, whether in Middle East peace talks or at weekend dance parties, every gathering benefits or suffers from the expectations and spirit with which guests show up. It’s hard to get a dance party started, for example, when people show up subdued and in the mood for quiet conversation. Similarly, if you’re hosting a meeting at work and hoping to have an honest conversation in which employees share what they’re actually experiencing, it can be harder to do if they show up cynical or defensive. Sure, you can try to change their mood when they arrive. But it takes more energy and sophistication on the part of the host and cuts into the time for the gathering. It is preferable to pregame.

Priming isn’t hard to do

Lest you think you must become a peace negotiator to gather well, let me say that a thoughtful email can take care of the need to host your pregame. Priming can be as simple as a slightly interesting invitation, as straightforward as asking your guests to do something instead of bring something.

Consider the case of Michel Laprise, a writer and director at Cirque du Soleil and collaborator on Madonna’s MDNA tour and Super Bowl halftime show. He decided one winter to host an end-of-the-year gathering at his home after a heavy season of touring. The problem was, he hadn’t even had time to decorate his Christmas tree. He dashed off a quick email to his guests asking them to send him two photographs of happy moments they’d had in the past year.

When the guests walked in the door that evening, they found a Christmas tree decorated with twenty-four printed photographs, cut into small circles, of their own joyous moments: scuba diving, standing in front of a house bearing a “Sold” sign, wearing acrobat gear before a performance. They had a cocktail around the tree, marveling at one another’s moments. “Suddenly they were not strangers or colleagues, but the personal part was there, and that started the dinner so well,” Laprise recalled.

“I think people felt welcome the way they were, and that it was important for me and for the other people that we hear what’s happiness for them,” Laprise said. He didn’t explicitly announce a theme for the dinner or the evening, but “just by doing the action of bringing something that represents happiness” that “just opened the whole evening on that,” he said.

By dashing off that last-minute email and getting his guests to send photographs of themselves, Laprise had begun to host them during the pregame, not just from the formal beginning. By asking them to dig out photographs from the past year, he was getting them to reflect on it. He was priming them for a celebration of the year by having them rummage through it before they showed up. He was putting them into the state of mind with which he wanted them to pass through the door.

The tree decorations ended up sparking many conversations, and though Laprise hadn’t intended it, the guests continued to talk about the year’s highlights over dinner. “It was a Christmas of happiness,” he said.

Laprise understood what many of us miss: 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. Rarely do we follow Laprise’s example of asking guests to perform a task that isn’t really a task so much as an attempt to get them in the mood.

In my own work with organizations, I almost always send out a digital “workbook” to participants to fill out and return to me ahead of the gathering. I design each workbook afresh depending on the purpose of the gathering and what I hope to get guests to think about in advance. The workbooks consist of six to ten questions for participants to answer. For a gathering on the future of education at a university, I asked questions like “What is one moment or experience you had before the age of twenty that fundamentally impacted the way you look at the world?” and “What are the institutions in the United States and abroad that are taking a bold, effective approach to educating the next generation of global problem solvers? What can we learn from them?” For a gathering on rethinking a national poverty program, I asked questions like “What is your earliest memory of facing or coming into contact with poverty?” and “How are our core principles the same or different from when we started fifty years ago?” For a gathering of a technology company’s executive team after a merger, I asked questions like “Why did you join this company?” and “What are the most pressing questions you think this team needs to address?”

I try to embed two elements in my workbook questions: something that helps them connect with and remember their own sense of purpose as it relates to the gathering, and something that gets them to share honestly about the nature of the challenge they’re trying to address. The workbooks aren’t so different from a college application in that sense: Sure, they give me a sense of the person and the dynamics of the group, but they also help the person think through the things they value before they arrive. I then design the day based on what I see in their answers. I also weave quotes from their workbooks into my opening remarks at the convening.

And the workbooks do one further thing: They inadvertently create a connection between each participant and me, well ahead of our time together, which makes my job much easier once I’m in the room. By crafting the workbooks and sending them out, I am sending the participants an invitation to engage. By filling them out and sending them back to me, they are accepting. The relationship, and the sharing of confidences, begins well before we enter the room.

A gathering is a social contract

Priming matters because a gathering is a social contract, and it is in the pregame window that this contract is drafted and implicitly agreed on.

Why is a gathering a social contract? Because it proceeds from an understanding between host and guest, sometimes stated and sometimes unstated, about what each is willing to offer to make it a success. Another way to say that is that all gatherings come with expectations. There are expectations of the host—that the agenda will be followed or that food will be served. There are expectations of the guests—that they will do their homework and come prepared with ideas; that they won’t bring their three cousins along; that they will dance their heart out and get others to do so. These expectations are present whenever people gather, and the prevailing understanding of what they are constitutes a gathering’s social contract.

As with purpose, it is often through conflict and disgruntlement that underlying assumptions about a gathering’s social contract reveal themselves. Once, during a conference in Aspen, some friends of mine came back from a dinner irritated because of a violation of what they took to be its social contract. What had been billed as a large but social dinner at someone’s home was, midway through the evening, transformed into a brainstorming session on the hosts’ work project. The dinner guests, many of them not experts in the industry or particularly interested in “working” at the end of a long day, were suddenly expected to be advisers. My friends, who were among these nonexpert guests, suddenly realized that the dinner invitation was the lure; now they were on the hook to help the hosts make business decisions. Even though the hosts were paying for the dinner, the guests felt used. You never want your guests to think, “Hey! I never signed up for this.”

A gathering’s social contract is often invisible to us, even when we are carrying out its commands. For example, you may not think that last dinner party you went to had a social contract, but did you bring a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer or a dessert? If so, why? Because of the implicit social contract that sounds too crass to say out loud: They were making you dinner, and you were helping defray the cost of hosting. Similarly, the social contract of a networking event may be something like this: I am paying forty-five dollars to attend this event; in return, you will ensure that there are better people here than I would meet on my own at the local bar. A social contract for a gathering answers this question: What am I willing to give—physically, psychologically, financially, emotionally, and otherwise—in return for what I expect to receive?

Among the burdens of hosting is drafting this social contract, starting with that moment of discovery. First things first, the host has the chance to frame the event. This is where your specific, unique purpose comes into play. For a funeral, are we coming together to “celebrate and remember,” or are we gathering to “grieve and to mark”? Those different purposes imply different types of funerals and different moods and behaviors among guests. From the first lines of the invitation, there is an opportunity to get your guests ready for how you want them to show up.

The host can also set the context for the gathering. When I was invited to the sixteenth annual #Agrapalooza, continuing a summer tradition of made-up games and a drunken talent show at some friends’ parents’ house, building on the rituals and memories of all the gatherings before, I was being invited into a world, not just to an event. When I was invited to a Passover seder some years ago and the host indicated that it would be a unique one for her, as it was her first Passover without her mother, I was being primed, right from that moment of discovery, to understand the emotional swirl of the gathering. In fact, it is in setting the context that the Passover Principle—knowing why this night is different from all the other nights—first has its chance to be communicated to your guests.

And the host can, in drawing up this contract, begin to throw light on the fundamental bargain that is at the heart of many gatherings, whether or not we like to think of it in this way. I am in no way advocating for your gatherings to be made transactional. Rather, I am suggesting that it is impossible to gather without some kind of implicit deal. And when this deal isn’t carefully crafted, and when people’s expectations of one another are out of step with what people are willing to give, problems arise—as with that evening in Aspen. If you don’t prepare people for the fact that you will be asking them for advice about your company, if you don’t tell them that their phones will be taken away for the full day, if you don’t warn them that they will be asked to share a personal story prompted by a question, you will often encounter resistance or worse. Trust me. And so part of the job of the pregame is to find ways, implicit and explicit, to communicate to your guests what they’re signing up for by saying yes to the invitation.

Now, sometimes when I talk to clients or friends about this idea of a gathering’s social contract, they fire back: What about mystery and surprise? You want me to spell everything out? But you needn’t spell things out in order to prime your guests. Barrett’s friends certainly didn’t send him a contract to sign to inform him that he would be kidnapped. And yet at each step of the way he was given a taste of what was to come and given the chance to choose to keep going.

Naming as priming

So how do you make use of this pregame window to draft the social contract and set your guests’ expectations? The chance arises with that moment of discovery I mentioned earlier: with the invitation.

When we invite people to our gatherings, too many of us spend too much time focusing on the wrong details of the invitation. Letterpressed versus engraved. Email versus Paperless Post. Black-and-white versus blue-and-white. This is what might be thought of as the Martha Stewart approach, elevating the readying of things over the readying of people.

The most important part of your invitation, though, is what it signals to your guests about your gathering and what it asks of them. And one way to send your guests a signal is to give your gathering a specific name.

To name a gathering affects the way people perceive it. The name signals what the purpose of the event is, and it also prepares people for their role and level of expected participation. If you’re hosting a half-day gathering for your team to discuss a new strategy, do you call it a “meeting,” a “workshop,” a “brainstorming session,” or an “idea lab”? Of these names, “brainstorming session” implies a heavier level of participation than perhaps “meeting” does. Part of what worked with our “I Am Here” days, I later realized, was that we gave it a name and that name primed people for what we most needed from them: presence.

Rachel Greenberger, an administrator at Babson College in Massachusetts, hosted a weekly meeting for students. She didn’t want to call this time “office hours,” because it sounded like an obligation as well as a one-way deal: The student comes to the professor for help and guidance. But Greenberger was running a food program and wanted to help students connect to one another, not just to her, and so she decided to call the weekly hour Community Table. Over time, the gathering has grown into the name; students now turn up with baked goods as well as notebooks. And in a way she couldn’t have planned, the Community Table idea she began has now been transplanted to New York, where every month entrepreneurs, academics, activists, and students interested in food engage together around a table, giving and exchanging ideas and building a community.

In my own work, I don’t call my sessions “workshops.” I call them Visioning Labs. “Visioning” because I am helping people figure out their vision for their work, company, or life. And “Lab,” short for laboratory, because it signifies experimentation and possibility, which is crucial to the process. Simply because of the name, I’ve noticed that people seem to show up differently. They’re more open, since they’re not sure what to expect from a Visioning Lab, and they are curious. These are some of the behaviors I need them to show up with in order to help them in a meaningful way.

Names help guests decide whether and how they fit into the world you’re creating. Eve Biddle, cofounder of a creative community called the Wassaic Project in upstate New York, learned this lesson when she introduced an “Artist Mixer” to a residency program she was running. People weren’t showing up, so she asked a few artists why. The evening, they told her, sounded “too nerdy.” They were artists and free spirits. The word “mixer” perhaps sounded to some of them like something from the “sellout” lives they had avoided. She listened and renamed the evening “Happy Hour.” Attendance shot up. A simple name switch altered people’s sense of who the gatherer thought they were and what she expected of them.

Beyond the name, the invitation is full of opportunities for what I think of as priming language. This language doesn’t have to be confined to text; it can consist of, or be buttressed by, images and video as well. Whatever the medium, the purpose of priming is to signal to people the tone and mood you’re going for at your gathering. 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 gathering will be playful, and it is for die-hards who live and breathe Star Wars.

And in keeping with an earlier chapter’s commandment to be thoughtfully exclusive, being explicit with your guests ahead of time about what/who is in and what/who is out can help guests prepare for what is coming. Take, for example, a line from an invitation to an all-night dance party in Brooklyn, New York: “As we always say . . . bring your sexy single friends and leave those strollers at home. This ain’t no Park Slope party”—a reference to one of the city’s more family-centric neighborhoods. In this case, a bit of prosaic information is more than that: The relaying of details doubles as the priming of guests to know how to show up. Even the guest without children to bring receives a message from that line: This is going to be a rager.

After the kindling, a Kindle

The invitation is just the beginning. After the moment of discovery, it would be a mistake not to sustain the excitement. Once the invitation has done its work, there are many chances along the way to reach out to your guests and continue the priming. The thoughtful gatherer is conscious of these moments and uses them to set the tone of the gathering and groom the guests to uphold their end of the bargain.

I once saw this sustaining done inventively by a conference with a tough task: to lure high-level government officials to Detroit, and to make them prepare for it by doing a lot of reading. It was 2009. One weekday, my boss at the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation received a package in the mail. The conference organizers had sent her all the readings she needed to get through on a brand-new, fully loaded loaner Kindle. The Kindle was still a relatively new product, and I don’t know that my boss had ever handled one. This boss, who received hundreds of pieces of mail and thousands of emails a week and frequently didn’t leave the office until after 10 p.m., had, even before signing up for this conference, more backlogged reading to do than she cared to think about. But when that package arrived, with yet more reading to add to her backlog, she looked at the Kindle and smiled. Yes, the organizers were asking her to fulfill her part of the bargain to do the readings. But through the small design choice to send it on a loaner Kindle, they were able to capture an incredibly busy woman’s attention and signal, “This one is going to be different.”

This kind of priming is especially important when the host is demanding a lot or when the guest is of a particularly reluctant sort. Sarah Lyall, a New York Times reporter who once wrote about her experience of participatory theater shows in New York, describes herself this way:

All of us have anti-bucket lists of things we do not want to do before we die, and mine includes any activity requiring potentially embarrassing public participation. Wearing a costume, declaiming before a crowd, playing spin the bottle, clapping along to a jaunty show tune, marching, chanting, speaking spontaneously into a microphone, ceding free will to a larger force, doing the hokeypokey and turning myself about—I have made it my business to avoid these things.

The kinds of gatherings I specialize in creating could be terrifying to people who share this sensibility. That doesn’t mean there is no place for such gatherings, or that people with this inclination need to just take or leave it, or that they should not be invited. It means that some of your guests will share her aversion, and if you are going to ask anything of them, you have to be explicit about what you have in mind, and you are going to have to hold their hand from the moment you first let them know about your gathering/massive-opportunity-for-a-panic-attack.


Between the priming and preparation and the actual opening of a gathering, there is another, often overlooked step: ushering. In many gatherings, your guests will benefit from being carried across a proverbial threshold, leaving the wide world and entering your small kingdom.

I am not suggesting that you carry your subordinates into your next Q4 meeting. (That would be uncomfortable and probably illegal.) Carrying guests across a threshold sounds intimate and serious, but what I am really telling you to do is manage your guests’ transition into the gathering you have bothered to create. Hosts often don’t realize that there tends to be unfilled, unseized time between guests’ arrival and the formal bell-ringing, glass-clinking, or other form of opening. Make use of this no-man’s-land.

Managing this entry is important because none of us shows up as a blank slate to anything. You have seven meetings in a row, and the fourth one goes badly, and you go into the fifth meeting distracted and spent. You walk into Thursday small group at your church after crawling through traffic to get your daughter to basketball practice on time. Right before entering a bat mitzvah, you receive a text from your boss that your article has been killed. If you don’t create a passageway into your gathering for guests like these, they are going to be somewhere else in the most crucial moment of your gathering: the start.

Passageways and doorways

One way to help people leave their other worlds and enter yours is to walk them through a passageway, physical or metaphorical.

The world of immersive and participatory theater, knowing how many people dread public participation, has become very good at constructing such passageways. What can we learn from them about our own, much simpler dinners, meetings, and small groups?

Third Rail Projects is a New York–based theater company that specializes in this. I attended two of its shows to learn how it whisks guests into alternative universes so quickly. And at least in the two that I attended, The Grand Paradise and Then She Fell, the directors created literal passageways for their audience members to spend time in before the show actually “started.” In The Grand Paradise, which is about a fading tropical resort in the late 1970s and the cultural values of that era, before we were let into the “resort,” we were greeted by an overly cheerful activities director and given a lei and a tropical drink. We were then crammed into a small, closed room outfitted to look like the inside of an airplane. We were given instructions by an airline host and on the television screens above us about what we could and couldn’t do and when we were released into “paradise.” In Then She Fell, an immersive theater experience inspired by the writings of Lewis Carroll and staged in an abandoned warehouse, the fifteen-member audience was first seated in a small reception area with a doctor character and given an “elixir” that looked like Jägermeister and a set of keys tied together by a black thread. We were greeted by the doctor, who explained that this room was a “liminal space” and that we were about to enter another world.

In both these shows, this spell of ushering is clearly distinguished from the actual show. The actual show, in our minds, hasn’t yet begun. But the creators understand that they have an interest in shaping your total experience, and they understand that things have often begun before they have formally started. With that same understanding, one of the best-known performance artists alive, Marina Abramović, has created a replicable methodology that she uses to transition her audiences from the outside world into her shows.

Performance art is defined by the Museum of Modern Art as a live event in which “the artist’s medium is the body, and the live actions he or she performs are the work of art.” This art form, even more than others, is interested in the relationship between the audience and the artist. Abramović has become famous for performance pieces like her 1974 work Rhythm 0, in which she placed seventy-two objects on a table, including a gun with a single bullet, for the audience members to do to her whatever they wanted. More recently, in her piece The Artist Is Present, she sat in a chair for a total of 736-and-a-half hours as a stream of visitors took turns sitting in a chair across from her and looking into her eyes in silence. In each of her pieces, she is, like any good host, hyper-aware of the audience’s ability to shape the gathering.

Over the years, Abramović has developed the so-called Abramović Method for Music, which includes a way of preparing her guests for these performances. When audience members arrive, they are asked to put all their belongings (including their cellphones) into a locker before entering the venue. Then they sit in a chair silently, wearing noise-canceling headphones for thirty minutes to block out all the distractions that keep us from being truly present. She thinks of this time as a palate cleanser. “The silence is something that prepares them for their experience,” she told me.

In a show at the Park Avenue Armory, a massive performance space in New York City, sitting silently, the audience watched the pianist Igor Levit and his piano slide on a platform into the center of the stage. After thirty minutes, a gong sounded, signaling that the audience could remove their headphones. Only then did Levit play the opening note. One guest in attendance later described the thirty minutes of silence to me in various phases: At first, there was a lot of collective wriggling and shuffling as people quieted down and got used to sitting still. Then there was an overall calming and quiet. About halfway through the silence, though, you could begin to feel the anticipation and expectation build toward the performance. After all that time spent in anticipation, a critic later described the opening note of the aria as a moment of “hypnotic wonderment.” This surely had something to do with the fact that he had been unplugged from the rest of the world for thirty minutes, primed to listen in a different way.

For Abramović’s seventieth birthday party, she invited hundreds of friends and colleagues to the Guggenheim Museum for a celebration. When you walked in, you were immediately greeted by a row of women dressed in white lab coats bearing pocket mirrors and sheets of gold foil, standing at attention in silence. I was ushered over to the women, and one of them handed me a gold sheet and pointed to my lips. I looked around and realized that other guests had rectangular strips of gold covering their mouths. I picked up the strip, used the pocket mirror they held up, and placed the foil over my lips. Then the woman guided me to sit in a chair, in silence, and make use of the headphones. I didn’t understand the meaning of all this, but at some level I didn’t have to. Abramović had taken those moments before the action, in which people normally just mill around, and created an opening ritual for each guest. Gold-lipped and headphone-topped, I felt inducted into a secret society. Though I was intimidated to be there, I was wearing the signs of one who belonged.

When I asked Abramović about these passageways she creates, she said simply, “I want to take them from their comfort zone and into a new experience.” And she realizes that people are more open to new experiences when the old is cleared away and some space is carved out for the new.

Now, I understand that you may hesitate to force your guests into a thirty-minute tunnel of silence or place gold foil on their lips. But there are many tiny ways you can create a threshold, a pause, before you and your guests cross the starting line together. And you don’t need to be an award-winning theater producer to do it. The idea of helping people transition from one state to another is embedded in many rituals of traditional societies. It’s the equivalent of a doctor taking off her jacket and putting on her white coat as she enters her office. It’s the act of Muslims washing their hands and feet before prayer. It can be the removal of shoes before a Japanese tea ceremony. The only difference with modern gatherings is that the passageway is not prescribed. You need to create it. And one of the easiest, most natural places to create such a passageway is the doorway.

Arianna Huffington is a fascinating and controversial woman, thanks to her work in politics, media, and wellness. She is also a gracious and skilled gatherer. In 2013, she hosted a conference to explore the ideas of wellness that would eventually grow into her new company, Thrive. And she chose to host it in her living room in SoHo in Manhattan. It was essentially a business conference, and many of the participants were strangers to one another, and yet Huffington chose to greet them as if they were arriving at a wedding. She personally stood by the door for a good half hour or hour, first thing in the morning, and individually greeted each person who entered. She didn’t have her chief of staff do it, and she didn’t have her daughters do it. She did it herself. Because she did, she set a tone for the entire day. Yes, she was saying, we are at a conference, but we don’t have to act like it. This is my home, and you are my guest.

When my sister-in-law was getting married, her then-fiancé’s Scottish family had flown in for the festivities. The Friday night before the wedding, the entire Scottish clan was invited to my in-laws’ home for a party. When the bus pulled up to the house and all the Scots stepped out in their finery, my husband and I spontaneously joined my father-in-law by the doorway and greeted each person as they walked in—dozens of them. This small welcome created a moment for virtually everyone on the groom’s side to meet the bride’s family, not at the end of the ceremony or during the reception but at the outset. This one act sped up the intimacy and the sense of permission to walk up to anyone over the course of the weekend, which many of us did. It was an initial act of tribe building, and it happened at the border of the gathering.

The psychological threshold

Sometimes there is no physical anteroom, as there was in those New York theater shows I mentioned. Sometimes it wouldn’t be feasible to stand in the doorway and greet everyone. Sometimes the work of ushering must be done psychologically rather than physically. I once saw this done brilliantly by Baratunde Thurston, my comedian friend.

He had been asked to host a comedy event that was part fundraiser, part party. The venue was the Brooklyn Brewery. On the evening in question, it was cavernous, rowdy, loud, and full of people full of beer. I could tell that he had been put in a difficult spot. There actually wasn’t a stage, or even an elevated platform. People had been eating and drinking for a while already; they were hanging with their friends and didn’t look like they wanted to be interrupted. Even the music was no match for the volume of the talking. To make matters worse, most of the people there had no idea who Baratunde Thurston was, and despite the fact that he’d just been handed a microphone, these people were not about to stop their fun to listen to some guy’s jokes.

Rather than screaming over people or just starting up his monologue, hoping that someone might take pity and listen, Thurston instinctively went into usher mode. He doesn’t always do this, so the rowdiness of the crowd must have tipped him off to its need for some kind of transition. He took his microphone, his only identifiable form of power and authority, over to the liveliest person in one cluster of friends, and he asked that person to say their name into the microphone. After they introduced themselves, Thurston invited everyone else in the room to greet them and clap. Then he walked over to the next group and the next group in the same way, catching five or six of the loudest, rowdiest people in the room off guard by bantering with them, making some jokes, then, essentially, inviting them to support him in his mission to transform them from a crowd into an audience. Within ninety seconds, he had the entire room’s attention. He walked back to the middle of the room and started his set.

No matter what environment you’re given as a gatherer, you might ask yourself how you could create a transition of this kind—a passageway that tunes out the prior reality and captures people’s attention and imagination. By doing so, you create a starting line and, even more important, you help your guests cross it as a collective.

If we think back to Felix Barrett’s bachelor party, his friends did a great job of both priming and ushering. They primed him with the notes and tasks, so that he was constantly on guard for the next thing—and increasingly aware of the spirit of what loomed. Then, having primed him, they ushered him toward that opening by kidnapping him and bringing him to the venue. While I’m not (necessarily) suggesting that you kidnap your guests, I am suggesting that, like those bachelor party planners, you are prepared for all the moments leading up to the opening. One of the mistakes many of us make in thinking about this in-between time is believing that “it doesn’t count.” It does.

In everyday gatherings, it can be as simple as lighting a candle or making a welcome announcement or pouring every guest a special drink at the same time. But the final transition between the guests’ arrival and the opening is a threshold moment. 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.

Missed opportunities

When gatherings fail to do this kind of ushering, they often waste their own potential. Consider the case of a feverish political rally that could have been so much more.

On April 6, 2016, Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, held a massive rally in Philadelphia. The line to get into the Philadelphia “Future to Believe In” Rally wrapped around the block. For security reasons, many people were in the stadium for close to three hours before the candidate ever appeared. When I hear that, I think: What an incredible gathering opportunity—three hours of ushering that could have been used not only to gear people up for the rally that day but also to build the Bernie Sanders movement. Only it wasn’t.

Instead, thousands of people sat in the 10,200-seat arena and waited. There had been the prior world outside, and in a few hours, the official show would begin. There was little in between, even for a captive and die-hard audience that would have lapped up anything. Having worked with organizers, I can imagine exactly why these ones left this time unfilled: In their mind, the event hadn’t started yet. This time probably wasn’t on their “run of show.” It was time outsourced to the security people, not the hosts.

So let us imagine what could have been done with that time. A few thousand fans of Bernie Sanders, a few hours, no candidate on-site. They could have had some volunteers work as facilitators to get people to sit in groups, or turn to a stranger, and talk about why they were there, what they believed the country most needed, and why they believed Sanders was the answer. They could have set up story circles where clusters of eight sat and shared their own experiences of being on the wrong end of America’s economic divide. They could have used that time to create a movement. They had the complete attention of thousands of people, but because the time period was mentally scheduled under “waiting,” they didn’t make use of it. They didn’t understand that they were already hosting.


So by now you have prepared your people in the run-up to your gathering and carried them across the threshold when they arrived. But what do you actually do at the opening of the gathering? How do you launch well?

Openings are a big missed opportunity in gatherings. They all too often underwhelm us, and they don’t have to. After all, openings lay the track for a gathering. I once met the South African opera composer Neo Muyanga, who told me that he can listen to the first sixteen bars of any opera and know the system and framework of the rest of it—and, therefore, whether he’s going to like it. “The opening bars inevitably set up a paradigm using elements such as volume, meter, and progression to invite a listener to eschew their mundane world for a time and to plunge down the rabbit hole into an alternate universe,” he said. As he spoke, I realized that gatherings work in much the same way. The opening, whether intentionally designed or not, signals to guests what to expect from the experience.

In the first few moments of a gathering, we are all Neo Muyanga, reading cues and asking ourselves: What do I think of this gathering? Am I in good hands? Is the host nervous? Should I be? What’s going to happen here? Is this worth my time? Do I belong? Do I want to belong? The opening is, therefore, an important opportunity to establish the legitimacy of your gathering.

Attention is at its highest at the outset. Because of what scientists call “cognitive processing constraints,” we’re not able to remember every minute of an experience. Our brain effectively chooses for us what we will remember later. Studies show that audiences disproportionately remember the first 5 percent, the last 5 percent, and a climactic moment of a talk. Gatherings, I believe, work in much the same way. And yet we often pay the least attention to how we open and close them, treating these elements as afterthoughts.

Don’t kill the attention of mourners

The first change you should make if you want to launch well is to quit starting with logistics.

I once attended the funeral of a dear friend. The church was packed. Hundreds of family members, friends, and former colleagues gathered in a beautiful room to honor a man who had towered in his field and helped so many. As people entered the pews, they greeted one another. Many of them had been closely connected through this friend at some point but hadn’t seen one another in years. Sadness hung in the air, and many of us were already crying. Then the minister got up and walked to the front of the room.

The moment was pregnant. All of us leaned in, eager for his words of comfort. He took a deep breath, looked out at all of us, and began. “Just so you all know, the family has invited us to join them afterward for a reception down the street at the rec center,” he said (as best I remember). “But, unfortunately, I am told there is not enough parking at the venue. It’s a short walk over, and I encourage you to keep your car here and walk over together afterward.” In seconds, the potential energy of the moment had been squandered. We had all been hungry for consoling and coming together. The moment was ripe, and the minister had our attention. Yet perhaps because he didn’t want to forget to make the announcement, he used his moment of launch to discuss parking. The minister had wasted what could’ve been an unforgettable opening to connect the tribe that had gathered around one man. Instead, he started with logistics.

The minister is hardly alone in this habit. Because we think the moments before we start somehow don’t matter, any number of gatherings begin with throat clearing. Conferences that commence this way: “Before we start, there’s a white Camaro with its lights on in the parking lot, license plate TXW 4628.” Town halls that begin with announcements. Galas, full of people dressed in their finery, that launch with a long set of thank-yous to the event’s sponsors. I’m speaking, in short, of every gathering whose opening moments are governed by the thought: “Let’s first get some business out of the way.” It may seem like I’m nitpicking, but what I’m proposing couldn’t be more vital to the work of gathering better.

The politics of beginning

I imagine many people will, perhaps grudgingly, agree with me regarding events like funerals. In theory, no one believes in starting a funeral (or other intimate and personal gathering) with logistics. It’s just a failure to live up to what we imagine would be best. But with other gatherings, ones where sponsors are involved and there are people to be thanked, I know many hosts will say: I have no choice. I cannot not start with logistics.

I disagree. What I tell the hosts I work with is this: However vital it may seem to start with this housekeeping, you are missing an opportunity to sear your gathering’s purpose into the minds of your guests. And sometimes you are actually undermining that purpose by revealing to your guests that you do not, in fact, care about the things you claim to care about as much as you profess.

Every year, the Personal Democracy Forum hosts its annual conference in New York City. This gathering of hundreds of people brings together leading civic activists, technologists, community organizers, civil servants, and others interested in the state of democracy. In 2015, the theme of the conference was “Imagine All the People: The Future of Civic Tech.” The organizers chose this theme because, they explained, “we want to take you into a future where everyone is participating, a future that we build together using technology appropriately, powering solutions to shared civic problems.”

And so it was a bit jarring when, in the opening session that year, the Personal Democracy Forum began with one of the founders, Andrew Rasiej, turning the stage over to a representative of its “presenting sponsor,” a Microsoft executive, to speak first.

What’s the big deal? you say. Here’s the big deal: In those first few moments, people are at their most ready to be inspired. They are asking: What is this really about? Who holds the keys? People have come, presumably, because they are attracted to the theme of the forum: the idea that democracy can be activated and more people can participate, not just the powerful and well-connected. And then, in those first few moments, the organizers end up replicating the very thing that gets in the way of democracy and the participation of people—money buying special access. By starting with remarks from a corporate sponsor—as opposed to, say, inviting various local community leaders onstage to speak in short bursts—they embodied the problem they were seeking to address.

Sponsors are there to amplify what you can do with an event. However, the moment the host of the event is not also the person funding the event, the event has two masters: the host and the sponsor. And their interests are not always aligned. This misalignment can arise throughout your gathering, but it is often most painfully clear in the opening and closing. So a host must be aware of the fact that handing over precious real estate to sponsors is never costless or neutral. As in the case of the Personal Democracy Forum, it may even raise doubts about the gathering’s premise.

If you need some inspiration to push back against those sponsors, consider the case of George Lucas. When he was filming the original Star Wars, he wanted a bold launch for his movie. The Directors Guild of America protested. Most films at the time started by naming the writer and director in the opening title sequence—in this case, thanking the film’s creators rather than its sponsors. It was how things were done. Despite the protests of the Directors Guild, Lucas decided to forgo opening credits entirely. The result was one of the most memorable beginnings in movie history. And he paid for it—the Directors Guild fined him $250,000 for his daring. His loyalty was to his audience’s experience, and he was willing to sacrifice for it. You should be, too.

The cold open

The creators of television shows often find themselves in the same boat as Lucas was back then, and some have devised a solution that may be more straightforwardly applied to gatherings: the cold open.

The cold open is the practice of starting a TV show directly with a scene rather than with opening credits. In the 1950s, directors started experimenting with cold opens, seeking to sustain an audience’s attention after the previous show ended and keep people from flipping to another channel. When Saturday Night Live starts with a skit of several minutes that sometimes seems like part of a news show or other program, and only later reveals itself when the performers scream “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” it is deploying the cold open at its best. The show understands that attention is everything in television, and once you have captured it, you can take care of business, thank people, attend to housekeeping.

Every gathering, to be sure, has logistical demands. People need to know where the bathroom is. People need to know where lunch can be found. There are often last-minute changes to announce. But people do not need to know this information at the very first moment of your gathering. It’s not that you don’t need time for logistics and the like. Just don’t start with them. Open cold.

Honor and awe your guests

Once you bar the housekeeping from your opening, what should you actually start with? My answer is simple: Your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.

This notion of honoring and awing is in some ways better practiced outside of gathering than within it. People who do things as far afield as writing novels and decorating hotel lobbies tend to be adept at this simultaneous work of making audiences feel flattered and unworthy. Any author will regale you in great detail with tales of how long she labors over her opening sentences. Ask hoteliers about the theory behind the practice of lobby design, and they will tell you what a difference certain tweaks make. Each of these is its own professional domain. What intrigues me is what their approaches have in common. When Melville opens Moby-Dick with “Call me Ishmael,” and when the Four Seasons lobby greets you with flowers taller than you, both, I believe, are honor-awing.

In each of these openings, we are being made to feel slightly overwhelmed while at the same time made to feel welcome; our attention is gripped even as our nerves are soothed. When Melville addresses you, the reader, confidently and directly, there’s a familiarity he’s assuming, but there is also a confidence. He is not explaining an entire world to you. He is simply welcoming you into a world. Similarly, the flowers in the Four Seasons are stunning and maybe taller than you, and that awes you, intimidates you, makes you remember that you don’t live like this back home. But of course the flowers are there for you, to honor you.

Few understand the art of honor and awe better than Dario Cecchini, an eighth-generation Tuscan butcher in the village of Panzano in Chianti, Italy. When you walk into the Macelleria Cecchini, a tiny butcher shop that attracts as pilgrims some of the leading chefs in the world, you instantly see Cecchini’s mastery of openings. He hugs almost everyone who walks in, whether stranger or friend. He may hand a bewildered newcomer a cup of wine and a piece of bread spread with lard the moment they step into the shop. Most nights, after hours, right above the butcher shop, he seats thirty strangers at a long wooden table before a roaring grill. Before anyone gets a bite of his preparations, he raises two bloody Fiorentina steaks above his head, thundering, “To beef, or not to beef!”

His guests—some old friends, others who have wandered in off the street—are awed and captivated. Then, despite all the hovering staff, Cecchini serves the grilled meat onto the guests’ plates himself, an attentive server who also happens to be an Italian celebrity. He is honoring his guests by engaging with them, even though he may not share a language with them. He moves around the table, visiting each guest, shaking hands, pausing and listening to stories, pinching cheeks, laughing heartily. Cecchini is fully alive in his butcher shop, and he makes you feel so, too. Cecchini is the man onstage, but he’s also your host, your guide, your friend. As he models openness and passion, he wakes up those parts in you. Suddenly you find yourself turning to strangers, taking small risks, and asking unexpected questions, behaving differently than you would in a typical restaurant.

When you awe as a host, you are in a sense putting yourself—and your gathering—above your guest. When you honor, you are placing your guest above you. When you do both at once, as Cecchini does, you end up—with a hat tip to Groucho Marx—making your guests feel like valued members of a club to which they have no business belonging.

There are many ways to accomplish this honoring and awing. I once had a teacher named Sugata Roychowdhury, who, on the first day of accounting class, took attendance in a legendary way. Instead of lowering his head over a checklist and droning out names, he walked around the room, holding eye contact with the seventy or so new students in the lecture hall, and, one by one, pointed at each student and stated their (sometimes quite complicated) first and last names. They had never laid eyes on him before, nor he them. He took the entire class’s attendance from memory. We were mesmerized. He must have studied our photos and practiced our names for hours ahead of time. This is an example of taking a totally banal element of gathering—roll call—and, with a few hours of effort, transforming it into a dramatic opening.

Professor Roychowdhury created an unforgettable moment that sent two important signals: that he cared deeply about his teaching and that he had a brilliance that might rub off on us if we made the effort to learn.

I don’t want you to think that you have to be a famous Italian butcher or a brilliant accounting professor capable of memorizing seventy names and faces to honor and awe your guests. And so here is one more story of honoring and awing, applied in the most simple of contexts.

I had invited my stepsister and her husband for lunch. They live in Washington, D.C., and my husband and I don’t see them very often, but they happened to be visiting relatives in New Jersey one weekend.

Ten minutes before they were due to arrive, my husband walked into the living room confused as to why I hadn’t set the table. In my mind, it was “just Lauren”—a casual meal with someone to whom I’m close enough not to need formality. Part of the intimacy of having her over, I thought, would be setting the table together when she arrived. But my husband thought we should make her feel special and insisted that we set the table beforehand. A minute after we finished, the doorbell rang. They were here. After hugs in the hallway, Lauren walked into the dining room and a look of surprise popped onto her face.

“Who’s coming over?” she asked.

“You are!” Anand and I both said, laughing. She couldn’t believe we had set the table for her, and she was clearly moved. I think she felt honored that we would make the extra effort for her, and she felt awed that we had set it so beautifully.

Fuse your guests

After the initial shock therapy of honoring and awing, you have your guests’ attention. They want to be there. They feel lucky to be there. They might well be considering giving the gathering their all. Your next task is to fuse people, to turn a motley collection of attendees into a tribe. A talented gatherer doesn’t hope for disparate people to become a group. She makes them a group.

The organization Tough Mudder creates weekend obstacle courses for the kind of people who like weekend obstacle courses. During these trials, participants can run through a field of live wires, swim in a dumpster chilled with 75,000 pounds of ice, and so on. While Tough Mudder is essentially a type of marathon, its opening rituals are very different from the rituals you might see at traditional marathons, which are individual in nature, with runners focused almost exclusively on their own performance.

At the starting line of a Tough Mudder race, every participant is asked to raise their right hand and repeat in unison the Tough Mudder Pledge:

As a Tough Mudder, I pledge that

  • I understand that Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.

  • I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.

  • I do not whine—kids whine.

  • I help my fellow Mudders complete the course.

  • I overcome all fears.

Unlike a marathon, a collective physical challenge that is experienced individually above all, Tough Mudder is designed as a collective physical challenge that is experienced collectively. Its pledge primes the contenders to help one another physically and emotionally, even at a cost to their own personal success. Will Dean, the founder of Tough Mudder, told Forbes: “Tough Mudder was built on the principle that the true prize is to cross the finish line together. It is nearly impossible to complete many of our obstacles alone and this forces Mudders to ask each other for help. The interdependence that comes from this fosters an incredible sense of community and creates an investment in the success of others, not just yourself.” Dean and his colleagues understood that to reorient their participants from competing to collaborating, they would need to do something at the opening of the race—this small but lasting act of fusing.

A pledge is one way to bind your guests, but there are others. Some of the most compelling approaches involve helping your guests see and be seen by one another. The simple act of your guests’ acknowledging one another and confirming their own presence is a crucial step we often forget when we gather. In the Zulu tribe, this acknowledgment is baked into the very language of their call-and-response greeting:

Greeting: “Sawubona.” (I see you.)

Response: “Ngikhona.” (I am here.)

In the hustle-bustle of modern life in the West, we often skip this step. This is what happens in many churches when the pastor invites the congregation to shift its attention from the pulpit to one another and to wish a round of “Good morning” or “Happy Easter.” This kind of invitation is missing from too many gatherings and can be especially powerful at the outset.

Jill Soloway, the writer and director, will rarely begin a day of shooting without the people who work for them (Soloway uses the gender-neutral pronoun “they”) having connected in this way. Soloway, the Emmy-winning showrunner behind the series Transparent and I Love Dick, calls the ritual “Box.” After breakfast, once all the actors and extras have arrived and the set and equipment have been arranged, Soloway or another director of a particular episode will decide it is time for Box. A production assistant will place a wooden box in a central area with plenty of space around it. As soon as the crew sees the box, people start gathering around in a wide circle while clapping and chanting “Box, Box, Box, Box!” The chanting persists until everyone has joined the circle and speeds up until someone hops up on the box to speak. Once someone is standing on the box, that person has the floor.

People share whatever is on their mind—worries about an old friend, a death in the family, how they’re feeling about their own acting. “People get up on the box and they talk about their problems, they talk about their breakthroughs, and you cry and you release,” Jay Duplass, who plays Josh in Transparent, told The Hollywood Reporter. “Things get purged prior to the workday that set the tone for the tenderness and brilliance that gets delivered,” Trace Lysette, another cast member, was quoted as saying. “That’s how Jill likes to work.”

Soloway’s commitment to fusing the tribe is so deep that they include the extras in the Box ritual.

Griffin Dunne, an actor in I Love Dick, remembers one extra who was supposed to be in a restaurant scene, sitting two tables over from the main action. The extra ascended the box one day. “This woman got up there to say that she’s the manager of a bank down the street and that she’d never had this experience before of feeling involved, like a family,” he recalled.

“Guest stars, and I’m not exaggerating, cry when they leave our set,” Amy Landecker, an actor on Transparent, told “They’re so upset that they don’t get to stay and that the rest of the business does not function that way.”

Box usually takes twenty to twenty-five minutes, but it can go as long as forty minutes before they start the actual rehearsal. Soloway gives the ritual the time it needs. Christina Hjelm, who works as an assistant to Soloway, described to me how they close Box once the time is right and transition into rehearsal:

Once there seems to be a lull in folks wanting to get up on the box, the AD will make a show of circling the crowd, giving any last takers the opportunity to hop up and speak. If no one hops up on the box by the time the assistant director has circled the whole crowd, the AD will then hop on the box and give their closing remarks. The closing remarks typically consist of any special shooting instructions for the day and safety warnings the crew needs to keep in mind while on set. They then end it by shouting the safe word of the day and having the crowd shout it back to them. Popular safe words on our sets have been “Bucky” and “Chicken.”

Box is an opening ritual that connects a large team to one another, clears people’s minds, and creates a passageway of sorts into rehearsal. “It turns into this collective moment for everyone to connect before we start working,” Landecker has said. Box also creates a sense of authenticity—part of the secret sauce of making the show, and one of the values that its storylines explore—among the team. “We get to play, like children,” Soloway told another interviewer. “Nobody has to worry about getting anything wrong.” In around twenty minutes, the director transforms a bunch of actors and extras into a tribe, by making them see one another.

Baratunde Thurston once applied this idea of guests seeing and being seen to a get-together of friends. He was throwing a holiday party in his home and realized that all his guests didn’t know one another. He was the hub connecting us spokes, and so he took it upon himself to make sure everyone who came got to know everyone else. And he did so by creating a unique opening moment for everyone.

As each guest arrived, Thurston would start clapping and yelling, “Atención, atención!” All the other guests would turn and look as he playfully yelled, “Announcing . . . Katie Stewart!” He then went on to tell the room a few details about Katie that others might be interested in: “I first met Katie at a surfing class, where it turns out she was the best surfer in the class. Katie moved to New York three years ago from a job in Kenya. She is a neighbor—go, Brooklyn!—and has two pugs. My favorite thing about Katie is that, despite having a crazy job, whenever I call her, she picks up.” The other guests would burst into applause after each introduction. It was a bit of a shtick, but the introductions were funny, insightful, and unexpected, and Thurston owned it, so everyone went along.

In thirty seconds, he built each guest up while giving everyone in the room three or four pieces of interesting grist to connect to. He didn’t reduce anyone to their profession. He’d leave some mystery (I wonder what that crazy job is). He did it for each guest, and each guest looked at once embarrassed, thrown off guard, and pleased.

His jovial, attention-getting introductions gave everyone in the room permission to look at one another, know something about one another, have a way into the horizontal ties that the evening had lacked at the outset. As a host, he was honoring each guest by spending time on them. Like Cecchini, he put himself “below” them by lifting them up. And yet by taking the time to pause the entire room and get everyone’s attention, he was also putting himself above his guests. He used his generous authority to pause the gathering. Like Abousteit, Thurston rescued the guests from having to introduce themselves to others, and in the process he also created an ambient awareness for each guest of every other.

The importance of a group “seeing” one another may sound trivial, but it can be deadly serious. Until recently, when medical teams gathered to operate on a patient, studies showed that they often didn’t know one another’s names before starting. A 2001 Johns Hopkins study found that when members introduced themselves and shared concerns ahead of time, the likelihood of complications and deaths fell by 35 percent. Surgeons, like many of us, assumed that they shouldn’t waste time going through the silly formalities of seeing and being seen for something as important as saving lives. Yet it was these silly formalities that directly affected the outcomes of surgeries. Even with such complex and intricate work, it was when the nurses and doctors and anesthesiologists practiced good gathering principles that they felt more comfortable speaking up during surgery and offering solutions.

If your gathering has an audience, there are other ways of making people aware of one another. Conferences tend to be terrible at this. They tend to be full of vertical connections between the stage and the guests but are short on horizontal linkages binding guests to one another.

Spark Camp, a weekend-long conference started by five friends in the media industry, was created in part to test if a more horizontally oriented conference was possible. It was founded on the belief that “conferences can be re-imagined as efficient, creative gatherings that further innovation and spark practical solutions to the challenges the industry faces.” Like Thurston, the organizers of Spark Camp have learned how to use their authority to turn guests into a community from the beginning. On the opening evening, rather than asking seventy people to introduce themselves, the organizers take over. And, unlike me at that dinner party I ruined, they do it with preparation and care.

Right before the opening dinner, the organizers gather everyone and deliver “highly personal, whimsical” introductions of each person, ending with their name, according to a report by the conference. Andrew Pergam, one of the founders, explained the thinking to me:

It’s pretty simple: We’d been to enough other events where people write their own fancy introductions, listing every accolade in the third person, that we thought we should do it for them—but do it in a way that helped people stand out. We really believe that we invite the whole person to attend Spark Camp, and rather than an intro that focuses solely on their professional achievements, we wanted the intro to help round the individual out, personally.

As attendees, whom the organizers call Campers, recognize themselves, they are asked to stand. “You’ll often see a lot of eyes darting around the room, and some careful deep thinking before someone stands up,” Pergam said. The organizers “spend an inordinate amount of time doing research on an individual” and “find obscure details about someone’s past and marry that with all of their other achievements.” It not only spares the Campers the pressure of introducing themselves to dozens of other people, it also gives them easy ways to go up to one another later. Pergam said:

For one, it levels the playing field, with even the most accomplished among us relegated to our interpretation of their background—and the whims of our Internet researching abilities. We’re implicitly saying, “We’ve invited you here to be your whole self, not just your bona fides at work”; explicitly, we’re saying, “We take your accomplishments seriously—all of them.” And we’ll often find people saying to each other, “Oh, you’re the fiddler!” or “Wait—you’re the one who met your husband at a beekeeping convention!”

You can even bond an audience while giving a lecture. For example, observe a talented presenter like Esther Perel, a relationship and sex therapist and seasoned speaker who regularly addresses crowds of more than one thousand people. In addition to her intriguing content, Perel is so sought after because of how she connects audience members to one another, signaling in subtle ways that they are not alone. If someone asks Perel a question about cheating or divorce or boredom, before answering it, she’ll look out at the audience and ask, “How many of you can relate to this question?” Or, “Who also wonders about this?” In that simple act, she transforms a one-to-many speech into a collective experience.

Moderators at conferences could learn from Perel. They tend to overfocus on their panelists and the questions they are going to ask. The talented moderator understands that even a panel is not a stand-alone conversation. It exists within the context of a gathering. And so the solution might simply be to turn to the audience in the beginning of the session and ask: How many of you consider yourself an expert on artificial intelligence? How many of you are working in the field? How many of you are thinking about this for the first time? How many of you just realized you’re in the wrong session?

Whenever I do a Visioning Lab, whether it’s at a government agency, a university, or a financial institution, within the first five minutes of my opening I always say something like this: “I want you to imagine you’re building a spiderweb together. That each of you has strings coming out of your wrists that connect with the other thirty-two people here. We can only go as deep as the weakest thread will allow. Now, none of you are the weakest link.” Everyone usually laughs nervously at that part. “No one’s going to be voted off the island. But the weakest thread between two of you is what’s going to determine how deep we can go together.” I make this explicit, and I remind them of it during their breaks and at other moments of transition. Build a web, build a web, build a web. Because it’s not about their connection to me. It’s this psychological inter-stitching of the group that allows you and them to take risks, build together, and have the boldest version of whatever gathering they’re having.

Above and beyond

For some gatherings, like your regular Monday-morning work meeting, honoring and awing may feel like trying too hard—though I would urge you to think about Jill Soloway’s example. My own belief is that any kind of gathering can practice any of these elements at least a little.

But if you want to do more than a little, if you really want to go to the next level with your opening, here is some extra credit: Try to embody, with that opening, the very reason that you felt moved to bring a group of human beings together. Try to make your gathering’s purpose felt in those first moments.

Daniel Barrett is an elementary-school teacher at Brooklyn Heights Montessori School. He told me that he and his fellow teachers purposefully launch the first day of school with students knitting. “We call it ‘hand work,’ and it’s a way for the students to be quiet together and have something to focus on,” Barrett said. “It’s also meant to help with their handwriting because they’re working on their fine motor skills.” On the first day of school, the school brings in the first-graders for just a half day and begins to initiate them into the core principles of a Montessori-run school, one of which is community. So how does Barrett embody the idea of a community on the first day?

He takes a ball of string and throws it to a student, saying something nice to her. And then the child continues the practice, holding her part of the string and throwing the ball to another student and saying another nice thing, and so on, until the group has built a spiderweb of string. “If I tug my end of the web, everyone else feels it move, and that’s what a community is,” Barrett tells them. “All of your choices, all of your actions, large or small, will affect everybody else.”

Barrett has found a creative, age-appropriate way to remind his students—his guests—why they’re doing what they’re doing. A thoughtful opening moment like that can change the course of a gathering—even one whose duration is measured in years.





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