Openings matter.

1: Case-in-point: The first day of Professor Sugata Roychowdhury’s accounting class at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Sugata doesn’t lower his head and take attendance by reading off the names of the students.  Instead, he walks “around the room, holding eye contact with the seventy or so new students in the lecture hall, and, one by one, points at each student and states their (sometimes quite complicated) first and last names,” writes Priya Parker in The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.

Most of the students have never met Professor Roychowdhury.  And, he has not met them.  Yet he knows all of their names and faces.  From memory.  

The effect on the students is “mesmerizing,” Priya writes.  “He must have studied our photos and practiced our names for hours ahead of time.”

Sugata takes what is typically a boring, uninspired exercise and transforms it into a dramatic opening.  “Professor Roychowdhury creates an unforgettable moment that sends two important signals: that he cares deeply about his teaching and that he had a brilliance that might rub off on us if we made the effort to learn,” writes Priya.

Our goal for the opening of any event is to “grab people,” Priya suggests.  “It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

She calls it: Honoring and awing our guests.

2: Openings matters across many mediums.  “Any author will regale you in great detail with tales of how long she labors over her opening sentences,” observes Priya.  

Note the attention paid to the opening lines of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Call me Ishmael,” or Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way.”

“When Melville addresses us, 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 us. He is simply welcoming us into a world,” writes Priya.

Similarly, when we walk into a Four Seasons hotel lobby, we are greeted with flowers that are as tall as we are.  “Honor-awing,” says Priya: The flowers “awe” us, “intimidate” us, and makes us remember we “don’t live like this back home.”  

“In each of these openings, we are being made to feel slightly overwhelmed while at the same time made to feel welcome,” Priya notes.  “Our attention is gripped even as our nerves are soothed.”

3: It’s not just the grand gestures, however, that honor and awe our guests.  Small touches can make a big impact, too.  Priya shares the story of when her stepsister and husband were visiting New York City from their home in Washington, D.C.  “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.”

He suggested they set the table to make them feel special.  “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!” Priya and her husband 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.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Is there a time when I was awed and honored by the opening of an event?  How did that make me feel?  How can I take these ideas and apply them at an upcoming meeting or party I am hosting or organizing?

Action: Experiment with an opening that aims to awe and honor my guests.

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