Author Priya Parker once attended the funeral of a close friend.
1: “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,” she recalls in The Art of Gathering. “Sadness hung in the air, and many of us were already crying.
“The minister got up and walked to the front of the room. The moment was pregnant. Everyone leaned forward, keen for words of comfort,” she remembers.
The minister took a deep breath, looked out at all of the people, 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. 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.”
Cue the sound of a balloon deflating. The potential energy of the moment had been wasted. “We had all been hungry for consoling and coming together. The moment was ripe, and the minister had our attention,” Priya writes. He “wasted what could’ve been an unforgettable opening to connect the tribe that had gathered around one man. Instead, he started with logistics.”
2: This tendency to start with logistics is not uncommon. We think the moments before we start don’t matter. Hundreds of people come together to gather for a conference. The organizer takes the stage and says: “Before we start, there’s a white Camaro with its lights on in the parking lot, license plate TXW 4628.” Or, “galas, full of people dressed in their finery, that launch with a long set of thank-yous to the event’s sponsors,” observes Priya.
All too often the key opening moments are directed by the thought: “Let’s first get some business out of the way.”
Organizers may say: I have no choice! I must recognize my sponsors.
Priya disagrees: “However vital it may seem to start with this housekeeping, we are missing an opportunity to sear our gathering’s purpose into the minds of our guests,” she writes. “It’s not that you don’t need time for logistics and the like. Just don’t start with them. Open cold,” she recommends.
“It may seem like I’m nitpicking,” Priya observes, “but what I’m proposing couldn’t be more vital to the work of gathering better.”
3: A powerful example of this idea in action was the opening of the original Star Wars movie. George Lucas wanted a bold start to the film. So, he decided to forgo the opening credits entirely. The Directors Guild of America pushed back. “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,” writes Priya.
The result? “One of the most memorable beginnings in movie history,” Priya notes. “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.”
Reflection: Think of powerful meeting or event I’ve attended or organized. How did the opening set the tone for what was to follow?
Action: Be intentional about the opening of my next meeting, party, or event. Experiment. What did I learn?