Reflections on 'The Art of Gathering' for those in Public Engagement

I've just finished reading 'The Art of Gathering' by Pryia Parker. It's a must read for anyone who is interested in gathering people together - for work and for social. The book made me think in lots of ways about how I gather people in my life (something I love to do) but here I am going to reflect on how it might reinvigorate some of the ways in which I approach public engagement activities and gatherings.

The book isn't about public engagement, it's about gathering as a general topic but the ideas can be applied to any gathering. Not all of the thoughts in the book were completely new to me but these are the ones that I thought were of particular importance for everyone involved in creating engagement experiences that bring together the public and research.

I've got to extend a massive thank you to Lou Woodley for the recommendation to read the book.

The book is set out over eight chapters, which logically follow the path you take when planning a gathering. Pryia brings together her experiences from conferences, dialogue facilitation, event organising and the expertise of others.


Within public engagement we often ask people to think about why they might want an event, how it links to a bigger picture and what they are trying to get out of it. I think it's also important to remember that these events have a dual purpose, they have a purpose for the researchers and research plus a purpose for the guests. These purposes are equally important and defining those is the first step in creating a worthwhile experience.

Pryia discusses the importance of thinking about who is part of a gathering and how those people interact make the gathering. Often in public engagement we talk about activities being 'for everyone' but to create more meaningful gatherings you might want to consider being more selective - driven by your purpose. Pryia's experience in generating gatherings that create change are really interesting in this section and give a lot of food for thought about how to exclude well, and how good exclusion can activate diversity.

This is something I think about A LOT. The venue can often dictate the type of audience you get, it also dictates the feel of the event and what people expect from the event. I am a big fan of getting people away from their usual places to help break down hierarchies and to make everyone feel comfortable. The Chateau Principle she discusses can be directly applied to events within a University.

Pryia also gives some great examples on how sometimes a venue turns out to be less than ideal - handy tips for fixing things on location!

Before the event

How can we be better in public engagement at creating delight with our guests before they attend? The steps taken before the event determine your attendees and are incredibly important for us as often we wish to engage with particular groups of people. How can we create alternative worlds that they can enter and feel free and open to participate?

The use of rules can guide people in how to behave. This is an approach I've adopted in my time in public engagement without really considering - I use rules for researchers involved with events and use rules to direct public audiences at gatherings. I think hard about how to use them, phrase them and how and when to communicate them. I use them to help create a sense of community before an event and build trust between the participants. Simple things like 'There will be a practice run through at this point and I will make sure you are well fed...'

I often repeat them several times when working with people on an activity. They should link back to your purpose and can help make sure you don't move away from it as excitement takes hold.

I used rules A LOT at our wedding and directed those involved with hosting our day in how and where I wanted them to be applied (I gave space for people to take photos, but only at certain points within the ceremony as I knew if I didn't I would walk down the aisle to a sea of people trying to use their ipads). Used well they add to the event and the experience.

The book has pushed me to think how I can experiment even more with rules and the experience leading up to an event.

There's also a big focus on trust in the book, equally in public engagement your role is to generate trust. Trust from the researchers involved and trust from the public involved. This work starts long before the event itself and how you conduct and manage this makes a huge difference to the final outcome.


The most important takeaway I took from this was a realisation that almost all public engagement events open with logistics. We need to ditch this and create stronger, more memorable openings and then introduce the logistics. The primary aim of our activities isn't to tell people where the toilets are but I have been to so many events where this forms the opening line.


We experiment a lot as a community with different methods of hosting and facilitating. Continuing to experiment and explore in this area is important. There are some really neat ideas and approaches in the book which I might build into different types of gathering in the future. Pryia has developed some fantastic ideas on how to create and direct dialogue at a gathering.

Ending and after the event

There's a focus in the book on strong endings (again, avoiding logistics). Closings matter and they can be what people take away and remember about an event. People don't like to end something that is going well but people also need to accept that everything must come to an end - implementing a signal can help, like a last call at the bar. A wind down signal. I think within public engagement circles we are pretty good at stopping and reflecting at the end before going back out into the world but the book reminded me that although this part of the process is a natural one for me, it shouldn't be overlooked and there are ways in which this too can be altered and refined depending on the gathering and the purpose.

Just to note, I have no relationship to this book, the author, the publishers or anything. I read it and thought it was fantastic so wanted to share some of my thoughts.


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