The Art of Online Gathering

As what would normally be in-person events look to be taking place online for the foreseeable future, Becky considers how online events can increase their connection with their audiences...

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Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855.  The company remains independent and family-run, and now has a further three offices – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – across the county. As the international community continues to adapt to changes in life which have taken place due to the coronavirus pandemic, members of the team are learning more about how to continue to enjoy their hobbies in a different way. Community Co-Ordinator, Becky, who has a background in event management, shares what she’s learned about improving digital events…

Away from my work, I’m an enthusiastic reader, and several of the books I’ve read during the last year have benefitted my professional life as well as my personal life.  I’ve shared previously that ‘The Art of Gathering’ was something I’d found particularly useful, giving me a new language for explaining how to approach event design and why it’s important.  This was particularly useful when it came to teaching courses on how to organise events – establishing the feasibility of events is something that we covered extensively at university, but it’s something that community organisers don’t have the same capacity for as academics.  To have a more straightforward way of defining this was really helpful, and my delegates appreciated it.

I was further aided in my effective communication having read ‘How To Own The Room’, a book about speaking.  Having followed the author, Viv Groskop, on social media, I also took advantage of her expertise when lockdown came into effect, and was quickly able to learn how best to communicate via online platforms.  There have only been a handful of occasions upon which I’ve needed to call on this knowledge, but it’s given me greater confidence each time.  From how to set up my camera and prepare the environment, to how to make eye contact with the audience rather than getting distracted by the image of myself on the screen in front of me, there were many useful tips that I was able to action.

The inhibition of in-person events looks set to continue for a long time yet, which is having a considerable effect on enjoyment and the economy.  As the situation continues, those who organise events are having to adapt, as are attendees.  The ongoing evolution led to a meeting of minds – I was delighted to learn that Priya Parker, author of ‘The Art of Gathering’, was a guest on Viv Groskop’s podcast.

I listened with interest as the women – from their respective bases in New York and London – discussed how to adapt to both hosting and attending events online.  The programme pointed out starkly that the context of gathering (that is, to meet, or hold events) has changed.  Viv asked Priya how she would go about bringing a sense of togetherness when people aren’t physically together.

Priya answered that, usually, the act of walking through a doorway and arriving at an event is a moment of transition.  For some people, this may occur during a working day when moving from one meeting to the next, and it certainly occurs in our social lives too – for example, from office to home, or home to a restaurant, wedding ceremony to wedding breakfast.  Priya notes that hitting ‘Join’ on a Zoom call offers a very different experience, particularly versus travelling a greater distance via car or aeroplane to reach an event.

Viv liked the idea of a doorway, and wondered how Priya would suggest creating one for situations such as Zoom calls.  In response, Priya reiterated what she says in her book – gatherings begin at the moment of discovery by the guest.  That is to say that the moment a guest learns about the potential future event – whether it’s that they’ve seen a piece of publicity, been sent a ‘Save the Date’, or been actively invited – is when their experience begins.

This is something she refers to as ‘priming’, and it’s a concept I highly appreciate.  It states clearly that this is when our expectation begins – publicity and invitations convey a lot about the tone of an event, and how we can expect it to be managed; how information is shared with us is important and, even when an event is going to be a digital one, there are stronger and weaker examples of discovery and priming.  Many people believe that events begin the moment we walk through the door, but really our expectations have been set far sooner than this, and we have in fact already begun to experience the occasion.

Priya states clearly that we must give online gatherings a ‘relevant, specific and meaningful name.’  This is important as, ‘names can do a lot of work to orient the guests’.  I really liked this idea, and Priya underpins her point by asserting that calling something a ‘meeting’ doesn’t tell you much – when you really think about it, there could be a lot more detail here.  This is part of the priming.  Priya goes on to say that if we give our guests a clearer label, not only will they feel more comfortable, but they’ll also feel appropriately prepared by, for example, bringing ideas with them when told they’ll be attending a workshop or brainstorm.

From my perspective as a guest or an event manager, online events involve two forms of priming – the physical and the ideological.  When creating an in-person event, I will always consider the logistics: do the attendees know how to find the event and when to be there?  Are they prepared for the catering experience we’ll be offering?  Then, there’s the more emotional experience: am I preparing them in terms of making sure that they will be comfortable, please with their time, and appropriately excited and engaged?  Do they know whether to expect something energising or relaxing?  Am I making it worth their effort by ensuring them that it will be something they will enjoy?

Whilst much of what’s included in the podcast may sound focused on academics, I believe that this can be related to many of the experiences we are now seeing people sharing in the funeral industry.  It’s about awareness, and remembering that we can still create a sense of togetherness.

For example, something which is particularly popular with attended funerals these days, and has been for some time, is for wishes to be made clear about dress codes.  Although they may be attending virtually, it’s worth considering inviting guests to wear the Deceased person’s favourite colour, or an outfit which reminds them of that person, in order to focus their thoughts.  It could be something as simple as putting on a scarf or a piece of jewellery.  It may be appropriate to have some food and drink on standby which you enjoyed sharing with that person, to celebrate your memories of your time together.  You might like to have a photo to hand, in case there isn’t one clearly on display via the streaming service.

My fellow event managers, funeral directors and I are keen to see in-person events resume fully as soon as it’s safe to do so.  In the meantime, it’s important to recognise that there are possibilities for improving digital events, and that we share our experiences so that as many people as possible may benefit.

You can listen to the ‘How To Own The Room’ podcast for free, the episode with Priya Parker can be found here.

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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

August 19, 2020

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