Parker starts the book with Chapter One, entitled "Decide why you're REALLY gathering." In it, she outlines:
"There are so many good reasons for coming together that often we don't know precisely why we are doing so. You are not alone if you skip the first step in convening people meaningfully: committing to a bold, sharp purpose. When we skip this step, we often let old or faulty assumptions about why we gather dictate the form of our gatherings. We end up gathering in ways that don't serve us, or not connecting when we ought to...The art of gathering begins with purpose: When should we gather? And why?"
In the case of a book club, Parker asks you to look beyond simply just reading a book as a group: "When we don't examine the deeper assumptions behind WHY we gather, we end up skipping too quickly to replicating old, staid formats of gathering. And we forgo the possibility of creating something memorable, even transformative...when we gather, we often make the mistake of conflating category with purpose. We outsource our decisions and our assumptions about our gatherings to people, formats, and contexts that are not our own. We get lulled into the false belief that knowing the category of the gathering - the board meeting, workshop, birthday party, town hall - will be instructive to designing it."
Parker then shares an example, The Red Hook Community Justice Center, as one that re-imagined a court proceeding as being something restorative for the community, rather than a traditional punitive format, with vastly improved results.
Parker then discusses Ritualized Gatherings. We traditionally think of these as baby showers, or weddings, but they can be "a presidential debate or a sales conference or a gala fundraiser" which then get "repeated again and again, year after year, and often the elements of the gathering become ritualized." "People come to expect these elements of form and event take comfort in them" meaning that "over time, the form itself plays a role in shaping people's sense of belonging to the group and their identity within that group: this is who we are. This is the way we do things about here." When things change, and the format becomes outdated, this can result in a dissonance where the event form is no longer serving the needs.
A great example Parker includes are the famous "Page One" meetings at the New York Times, which had to be updated to meet the changing needs of a primarily digital audience. Sam Dolnick, an assistant editor for the NYTimes, is quoted as saying "We changed the meeting as a deliberate way to change the culture and values of the newsroom. We wanted people to think less about print, so we needed the meeting to be less about print. We used the meeting as a way to shift the values and the mindset." As part of that shift, the seating was updated - the big round table removed, seating changed to have top editors on one side, editors from other desks seated on the opposing side, meeting timing shifting to accommodate new deadlines and groups, and even a shift in the meeting structure. Instead of beginning with pitches, now the meeting began with audience statistics, editors sharing what they were working on, and asking specific questions, debating the experience to reflect the "here and now."
Parker also asks you to "commit to a gathering about Something," as opposed to being a show about nothing (like Seinfeld). She says:
"These may seem like unreasonable criteria for a meeting or poker night or conference. You may well ask, 'Why does my gathering have to take a stand?' It's not the Battle of the Alamo. I have heard this question before...Forcing yourself to think about your gathering as stand-taking helps you get clear on its unique purpose. Gatherings that please everyone occur, but they rarely thrill. Gatherings that are willing to be alienating - which is different than BEING alienating - have a better chance to dazzle."
So... how do you commit to something? Parker recommends you start out by being specific.
In the case of Meetup.com, Parker interviews Scott Heiferman of Meetup who shares that "The more specific the Meetup, the more likelihood for success." Ideally, you want to strike a balance between making something as descriptive and fitting as possible, while not being so specific as to not reach a critical mass of people. Other good tips? Uniqueness - what sets this event apart from other similar events or conferences - and being disputable, which Parker defines as finding a purpose to guide you as you plan and deal with the inevitable bumps that will arise on the way of planning the event. To help you craft your purpose, you're given a chart in the chapter as well!