How to make events ‘great’ again

e12 / podcast & show notes, wherein I share 7 ‘tips’ (I suppose) for making events ‘meaningful’.


This podcast essentially explores why conferences and events are so frequently underwhelming—and what we can do about it. It was something I snuck in just before the intimate DIALECTIC gatherings I am doing with Mykel Dixon (I’m soon to hop onto a plane for the first one). I thought: why not capture some thoughts in podcast format, for those who can’t attend (and so that I might feel a bit less burdened by thinking come the night). And so here we are.

The conference and event space has become dangerously safe.

A predictable pantomime of stale narratives perpetuated by self-interested business leaders and consultants.

And yet, amidst the warm and platitudinous mediocrity, there are glimmers of sheer brilliance. Events that fly beneath the radar, where ideas and conventions are challenged—ruthlessly, with empathy and care—so that something more useful, more beautiful might emerge.

As someone whose work sees them attend and speak at many such conferences, I naturally want experience more of the latter. I think everyone does. Nothing comes close to the catalysing and transformative power of a well-designed event. It’s magic.

So: what happens? What gets in the way of conferences, events and gatherings being as efficacious and eventful as they could?

Well, it’s complex of course, hoho. But here are 7 patterns* I’ve noticed that contribute to an underwhelming and uneventful affair (along with some thoughts as to what we can do about it). Note: this is heavily biased toward business and organisational events (though some of these insights might apply to other gatherings, too).

* Yes, it’s a listicle. And I chose the number 7, too. I know. Btw: this seems to be a recurring theme for me. I’ve previously written a somewhat practical article on “How to Ruin Your Next Conference Panel—a recipe for underwhelming success”.

  1. Have a clear intent. Oh how trite, I know. But all too often the purpose behind a gathering becomes warped, obfuscated and occluded. In the podcast, I explain why we need just one overt (romantic/ideal) intent, and one not-secret-but-covert (machiavellian/pragmatic) intent.

  2. Question social media. The integration of social media corrupts the intimacy and sacredness of events. Do we really need it?

  3. Context trumps content. The internet provides more than enough content. The events and gatherings you hold need to offer something the Internet cannot.

  4. Build an antifragile program. Most conference programs are too compact, and are built so as to allow for ‘no surprises’—but the best events and gatherings allow room to dance with what reality.

  5. Question the narrative. Each year the conventional business narrative evolves as a meme-cluster. Rather than simply offer platitudinous reassurances and reaffirmations of familiar tales, increase the diversity of perspective (so that we can think/see/feel in new ways).

  6. Design for the few. This is a dangerous stance, I know (so hear me out in full in the podcast)—but sometimes our desire to be inclusive diminishes the value for who our gatherings are for. Better to miff a few than to miss the mark completely.

  7. Make events sacred. Our world has become disillusioned and disenchanted. We need to bring the magic back. Even if we know such antics aren’t ‘real’, it’s possible to weave new mythology into what we do, so as to create sacred spaces of magical realism. Even if only for a little while.

Well, there we have it. I explain these points better in the podcast. And if I had a week I’d write this out into a much better article. But such is the way of things—these podcasts allow me to share my thoughts with you in a less time-cumbersome manner (which therefore means I have more time to dedicate to my next book). Win-win, in a way.

Oh I mention a few things in this episode. From memory:

» Russell Brand’s podcasts embody a heartfelt and intellectually inquisitive curiousity that I quite admire.
» The DO Lectures seem to host nice events in the wilderness.
» Madeleine Dore of Extraordinary Routines runs a sacred context called Side Project Sessions.
» I don’t know why I mentioned Dark Mofo.
» Of course I mentioned, referenced and love Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering.
» My conspirator Mykel Dixon deserves another mention.
» The House of Beautiful Business offers another glimmer of hope.
» The Idler know who they are for and what they are about.

I’m sure there are plenty better examples and many, many things I missed. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or contributions. Once again: thank you so much for your support.

Have a question you’d like for me to muse upon in auditory fashion? Subscribe to my museletter and keep your eye out for my next Call for Questions. Or heck: just ask me here. I’m likely to respond.