Excellent events inspire their attendees, but some spark more creativity, contemplation, and connection than others. One way to achieve that is simply to have a larger number of people from which something special can emerge. However, when the goal of the hosts is to increase the odds of each attendee experiencing great outcomes—when, ideally, everyone comes away energized and enhanced—then increasing scale is counter-productive.
I have had the pleasure over this past year of being a part of two exceptionally good gatherings: the inaugural occurrences of XOXO, in September 2012, and YxYY, in July 2013. Both launched waves of enthusiasm and seem positioned to be looked back on as having been a key influence in subsequent creative projects and partnerships. Comparisons, for example, of YxYY to the SxSW festival in 2000 have been mentioned by many people with fond recollection of the connections formed at that earlier event and appreciation for the influence those connections had on the development of the Web and online culture.
Participating in all three of these events was a privilege, and I mean that in its multiple senses. One of the risks of small-scale events is exclusion. One of the best way to avoid that, surely, is to let a thousand flowers bloom. In hope that it will help more organizers of small-scale festivals bring their events to successful fruition, here are a few observations about helpful underlying patterns.
Limitation of event headcount helps avoid a sense of overwhelm. Make your event small enough that attendees can imagine it would be possible to meet everyone there, but don’t require them to do so. This mental ability to ‘get your arms around the group’ reduces attendees feeling isolated next to a faceless, massive crowd. The number 400 was chosen by both XOXO and YxYY and seems to work well for the count of core attendees. By the end of the event, many if not most faces should be at least familiar enough for eye contact and smiles—and all attendees should have enough shared connection from the event that it could be the opener to subsequent conversation.
Foster an event culture of casual inclusiveness, explicitly inviting conversation between attendees. Encourage people to come up and talk with each other. Picnic tables are a strong emergent sub-pattern here; they are friendly and, because they accommodate more people than the natural groupings that usually start a conversation, they invite new participants. Another important sub-pattern for this is name tags which emphasize the first name (and perhaps only include that, as with YxYY’s brilliant swimming-pool-compatible temporary tattoo name tags).
Give and reinforce permission to break down barriers of inflexible behavior. Move a step beyond informality to friendliness, even silliness, and make sure your venue shares this wit. Make instructions playful and let what few rules you absolutely have to have be as cheerful as possible. Wherever possible eliminate things that make attendees feel they are ‘doing it wrong’.
Create opportunities for attendees to engage differently with the event space and with each other. Have some activities and spaces which can accommodate everyone (e.g., XOXO’s presentations or YxYY’s prom), some which accommodate many (e.g., XOXO’s parties and tours or YxYY’s pools), and many which accommodate a few (e.g., tables, conversational seating, power strips, room at the edges for one-on-one talking). Ensure that different spaces have the opportunity to be different; allow for variation in noise level, lighting, temperature, etc. This kind of adaptability creates ‘ramps’ into challenging social interactions and it helps to foster connections between people who otherwise might not have talked. That person who on day one mustered the nerve to interact only one-on-one or in a very small group, can by the last day have built connections to support participation in the crowd—and the crowd will benefit from that new voice.
Keep your event footprint small enough that wandering between spaces isn’t discouraged. Just as joining conversations should be encouraged, so too allow easy movement out of one cluster or activity into others. The Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, where YxYY was held, is an ideal example of being large enough for very different simultaneous activities (e.g., DJ’d music at the main pool while unscheduled talks took place in—yes, in—the smaller pool next to the Commune room, which was accommodating a Settlers of Cataan tournament and crafting tables, all of which were surrounded by smaller conversations and solo time on their edges).
This goes hand in hand with diversity and proximity; some activities, particularly conversations where intense connection and creativity is happening, benefit from pulling back from the main flow of the action. The ideal venue supports this while still encouraging participants to reconnect and share afterwards. Again, the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs had some ideal sub-patterns for this, one of my favorites of which was the rooms with private patios allowing partial retreat while still being exposed to the ambient sounds of the shared spaces. At XOXO, the coffee bar area developed some of this function for people mentally recharging; I noticed people occasionally sitting alone with laptops or books on the outside deck where the sound of the presentation space upstairs could drift down. A silent ‘chill room’, as at YxYY, offers explicit support for retreat and restoration, which can be vital for introverts at social events and which helps to keep those attendees able to bring their perspective to your festival.
All of this helps to make the event valuable and foster connection between its participants. To make it exceptional, though, it needs to tacitly inspire taking all these ideas and contacts further. Choose an event site that expands to the world around it. The high ceilings and tall windows of the XOXO presentation hall and YxYY’s openness to the sky and mountains of Palm Springs created a constant sense of unconstrained space and opportunity. It may sound silly, but make sure your attendees have room for their big thoughts to grow above them. This also means not over-scheduling; allow gaps around activities for ideas to stretch out, whether in conversations or solo thinking.
Along with that expansiveness, blur the edges. Don’t block conversations that extend beyond the event. Have a hashtag so that those not at the event can still get a sense of it and respond through Twitter, Flickr, and similar sharing sites. Link to blog posts by the participants. Celebrate your attendees’ inspiration. Encourage ongoing discussion about the event by continuing to share these reactions and event-sparked creations through the official festival channels even after the event is over.
Obviously, my thoughts here owe a big thanks to A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. If you don’t own a copy of this mighty tome, I encourage you to get one and just keep it around, dipping into it randomly as well as gradually reading through it from the beginning. It is, like these festivals, a mind-expander. Unlike them, it can be engaged with slowly, over years, and will still reward whatever time you choose to give it.
I also thank the creators of Medium for building such an excellent space for human-scale conversation about a set of ideas.