What’s most important about an event, the gift or the wrapping?

While writing about seeing the gifts in people and events I remembered one of my favorite scenes in Love Actually (2003). With his wife shopping nearby, Harry (Alan Rickman) impulsively purchases an expensive necklace for his mistress — only to be tortured by the fear of discovery as Rufus (Rowan Atkinson) slowly wraps his gift.

Watch the 2-minute video clip.

Discussing this amusing scene, my wife pointed out that the two components of a present, a gift and a wrapping, suggest a metaphor for an event. The gift symbolizes the purpose of the event — the connections made, the learning that takes place, the consequent outcomes. The wrapping equates to the logistical necessities and sensory glitz that makes the event viable (people need to eat and drink, have somewhere to stay, and enjoy being entertained or impressed).

The answer to “what’s most important about a present, the gift or the wrapping?” is easy. A beautifully wrapped empty box is at best a joke, at worst an insult. A naked gift, shorn of all wrapping, is still a present.

And yet, all too often, we attend events that are like beautiful yet ultimately disappointing boxes of chocolates. The wrapping is gorgeous. Our excitement mounts as we open the box, only to discover that the chocolates are missing, sparse, or stale.

Without a useful, meaningful, and successfully implemented purpose, the most beautiful event is a hollow shell. A stunning wrapping that contains no valuable core. Attendees can be sumptuously fed and entertained, but if the event’s purpose remains missing, obscured, or unsuccessfully delivered, then, as Shakespeare said, the event becomes something “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

As an event designer, I frequently hear that there’s “no budget” for meeting process design. Design that would make an event fundamentally better by significantly improving the realization of its purpose. Curiously, there always seems to be enough money budgeted for meeting logistics: the nice venue, F&B, fancy decor and AV, and the seemingly obligatory entertainment and big name speaker(s). That’s sad, because competent meeting process design costs far less than any of these traditional logistical components.

When we design and implement an event, its purpose must remain at the center of our attention, energy, and budget. If we focus on the wrapping at the expense of the gift, our events will be a tragic waste of everyone’s time.

Three things conference attendees really want to know about each other

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Connections with people are formed by our experience with them over time. (Yes, Buddhists and Taoists, the present moment is our only reality, but we still experience it through the filters of the history and desires in our brains.) Besides learning about people we’re with though our direct experience, we discover more by listening to their descriptions of their past and present experiences and their hopes for the future.

The first thing that happens at Conferences That Work is a roundtable, where each attendee answers the following three questions (there are no wrong answers!) to the group:

  • How did I get here? (past)
  • What do I want to have happen? (present & future)
  • What experience or expertise do I have that might be of interest to others? (past & future)

As people, one by one, answer these questions they share their past, present, and future with everyone in attendance. Each person opens a window through which the time line of their life can be seen more clearly. This sharing provides the foundation for connections to be deepened during the conference that follows.

Image attribution: Flickr user houseofsims