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Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer of SXSW is a happy man. After the very last minute cancellation of the 2020 edition of Austin’s finest congress, he went through a decimation of his staff, experienced almost the kiss of death by bankruptcy, and managed by the skin of his teeth to save the furniture by holding a virtual event in 2021. Seeing the in-person crowd flocking back together  in Austin’s congress center is the crown on two years of hard work.  Forrest is convinced the world needs the festival more than ever.

The world is brutal

The need and power and the value of inspiration have never been more pressing,” Forrest said. “The world outside of SXSW has never been more brutal.” Truth be told: the tanks slowly rolling into the Ukrainian cities is on everyone’s mind, especially for the visiting Europeans to whom the war strikes way too close to home to feel comfortable.

Another cloud shading SXSW’s usually sunny demeanor is the blow that was delivered by the Texan legislators to the LGBTQ+, and women communities through anti-transgender bills, and anti-abortion laws. Forrest condemned them firmly, but the laws signed by Governor Greg Abbott are met with anger and disbelief. Some speakers did not descend to Austin out of protest, some brands refrained from participating, and there is a growing pressure on the event-organizers to relocate the festival altogether.

We can move the needle

Forrest is convinced that the festival, and the people attending the congress can help changing the world for the better: “Do the people at SXSW have the power to change what is happening in Eastern Europe? Do the people in this room have the power to change repulsive legislation we are seeing in Texas and other states? Yes, we do. I think the people in this room can help move the needle forward, ” said Hugh Forrest.

Collective power

He sees the collective brainpower at SXSW as a bright spotlight on  the possibilities of progress, of humanity, of positive thinking, technological features and innovative approaches. The most innovative and revolutionizing thinkers in a plethora of disciplines and professions pack a ton of power and  strengthen each other. Forrest hopes that the inspiration and energy received at SXSW gives hope to approach these difficult problems.

He pointed out the reinvigorating power of rediscovering face-to-face interactions, to meet in person, and to brainstorm and ideate as a group. “It may sound hippy-dippy even utopian”, he said: “but gathering together and coming up with new ideas provides hope for the future and for resolutions to the world’s problems.”

The art of Gathering

Priya Parker, then kicked SXSW 2022 into motion.   Parker packs more power in her left pinky than a truckload of nitroglycerine. Sharp, intelligent, to the point and energizing she fueled the hope of Forrest.  Parker is an American facilitator, strategic advisor extra-ordinaire, and author of one of the most revealing books I’ve read  in the last decennium The Art Of Gathering.  She is the founder of Thrive Labs, and assists decision makers, activists, captains of industry, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, and philanthropists to build transformative gatherings; shared moments that matter. Conflict management and crafting joined solutions through meaningful connections are her secret weapons. (I admit: I have a solid case of biased brain crush. I will not even apologize)

We gather to engage

How can we gather here in Austin, while there is this brutal invasion on the other side of the world. How do we resolve that with having fun at SXSW?” Forrest asked her.

Parker explained that gathering together is by no means some cheap escapism, on the contrary: we gather to engage, to fortify, to mourn, to grieve, to make sense of the world and harness the power of those captive moments of togetherness. “At moments of crisis is the most important moments to come together,” she said.

Cut the useless, double down on meaningful

In her book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker argues that we suffer from a overdose of useless encounters and meetings in our lives.  Enhanced even more by a quick culture of hollow AudioVisual meetings, accelerated by the COVID social distancing, we have way too many empty meetings in our lives that are lackluster and  worryingly unproductive. A shame, because the very purpose of meetings is to establish the opposite.

Priya Parker points out that we rely too much on rusty routine and the incomprehensible conventions whether social, or business.  She believes moments together should be celebrated, should have a well-defined purpose, should focus on distinctiveness and add value by and for the people involved. If there is no clear common purpose  for a meeting -in person or at a distance- , there should be no meeting. Parker is clear: do not call your mom because you have to… call your mom because you have something to say, something to share, or a good moment to give.  Don’t meet your client because the bi-weekly meeting is penciled in: gather with your client to get closer together, better to the business at hand, grow in co-construction. Change starts by adding value, and creating value. Meetings without value -human, sentimental, economic, practical or other- are a waste of time and energy, disrespectful, and should be cancelled.  

Create meaningful experiences

At this time, hesitantly exiting 25 months of COVID isolation, coming together is more important than ever.  Parker pleads for a human-centered (technology backboned) approach to gathering that will help everyone create meaningful, memorable experiences, large and small, for work and for play.

Push and pull communication, interaction and focused dialogue around clear topics give meaning and set into motion change .  Every participant in a meeting becomes an actor in and an ambassador of its success.

Priya Parker shows how high-powered gatherings change relations, projects, businesses and the world. Meaningful connections. Communication professionals, connective strategists, media planners, creative conceptors, marketing powerplayers: they should listen to Priya. How do we get rid of meaningless connections between brands and consumers? How can we add energy and purpose at every point and moment of contact? How can we make every contact, every encounter count.

You create value by adding value…. Do we?

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