The “Goldilocks ask”

What’s the best way to invite participation before a program to prime and excite attendees, and how can you help attendees meaningfully process a virtual program after it ends?

The “Goldilocks ask”

In her recent newsletter, Priya Parker told a story about how someone created a unique and memorable gathering for her father’s 70th birthday:

“Two weeks ahead of the big day, she asked each guest to send her three digital photos of their fondest memories of her pop. On his birthday, the family piled into Betsy’s living room and she cued up a slideshow of their submitted photos. One by one, pictures appeared on the screen, and ‘when it was your picture,’ Betsy explained, ‘the person went up and told the room about why they chose it and what the memory was.’”

Parker breaks down the factors that made the event such a success, several of which stand out for their particular relevance to a research question we’ve focused on at Gather: what’s the best way to invite participation before a program to prime and excite attendees, and how can you help attendees meaningfully process a virtual program after it ends?

Parker’s answer is spot-on: “It was a Goldilocks ask. (Not too big, not too small.) While asking guests to do something ahead of time can certainly prime them, if it’s too big or complex an ask it can just feel like labor.”

A screenshots of 3 panels on a computer screen: in the left panel there is a list of 5 Conversations, in the middle there is a photo of a drawing and several comments on it, and in the right there is an expanded reply area with 3 comments.
Screenshot of the Community conversation for the Blind Contour Drawing activity

We’ve seen this in effect across many different types of virtual programs hosted by museums and education institutions over the past two years. On May 25, our partners at Academic Innovation for the Public Good, co-founded by Stanford Digital Education and Trinity College, hosted a live talk with Sarah Stein Greenberg, author of Creative Acts for Curious People. Two days before the event, they invited registrants to make and post a blind contour drawing, which is the first activity in Stein Greenberg’s book. The author then demonstrated and led a reflection on the activity at the beginning of the live webinar. Those who submitted their drawings into the Community space before or after the talk were eligible to receive one of three free copies of the book.

The activity was very successful, with 34 participants posting their images and commenting on others’, and more coming by the Community to look. The quality of participation was memorable: many people took the time to write and share their reflection on how the activity made them feel — joyful, free, uncritical, playful — and commented on how much they enjoyed seeing each others’ drawings.

On the left side there is a black and white drawing of a dog on lined white paper, and on the right side is a photograph of the dog, which the drawing is based on.
My contour drawing of my basset hound puppy, Professor, and the original inspiration.

The activity fulfilled three of the other factors that Parker outlined in the story: it was accessible because it required only materials that most participants would have nearby (pen and paper), there was an element of surprise, and people participated in a way that allowed for layered, varied perspectives. Stein Greenberg’s explanation during the event of how the activity can foster innovation tied it back to the purpose of the gathering and made the value of participating more evident. (The free books giveaway helped too!)

If you’ve recently invited virtual program registrants to participate or respond to a prompt before a program, what made that feel successful or not? What could you change about the invitation next time to foster more quality engagement?


In early June, we attended the MuseumNext Digital Summit. As always, we came away with a lot of inspiration. Below we highlight three points that speakers made about inviting participation with the “Goldilocks ask:”

  • Lindsay O’Leary, Head of Content at Tate, presented 7 Ways to Use Your Collection to Connect to Audiences. Tip #4: Get your audience involved. “We have an incredible and fun artwork from Erin Wurm, which is part of a series of photography titled One Minute Sculptures. We challenged our followers to see what sculpture they could create in one minute themselves. We had hundreds of submissions…. A key tip is to make the question easy to answer, or you’re not going to get many if any responses. One time we tried to ask people to respond to a performance artwork with their own dance response. You know how many responses we got? None, of course. It was much too complicated of an ask.” Read more.
  • Whitney Raser, Director of Education at the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, presented Access for All: Providing Hands-on Learning Experiences in a Digital World: “Ask people to do things at home that center movement to bring fun back into digital engagement and use everyday objects that many people have at home. Sitting in front of a digital screen is not very fun, but moving is. So our work suddenly became really kinesthetic.” That included scavenger hunts, dances, and sing-alongs.
  • Jessica Shaw, Learning Specialist at the Canadian War Museum, presented Virtual Programs: Finding the Formula. She told the story of the museum’s virtual knitting workshops that interspersed hands-on technique with short history lessons. Their opening question “What is your most cherished hand-knitted item?” set the stage for a conversational and meaningful workshop. “What really sets this series apart is the level of audience engagement. The chat is a hive of activity. Whether participants are sharing local businesses, making connections with other participants, or sharing stories, it truly feels like a community. So don’t be afraid to blow open the doors on your chat settings—you can alway change them later.”

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