creating experiences

How to be a designer of experiences

The first time I ever heard someone talk about intentionally designing experiences, I was in a classroom at Hebrew College, working on my Master’s degree in Jewish education. My professor was an eccentric educator with a brilliant mind, who battled his own demons and had a flair for the dramatic. He talked about the importance of setting up the room and creating an environment. He would sometimes have music playing when we walked in. He wanted to flip the script, to make it clear from the moment we walked in that this was going to be different, that the experience we were about to embark on was not going to be what we had come to expect from an ordinary class.

This was decades before Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering, or Chip and Dan Heath’s The Power of Moments, two books which would later reinforce what I learned in that classroom many years ago.

Those lessons I learned in graduate school have served me well both in my professional life and in my personal life. As I wrote in a letter to my son on his 18th birthday, aside from protecting him and keeping him safe, I always saw one of my most important parental roles as being a designer of experiences and a creator of memories that hopefully would last a lifetime.

In my work at USCJ over the last ten years, I have always seen myself as a designer of experiences. Every meeting, every training session, every webinar, every workshop I facilitate, whether it is in person or virtual, I look at as an experience with a particular purpose, and with a beginning, a middle, and an end, all of which need to be intentionally designed from the time a participant accepts the invitation to participate, through the pre-work, the experience itself, and the follow up. Each element is crafted and molded, and improved and perfected, coming together like a piece of art.

Depending on the time I have available to prepare, some experiences I create are more carefully designed than others, but my intention is always the same. It’s why I spend so much time preparing my sessions and tweaking my slides. It’s never just about the content. I want to provide an experience that changes people in some way, that opens their minds to a new idea or helps them think of something from a new perspective, or allows them to make a new connection. I want to give them something they will connect with on an emotional level and remember for a long time. I know I won’t succeed every time, but I like to think that more often than not, I am successful on some level.

Here are a few things I have learned to help create an experience that people will remember:

  • From the very first communication, make participants feel special. Send a personal welcome note telling them how excited you are for the session, and letting them know if there is anything they need to do before the session to ensure that they get the full benefit.
  • Before running the session, be sure to run through the agenda from beginning to end as if you are a participant. Think about when your attention might be lagging and when you might need a break and make those adjustments.
  • Think about emotion — what do you want people to feel as they begin the experience and what do you want them to feel at the end? Often I try to instill curiosity at the beginning and want people to feel empowered and energized at the end.
  • Whether in person or virtually, be sure to arrive at the session early (at least 30 minutes) so that you can set up the physical or virtual room exactly the way you want it and personally greet every person as they arrive.
  • Give them something to take back with them — a photo, a certificate, a swag bag, a slide deck — something that they can look at a week, or a month, or a year down the road and remember the experience.

If you think about the experiences that you remember most fondly, chances are what you remember is not so much what happened, as how the experience made you feel. If we consciously design experiences for emotional impact, people will remember them with a smile, and will want to come back for more.

As we take what we’ve learned during this pandemic and strive to create meaningful experiences for our communities, let’s make sure that we are intentional about what we create, that we are truly taking people’s needs and desires into account, and that we are making the kinds of emotional connections that will keep people coming back for more.

Aimee Close is USCJ Synagogue Consultant, Leadership Development.