Clever Carly: Creating Energy in a Solemn Space

Some meetings call for a somber tone—here’s how to create it without being a drag

Hello, planners! 

It’s funny—I put an exclamation point at the beginning of this note out of habit. It’s just who I am: upbeat. So much of our job is about maintaining a cheerful energy, both for our own teams and our clients. But sometimes cheer isn’t what a meeting calls for. Maybe a longtime client has lost a valued member of the community and wants to spend part of the event memorializing that person. Perhaps the entire meeting is centered around a topic that invites a sense of solemnity. Or maybe the client simply wants to incorporate commemorations like Armistice Day (November 11) into the meeting.

Whatever the occasion, your job is to help set the appropriate tone for the gathering. And because of the upbeat nature so many of us share, this kind of project might be more challenging than other meetings. Here’s a map of how you can help your client achieve the right balance for somber meetings.

Be transparent. If commemoration is the entire purpose of a gathering, attendees will roughly know going in what to expect. But if it’s widely known that a tough topic will be addressed yet there’s not a clear expectation of what that will look like or when it will happen, guests might feel uneasy. Suggest that the facilitator say upfront how and when sensitive topics will be handled through the course of the event, which will allow attendees to prepare and set their expectations from the start.

Have a dedicated space for commemoration. Consider having a space expressly designed to allow attendees to express their feelings on the matter at hand. It needn’t be a separate room (though that might be appropriate, particularly if grief is a factor); simply having a table with photographs or other materials that invite open discussion can designate an area as being appropriate for an intensified form of expression.

Create an energy arc. Whether solemnity is the anchor for the entire event or simply a portion of it, you should intentionally set a curve to the energy in the room. Going straight from a sorrowful commemoration to a pep rally is disconcerting for attendees, but keeping the whole meeting on the same energy plane can be draining. The exact shape of your meeting will vary depending on its purpose, of course, but you can plot it out by envisioning a graph. At what point in the event should there be a quiet energy? At what point should there be more activity or celebration? At what point should it be business as usual? Once you’ve determined the ideal arc, you can employ cues like lighting, speaker volume, refreshment breaks, and group exercises to deploy your plan.

Use lighting strategically. You don’t need to go so far as to dramatically dim the lights when you’re actively memorializing, but research shows that keeping lighting slightly dimmer than usual can help even out people’s emotions. If the lighting in your event space has dimming capabilities, start off the meeting with the lights a little low—not perceptibly so, but just enough to send a “settle down” signal to people’s brains. Then, if the event is geared to move away from difficult areas, enlist someone to gradually adjust the lighting to its regular strength. If dimming isn’t an option, try to select a space with warm overhead lighting, which can evoke feelings of relaxation, according to the Illuminating Engineering Society.

Avoid getting maudlin. If only a portion of a meeting is devoted to a serious topic, it can be easy to mark that portion as “here’s the sad part” by getting overly sentimental. Advise facilitators to keep their tone neutral and to not squeeze the essence of a commemoration too hard, which can lead to eye-rolling and a sense of impatience—exactly what you don’t want in this kind of gathering. 

All this aside, though, in many ways this sort of meeting is like any other. Execute it with grace and a thorough understanding of your client’s needs, and you’re sure to strike just the right note.

Until next week,
Clever Carly