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Recipes for Gathering | The Unofficial Start

You know at the beginning of a gathering or meeting when folks are just starting to arrive, there’s this sort of awkward moment when people don’t really know what to do. My friend Marli Williams gave it a purpose and a name. She calls it “The Unofficial Start.” It’s the concept of creating an activity that gives those early birds something to do, something to get them engaged right away.

This Unofficial Start should be a pretty easy, shouldn’t take a whole ton of brain power, sort of activity. It can be something like an inspiration quote walk (post inspiration quotes around the room.) You can have a set of question cards that you hand out as people arrive and invite them to ask that question to one of the other folks that are milling about. One of my favorite Unofficial Start activities is Sticky Note Therapy.

The first time I remember using Sticky Note Therapy was during a Community Engagement Project regarding student success for All Hands Raised with Katalyst, Kevin Carroll. The general idea is based on the fact that often times when people show up to a meeting or gathering they have some baggage that they are carrying with them. Some unspoken blocker that keeps them from really showing up. It might be a negative bias that might get in the way of their ability to have an open mind.

For the All Hands Raised workshop, we needed people to be able to open up to the possibilities of student success. We wanted them to think about solutions and action. And we knew that lots of folks had a lot to say about what’s causing the lack of success of our students. For this engagement our question was: “what’s keeping our kids from being successful.”

This simple exercise allowed them to get these things off their chest in a healthy and therapeutic way so they could start thinking about how to collectively impact student success.

Here’s how to run a Sticky Note Therapy activity.


  • Several stacks of sticky notes

  • Enough sharpies for each person at the gathering

  • A whiteboard, wall or other somewhat sturdy vertical surface


  • Determine a question to ask your group that will address something that might be keeping them from fully showing up for your particular gathering.

  • Ask each person to think about the question and to quietly write one idea/concept per sticky note. They can have as many sticky notes as it takes to get it all out.

  • When they have all of their notes ready, ask them to take their sticky notes and affix them to the preset board or wall. With each slap of a note they are letting go of their negative thoughts or barriers

What’s your favorite way to ease the awkwardness at the beginning of a gathering? I’d love to hear it.

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