Event Planning as Memory Formation: Practical Tips and Impractical Philosophy

We’re a couple weeks out from Funopticon, the adult summer camp I throw for my extended social circle, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes for great events. As someone with an equal love for partying and organizing, I’ve always been big on putting events together. So I thought it might be fun to assemble some of my top event planning tips.

(I actually really hate the term “event planning,” which to me evokes the worst kinds of corporate getaways rather than, you know, anything fun. But for lack of a better alternative I’m going to stick with it here.)

The main idea behind my event “philosophy,” if you can call it that, is that as an organizer your job isn’t just to ensure people have a great time—it’s to ensure people make great memories.

Having a great time and forming great memories aren’t the same thing: lots of fun isn’t particularly memorable, or is memorable only in the loosest sense. You can leave a party certain that you enjoyed yourself, but end up struggling to recall many specifics. 

In the long run, making great memories is more satisfying than just having a great time. Pleasure is ephemeral, but memories can be enjoyed over and over forever—that’s why there are all those studies showing that people enjoy remembering (and anticipating) vacations more than actually being on them. So designing your event around forming great memories effectively multiples the fun for free.

And since nothing’s more fun than concrete, actionable advice, here are a few practical tips.

Create excessive buildup

When you reframe your event planning around creating meaningful memories for your participants, you give yourself permission to do things you might otherwise think are too awkward or embarrassing. For example, I’ve noticed that people are often hesitant to hype their events too much—maybe they don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver, or maybe they think doing so comes off as too self-promotional.

But creating buildup isn’t (just) about hyping yourself—it’s about giving your guests the pleasure of anticipation. Done right, the buildup is fun on its own. And though not living up to the hype is a potential risk, the opposite can happen too: the more excited everyone is coming into an event, the more likely it is to be great. The best events are, to at least some degree, jointly co-created by every participant. When you create excessive buildup, you increase the odds that your guests arrive in the proper spirit.

Brand everything

Another tactic that seems kind of lame—but is great for memory formation—is to brand your events, even if you don’t think they’re large-scale enough to deserve branding. If you want to go all out, there are basically unlimited options (logos, merch, etc), but at the very least I recommend picking a name.

My friends and I name most of our events, even if they’re just a weekend away with a small group. Bestowing an event with a creative name gives it an easy memory hook. Years down the road, it ends up being much easier to reminisce about “Heroes’ Weekend” than about “that time we had that one party at so-and-so’s place.”

Have a lot of structure

My #1 tip for throwing a great event (listed third here just to throw you off) is to have a lot of structure. Planners are often hesitant to impose structure because they don’t want to come across as too commanding or dictatorial. Structure isn’t very chill, but deep down, most people crave it.

I once read an article where a recent immigrant explained how much they liked working at companies with strict dress codes, because it’s stressful figuring out what to wear to work in a culture you’re unfamiliar with. The truth is that every company has some kind of dress code: a company with a formal one is just making the implicit explicit.

At unfamiliar social events, we’re all immigrants of a sort, and structure is our dress code. Providing people with at least the rough outlines of what to expect and when to expect it reduces anxiety, which enables them to let loose more than they otherwise would. Constraints inspire creativity in art and in events.

And structure provides another kind of memory hook: you’ll remember a party with distinct sections and activities more clearly than one where you just walked around talking to different people all night.

Aim for utopia

My last tip is also my least practical: aim for utopia. I’ve always been fascinated by cults and communes, but I would obviously never start one, because I’m not a megalomaniac, and also because they have a well-known tendency to go horribly off the rails. That’s what’s great about planning an event: you get to practice cult creation—or maybe let’s call it the much less negative “intentional community creation”—on a smaller, safer scale.

Every event, even something as basic as a dinner party, is an opportunity to take a break from the normal world and create your own micro-society. Whenever I’m planning an event, I like to imagine that I’m designing my own little temporary world. I try to question all my assumptions and figure out what would be the most exciting and fun by starting from first principles, ignoring whatever I might think is “supposed” to happen.

When people step across the threshold of your event, they’re stepping into a new world. What rules would you create for your world if none of the normal ones applied?

Yours in hoping that after reading this email, someone creates an awesome event and invites me,