Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

February 2014

'The Power of Glamour' Author Virginia Postrel On The Enduring Appeal of Mystery and Grace

By Christopher Durso, Executive Editor

seem to be getting admired and acclaimed, and we imagine that sort of glamour.

The second thing, which you mentioned when you talked about effortlessness, is you have to have grace, which is the illusion in glamour. You have to hide the things that would pull people out of the moment, so you have to hide costs, distractions, flaws, difficulties. Glamour creates this pang of longing, this sense of projection, and you have to avoid things that might distract you from that.

The third element you have to have is mystery. You have to leave room for the audience's imagination. You can't show too much. Mystery both enhances the grace by hiding things and it enhances projection because it's intriguing. That's why there are certain common tropes in glamorous imagery that create mystery. For example, in a glamorous portrait, the person in the portrait is unlikely to be looking you in the eye. They're either looking away or they're looking straight through you to something on the other side of you, so it's less of that friendly, smiling, snapshot look and more of something where they have a sense of reserve or of not being entirely engaged with you, so that you can imagine yourself in their position or with them. They have this sort of distance.

Is digital technology or digital media changing glamour? Or is glamour evolving in the face of that? On the surface it seems like it would remove a lot of mystery from the world, for example.

Well, glamour is always evolving, because audiences evolve and the circumstances evolve and, as you say, technology is evolving. The quick thing that a lot of people say is what you said: “Oh, in this age where everyone's tweeting and everyone's showing their selfies, we can't have glamour.” But in fact, it's just evolving. For example, a lot of what people do on social media is they create glamorous visions of their own lives. Versions of their own lives, if you will. On Instagram, some of the filters create a somewhat more glamorous look to the photos. It's glamour by selection. You create an image of what you want your life to be and what you want people to perceive your life being.

Are there elements of glamour that can surround a larger meeting or convention?

Well, the obvious one is the location. Cities are often glamorous, and have longbeen. Even just the idea of the city is something I discuss in the book. So one idea is, why would you choose this location over that location? Obviously there are a lot of practical reasons. Do they have enough hotel rooms? How about the transportation? But another element if you're thinking about why would people come to this convention is, is this a city that has a kind of glamour to it? Is it someplace that has enough meaning and also a little bit of mystery to it that people would want to go there? For cities nowadays it's tricky, because since travel has become so easy, even the great, famous, glamorous cities like Paris are more familiar than they once were, and so how do you maintain the mystery? The way you have to maintain mystery is having constantly new things to discover. So the fact that you've been to New York or you've been to Chicago or Las Vegas doesn't mean you know that city. There are new things to discover.

The other element [that] I think is really a big, important reason why people want to go to conventions and meetings of all sorts is the glamour of fellowship. This is a very powerful and rarely remarked upon form of glamour. It informs all kinds of TV shows and movies where you see a group of friends or colleagues who understand each other in a way that is actually rare at that level in real life. What a convention offers or can offer is the promise that you're going to see people that you don't work with every day but who have something in common with you, where you kind of understand each other in a certain way and maybe you also get away from the people you work with every day or some of the people you work with every day and you create new bonds. I think that a lot of the appeal is also [that] you're still working but it's an escape from your routine. It does offer that. You're not in the office and you're with different people with whom you have something in common, and that potentially offers a kind of glamour.

The third type of glamour that you might think of in terms of a meeting is the actual program. Seeing new things, hearing new ideas, the newness of it. You might discover something new and exciting, and that can have a kind of glamour to it, too.

You describe glamour as “a form of nonverbal rhetoric” — less an inherent quality than a sort of interplay between object and audience. That seems like a big takeaway for meeting planners. Are there things they can do to harness that dynamic within the context of a meeting?

It's those crucial elements — the promise of escape and transformation, the grace, and the mystery. It's tricky, because you're also trying to offer people practical takeaways. Essentially what a meeting planner needs to do is to emotionally engage people so that they want to come, but then also rationally engage them so they can justify coming. So the emotional part is where the glamour comes in: This meeting will give you an escape from the routine and take you to a different, better place and give you a sense of a new you. But at that same time, it's going to help you do your job, because otherwise your boss isn't going to pay for it.

I guess this is partly why meeting planners try to get speakers who people always wanted to hear, as opposed to speakers where it's going to be useful or it's going to be original or new. Personally, I always want things to be new, so that's what I value, but I realize that's not always what everyone else values.

So a planner would go for glamorous names over a more hardcore industry expert who could speak more to the nuts-and-bolts stuff that you're talking about?

Right. Or some other thing. That tends to be the way people think about it — either famous names or industry experts. And there is a third kind of [speaker], which is the category that I personally fall into. [Laughs.] Which is people who are not as famous but may tell you something that you haven't actually heard before.

More of a thought-leader category?

Yeah, because you haven't read their book already or whatever.

Have you been to any meetings or conferences that you would consider to be particularly glamorous?

I've been to TED a couple of times, which is glamorous. It's interesting that we can think about whether TED has lost its glamour or whether it's got a different kind of glamour. I actually spoke about glamour at TED in 2004, and that was kind of weird in retrospect because I had only written that one essay [for SFMOMA]. They invited me to speak at TED because of The Substance of Style, but they then told me I couldn't speak about that book because they had given it to everybody.

At that time TED was about the people in the room. They recorded it because they gave everybody a DVD. It wasn't about being on the Internet. There was no rehearsal. The production values were much lower. I was one of the few people who even showed pictures. But it was very glamorous because it was very exclusive. It was a little less earnest and more playful. More really about new ideas. Now it's really about Internet videos, and I think it still is glamorous to the people who watch those videos, but it's also something that a lot people roll their eyes at. So it's gotten less glamorous as it's become more popular, which is kind of interesting.

There is a kind of conference circuit where it's these very idea-oriented, quite expensive, not necessarily tax-deductible or paid-by-your-company kind of conferences that have a kind of glamour to them, where you have to be invited. Then there are other kinds of conferences that have glamorous elements in them. For example, I've spoken at NeoCon [a design exposition and conference

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