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4 simple steps to unlock new rituals

Great experiences in events often come from rituals. These range from remembrance rituals like ANZAC Day or ‘rites of passage’ like visiting the Gallipoli Dawn ceremony. Or milestone events such as Grand Final’s, the Boxing Day Test, or weddings and even NYE. And within these events are ritual moments, like the Last Post on ANZAC Day, the first ball at the Test Match, and all manner of ceremonies we engage in. These are all rituals which we share together en masse.

Rituals are defined as a series of actions which are followed by someone, especially as part of an event.

Whatever the type of ritual, they are important, as they provide the shared experiences, the interactions between us that makes events such powerful occasions. A shared moment at a time and place, is something we are drawn into, and immersed in.

Events are rituals in themselves, and within events there are many types of rituals.

So how do we create rituals?

It’s not easy!

Because of the power and value of rituals many of us try and create them in existing or new events. But, it is the very nature of rituals that makes them hard to create. The best rituals are not forced or manufactured. Therefore creating new rituals is difficult.

When does it happen?

The great, sustained rituals are the actions which are followed by default. We look forward to them. We want them to happen. Either as events, or as part of events.

An example I gave last week is the Mexican Wave, other common examples include the things we wear, the singing, the dancing, and other actions we see. Rituals are everywhere, but often elusive to create.

American Sport is rich with rituals, from the bizarre Detroit Red Wings Fans throwing octopus onto the rink, through to the Texas A&M Fans ‘Midnight yell”.

What can we learn from these?

Some key insights we can take from these examples is that rituals emerge when:

1. People follow a cue

2. That cue prompts their actions, which

3. Are also followed by others at the same time, and…

4. They are not forced, just ‘nudged’, and

5. As these rituals became habitualized, they emerge on their own, almost automatically.

So how we make this work for you?

Making rituals

One model we’ve been exploring to help ritual emerge, is the science behind habit formation.

Why? Well as habits are something you do regularly and automatically, and rituals are also actions we perform automatically, it seems worth applying the principles of habit change to ritual design!

The Science of How Habits Happen

Author James Clear has done some brilliant work on habits, and explains in his bestselling book Atomic Habits, that the process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.

Applying the Science to Making Rituals

The 4 Stages of Rituals

1. The Cue.

In our lives, cue’s constantly trigger your brain to initiate a behaviour. A cue is a bit of information that predicts a reward. Just like our ancestors were acting on cues that signalled the location of basic rewards like food and water, cues are also a catalyst to participate in events, or, in activities when we are at them.

We take our cues from moments such as anthems, starts, and finishes of events, and / or, milestones such as calendar dates, and scheduled timings like ‘Gates Opening’ or ‘kick off’. Cues are also influenced by the people around us, other fans and participants, and the places, the locations and props around us.

We learn to look for certain cues in our event experiences, and as organisers we prompt our audience through their journey as we bring our run sheet schedule to life. Our timings, our staff, the entertainment, music, announcements and the look and feel of our venues all provides the cues for a desired behaviour.

And while organisers are deliberately trying to influence our experience, we are all seeking cues which will provide us with rewards. The moments and experiences which will allow us to do more, feel more, belong more, or even be more.

If the event can provide a hint of these rewards, then that will create a tension causing action, a craving.

2. The Craving

Cravings are the second step of the habit loop, as Clear found, they are the motivational force behind every habit (or in this case, rituals). Without some level of motivation or desire—without craving a change—we have no reason to act.

“What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers. You are not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth. You do not want to turn on the television, you want to be entertained. Every craving is linked to a desire to change your internal state”. – James Clear And so I believe this reinforces the point that we are in the business of shared experiences, not ‘events’ or ‘entertainment’. Our audiences want to do something, feelsomething, belong and connect with others, a sense of progress and aspiration. So give them what they need, not what you want them to do.

We see this cue and response loop in many rituals

The study of habits reveals ‘Cravings differ from person to person’ and it is the same in events. As we know, we must segment our audience to understand what they want. To connect at the right level. And we all take our cues from different sources, channels and platforms. Our cue (our communications/marketing or an experiential interaction) needs to be received, and then the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the audience are what transform a cue into a craving.

3. The Response

The response is the actual ritual you perform, which can take the form of a thought or an action. Whether a response occurs depends on how motivated you are and how much friction is associated with the behaviour.

4. The Reward

Finally, the response delivers a reward. Rewards are the end goal of every habit, or in this case, rituals. The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. We can use rewards to influence people, to come to our event, and what they do when they are there.

The first purpose of rewards is to satisfy your audiences craving. And then, once they feel this rewarding experience, they will want to do it more. And this, provides our valuable habit or ritual loop. And like the annual ‘must attend’ event, or the Mexican Wave, we will do it again and again.

En masse? And In Sync

I should note of course that the rituals we are seeking to emerge are those that are performed on masse, by a number of people, and in sync, at the same time. So we need to make sure our cues are received, or at least acted on at the same time. Whether that is to show up to an event, or conduct a ritual at the event. More on that next week…

Where to go from here?

With the Experience Design Playbook we can transform these four steps into a practical framework that we can use to design great rituals.

It could all be part of of the Experience Design of your next event.

If I can help with that, just let me know…

I help teams design (or redesign) their events – if you’d like to do this over a half day workshop, or to look at your events with you – drop me a line at

This is the second of special series focused on how we can create new rituals.

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