Brain-friendly ways to keeping attendees engaged

Andrea Sullivan (@BrainStrength) of BrainStrength Systems asked participants how they felt about EventCamp™ East Coast so far.

One participant said he felt the event planners attending this conference were here to teach one another; another said she enjoyed hearing different perspectives from colleagues—she commented on the “rich quality of smart people sharing ideas.” Sullivan noted that brain-friendly means just that, getting people in an engaged state so they can explore synergies and new ideas.

During this session, participants discussed the sensory environments that best serve meetings, factors that encourage or discourage people from interacting; and the role of food and diet. “Most people are coming from a state of overload,” Sullivan said, noting that people are “exquisitely sensitive to the environment,” so their surroundings can distract them. “At a conference, the information flow has to be monitored. People attend a meeting for the synergy and interactions.”

Responding to a question about guidelines for the conference environment, Sullivan recommended the International Association of Conference Centers’ guidelines, noting that they provide guidance regarding light, sound, and seating in a conference room, and describe how these factors can affect mood. Sullivan recommended natural light and chairs that allow people to sit up straight. To facilitate teambuilding, she suggested facing the chairs inward in a circle; to encourage learning in a didactic session, face the chairs forward towards the front of the room.

“If the room temperature is 68°–70°F then people are alert and have higher energy,” Sullivan said; if the room is warmer, people tend to be more relaxed. She suggested feeding participants whole grains and proteins instead of sugary snacks, and offering water to hydrate instead of coffee that dehydrates.

“Some people feel anxious in a social situation, and when they go to a conference they drink a lot of coffee because it is free…and then they feel even more anxious,” a participant commented. Sullivan suggested putting a “Drink me” sign on the water cooler to encourage attendees to drink more water. A participant said she puts Post-it® notes next to the water cooler so people can write down ideas while they are standing there. Another participant thought that was a great idea, adding, “It’s like tweets on Post-its.”

Sullivan asked participants to pair up and talk with another event planner about how they could apply what they have learned in this session to their event planning. This exercise sparked a discussion about different learning styles:  note-taking versus handouts, PowerPoint slides versus speaking. Sullivan said learning through two channels is better than one channel. Thus, a speaker reviewing a slide presentation will convey more than one who is only speaking. A participant described a study showing that people who have cluttered environments are more creative. Another participant agreed that she needs a lot of clutter for sensory input; after a project is completed, she cleans. “My mess is good but another person’s mess is more difficult to handle,” she said.

Sullivan suggested checking attendees’ moods as they enter the room. “If a person feels unsafe then that shuts down learning,” she said, suggesting that if people look uncomfortable when they are entering a room, station a greeter near the door to welcome them.

Smells can trigger memories and emotions, and can also have an impact on conference learning. For example, Sullivan said peppermint and vanilla enhance learning, lavender relaxes attendees, and lime or citrus increase serotonin uptake in the brain and make attendees happy. Sullivan also suggested serving stimulating foods like chocolate to energize event participants.

“Isn’t it funny that we inherently knew this as a kid but now we need to relearn it as an adult?” one participant observed. Another recommended checking for allergies or posting signs about food content to ensure no issues arise.

Sullivan introduced a second exercise: she asked participants to stand in a circle and toss around three rubber balls—the goal was to throw the ball to another person as fast as possible. She said people learn more if they are playing while they learn. Group members threw the balls for a minute, after which Sullivan stopped the exercise to ask how they felt. Participants said they felt rushed and stressed.

For the next exercise, Sullivan asked participants to throw the ball to someone else, aiming for accuracy rather than speed. After this exercise, participants commented that they felt less stressed because they had time to focus on a goal and make a connection. Sullivan said productivity and learning are enhanced by targeting and having time to prepare.

Sullivan set up a fourth exercise, which she termed a “speed-mingle.” She asked the participants to find a partner, and to use one or two words to complete this sentence: “One thing I can do to engage people at meetings is….”

When participants had finished, Sullivan asked them walk to someone else, saying something different to each person, without repeating themselves. Sullivan noted that having people stand up and talk with others increases the energy in the room.

A participant asked how to accomplish this with a large number of participants. Sullivan suggested asking people to turn and speak to their nearest neighbor. If participants do not feel comfortable doing this, they should not be forced—attendees should feel free to opt out of any group activity.

As a field, instructional design is just starting to be understood, Sullivan said. She recommended incorporating games and exercises throughout event sessions to keep participants engaged in the process of experiential learning.

Session summaries produced by The Conference Publishers, the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repackaging conference content.

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1 Response to Brain-friendly ways to keeping attendees engaged

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