Brain Researcher Andrea Sullivan on Why She Loves Event Camp East Coast

Brain researcher Andrea Sullivan was introduced to peer driven conferences last year when she attended Event Camp East Coast, an unconference that followed Adrian Segar’s format “Conferences That Work.” She was so impressed with how ECDC allowed her to easily make many helpful connections and benefit from the expertise of fellow participants that she agreed to help organize this year’s event, which takes place in Washington D.C. Nov. 4-6.

As President of BrainStrength Systems, a learning and performance organization specializing in brain-compatible learning design, leadership development, and performance improvement Andrea knows a thing or two about designing brain friendly experiences. She has introduced brain-compatible learning programs into many organizations, including Fortune 500 companies such as Merck, Aetna, and Northrup Grumman Corporation.

In the meetings industry, Andrea both consults and speaks on how to design meetings and conferences so they are effective, engaging, and conducive to genuine learning.  She also provides presentations on Brain Food for planning menus that energize people and their minds to contribute to an outstanding meeting experience.

She recently agreed to answer a few questions about Event Camp East Coast and why it will be a brain-friendly experience for participants.

JENISE: What makes Event Camp East Coast different from other event industry conferences?

ANDREA: Most event industry conferences follow a speaker/attendee format where information is delivered by speakers and received by attendees.  This is ever-so-slowly changing and a few traditional conferences are now offering some participative, collaborative, and social learning. Event Camp East Coast is the fast track of this change – the entire conference is this way.  It follows a peer-conference design, originated by Adrian Segar, through which the total experience is one in which participants engage in a process of collaborative discovery and knowledge sharing.

The conference experience is entirely different.  Everyone meets each other right off the bat, so you know who’s in the room and what they do.  (Bonus: I only had to give my elevator speech once!)  Participants then choose together what areas of expertise they’d like to learn about, and the people with those competencies lead the sessions on the following day. There’s plenty of time for informal learning from each other, for making business connections, for discussing areas of common interest, etc. The design leads to an empowered space where participants relax into the learning and networking.

JENISE:  What were the highlights of Event Camp East Coast for you last year as a participant?

ANDREA: This was my first introduction to the community, and I didn’t know anyone when I went to Event Camp East Coast.  At the end of the conference, I had around 30 new friends in the industry, many of whom have become valued colleagues I now work with on a regular basis. I’m introverted, so this was a major take away for me. The design allowed me to engage in genuine, meaningful conversations with people I didn’t know; to freely share what I do in a very safe environment, and to really get to know people beyond the usual elevator speeches and rushed connections of a traditional conference.

Another highlight for me was seeing how the peer-conference design works. I do brain-friendly learning and meeting design, and I fell in love with the way the design gently drew people out and created an exciting space of collaborative discovery. Too many conferences deliver information at the expense of experience. For me, meetings are rarely about the information as I’m quite adept at reading. Instead, they’re about the gathering of like-minded colleagues who spark new ideas and create a synergetic energy for our work.  The peer-conference design maximizes this element – the synergy is really amazing; you can see it gather momentum as the conference develops.  We didn’t want to leave.

 JENISE: Why did you decide to get involved as an organizer this year?

ANDREA: I’m actually more of a contributor than an organizer. Adrian and Traci asked me if I’d like to work with them on the design, and I’m delighted to do so! The event is innovative, as are all Event Camps, and I love experimenting with, and learning about, meeting design.  I feel it’s valuable to contribute my perspective on what the brain and body are experiencing, so that mental and physical states are optimized throughout the conference.  An interesting addition this year is that there’s a short hybrid element, and that required quite a bit of thought to make sure both the face-to-face and virtual elements are brain-friendly.

JENISE: How will Event Camp East Coast 2011 be a brain-friendly experience?

ANDREA: The brain is a most amazing tool.  It can surprise us with insight and brilliance, or it can shut down and refuse to function under poor working conditions.  In conferences, poor working conditions include an overload of information, a disregard for the limitations of working memory, an unbalanced ratio of almost constant listening to very little activity, way too much sitting that inhibits circulation and oxygen to the brain, an overload of quick, rushed connections without time for depth of conversation, too little sleep to consolidate memory and feel good the next day, etc.

Event Camp East Coast reverses this dynamic. We’re active, we’re participating, there’s a balance of listening and speaking, of formal, informal, and social learning, of presentation time/discussion time/social time/reflection time/free time.  The brain functions best when activities are varied: You can imagine what would happen if you intensely exercised your right arm and only your right arm.  What would happen with your left arm? Your legs? Your core? Your body would collapse on itself and that strong right arm would become a liability rather than a strength. It doesn’t work in the brain either – the brain needs balance and variety. In addition, I suspect that the safe, friendly environment creates a positive mood which may increase production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, known to produce a sense of wellbeing and social comfort.  I’m fairly sure the novelty and discovery process produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, which produces excitement, attention, motivation and learning. (Of course, this hasn’t been tested, so these are just hypotheses.)

JENISE: What do you hope participants will take away from the experience?

ANDREA: First, always, is that we learn how to design meetings for today’s world so they are effective, valuable, and worth the time and effort to produce and attend.  Second is the genuine and lasting business connections that afford us the opportunity to work as trusted partners in the meetings industry.  Third is the growth of a community of event professionals who work happily together to bring our industry through a difficult time of transformation.  I’ve benefitted greatly from the discourse and camaraderie of this community, and I truly hope others will use ECDC11 as an opportunity to gain this asset.

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