Designing More ‘Brain-Friendly’ Events

Comedian Mark Watson talks about the 40 minute lull you often get in a one-hour comedy show. He once addressed this by giving an audience member a stopwatch and asking them to chant LULL! LULL! LULL! at 40 minutes.

Comedians are the crack-unit of audience engagement, often having to single handedly hold an audience for an hour or more, typically with no slides or props – oh and be funny too. So they forensically think about the peaks and troughs of attention, how our brains link separate concepts together, what we do and don’t pay attention to.

Those of us designing events can learn a lot from comedians. Attention spans, along with how our brains best understand and remember ideas, are rarely discussed aspects of event design. It’s been shown that we typically retain only 10% of what we hear at a conference. So there’s a lot to play for.

The good news is that events are seeing incredible innovation, they’re being reshaped, re-imagined, ripped apart and reassembled to create smarter learning environments. Below are four ways to think about an event, re-imagining the experience to make it more brain-friendly.

1) Think Like a Magazine Editor

The Atlantic magazine has been massively successful at diversifying into events – running all sorts of big ticket thought leadership events in the US. What’s interesting is that they’ve adapted many of the formats that work to capture attention in print. Their agendas are punctuated with content sidebars ’60 second recaps’, ‘5 things I learnt’ and so on. Changing the pace grabs attention. Repetition helps people remember.

Another brain-friendly format, borrowed straight from the page, is their use of a ‘visual break’, a session in which photographers show their work and tell the stories behind the images.

Next time you’re programming an event spend some time thinking what it would look like if it was a magazine, website or TV show, you’ll uncover some brain-friendly formats.

2) Think Like a Teacher

We’re far more likely to retain ideas if rather than simply being told them we actively engage with them: discuss, stress test, apply them to our own worlds. Teachers call this active learning. The Flipped Classroom is an approach in which students are asked to absorb the information before coming to class, the face-to-face time is valued for the opportunity to debate and question.

When designing your next event try asking people to read or watch something before they arrive, then host a session that sees them actively participate in the topic. Of course not everyone will prepare, you can mitigate this by doing a short recap of the content. But, overtime you’ll shift your events from topping people up with information (90% of which they’ll forget) to landing ideas.

3) Think Like a Life-Coach

Every book ever written on ‘working smarter’, ‘creative thinking’ ‘living a more fulfilled life’, etc, shouts about the brain-friendly benefits of switching off and taking some form of exercise. Too many events squeeze breaks to short dashes for a coffee and a trip to the loo or, even worse, cram in some form of speed networking, before cattle pronging delegates back to be buried by another avalanche of information.

At the Monocle Quality of Life Conference, as you’d expect, they take their breaks seriously. The day starts with guided city runs and ‘coffee and international newspapers’ and during the day each break is programmed with a different classic music ensemble. TED Talks have social areas filled with beanbags, whilst other events are holding meditation sessions. Are you doing enough to help your audience re-fuel?

4) Think Like an Entertainer

You’re more likely to keep your audience’s attention if they’ve got a smile on their faces. We recently designed a business event that had live musicians on stage throughout the event. It opened up an incredible range of formats and ways to change the pace.

Disrupting the mundane is one of the easiest ways to earn attention. The good news is that conferences have traditionally been so formulaic that they’re easy to disrupt. We went to an event recently that handed everyone an agenda printed on a bar of chocolate. A session at SXSW (admittedly focused on the topic of design and happiness) put a smile on people’s faces by releasing labrador puppies into the room! How can you build surprise into your event combating lulls and gaining attention?

I suspect puppies might not be right for your conference, but designing brain-friendly experiences is essential to increasing the effectiveness of any live event. The events that are best at this are drawing inspiration from far beyond the traditional conference world, and in doing so are redefining what a live experience can be and do.

In our next piece, we’ll look at how you can work with your speakers to help them hold an audience’s attention. Chanting LULL! is optional.

Hat tips to Russell Davies and Velvet Chainsaw.

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