Meetings & Your Brain

Stop Stressing Out Your Meeting Attendees

Ambient stress in the environment — things like heat, noise, and crowding — can adversely affect how attendees learn.

Vancouver Convention Centre
Vancouver Convention Centre

There’s good stress and bad stress, write Andrea E. Sullivan and Janet Sperstad in the PSAV research report “Mindful Event Design: The Psychology of Physical Meeting Environments.”

Both are experts on neuroscience and meetings; Sullivan is the founder of BrainStrength Systems and Sperstad is the director of the Meeting and Event Management program at Madison College, in Madison, Wisconsin.

Ambient stress in the environment — things like heat, noise, and crowding — shifts an attendee’s mental resources away from learning and  interaction to managing their own state of mind.

Sullivan and Sperstad suggest 7 ways to manage ambient stress, and 7 things you should stop doing to avoid creating environments that are counterproductive to engagement:

Vancouver Convention Centre
Vancouver Convention Centre


1. Create open space or the appearance of open space

2. Optimize the level of visual stimulation with a reasonable amount of useful and well executed signage, which have minimal graphics and are clear and easy to read.

3. Provide user-friendly wayfinding and make it easy to find activities.

4. Bring in plants and other greenery, or project images of plants or outdoor, natural scenes.

5. Use sound-dampening materials to reduce or counteract noise.

6. When possible, incorporate large windows, mirrors, paintings, or digital imagery for visual escape

7. Provide fun, social, or relaxing programming to reduce mental fatigue.


1. Don’t crowd people into small aisles and spaces with dim lighting.

2. Overload attendees with stimuli or information, or allow visual clutter with signs, literature, and graphics all demanding attention.

3. Provide complex wayfinding systems that lead to ‘navigational angst.”

4. Create industrial spaces with insufficient or harsh lighting, stark rooms, hard surfaces, or echoing empty space.

5. Place important information near sources of ongoing or intermittent noise.

6. Crowd visual space with signage and objects.

7. Offer complicated technology that is hard to use or requires a steep learning curve.



Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.