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.

  • These are great tips — it’s amazing the impact that these environmental elements have on well-being. It’s also incredibly stressful not to have enough time between sessions and activities. The temptation as organizers is to pack as much into the schedule as possible, so that attendees “get their money’s worth.” However, it’s also true that information overload kicks in after a certain point, and knowledge acquisition distinctly suffers. Building “cave time” into a schedule is a true gift you can give your attendees, especially if it’s framed as time to digest and reflect on what they are learning. Also, when attendees don’t have time to manage their basic human needs (i.e. bathroom breaks and food), it’s hard for them to concentrate on learning and be open to the awesome hallway and “water cooler” engagements that make face-to-face events so compelling!

  • BRAVA! This after reading an article in M&C about meeting innovations (which was really about tech stuff to annoy us!) is refreshing. But here’s the thing: facilities aren’t doing it. Oh yes, Vancouver’s Centre is but look at hotels and other convention centers and what they are doing to us! And look at the bad furniture designed for no one on which to be comfortable. And to all you said (and I know there’s more and I’ll read it) ACCESSIBILITY for all! I’m really tired of the low furniture hotels (and by these photos, centres) are putting in that is not suitable for many of us. And if you have any disability – mobility, hearing, sight, scent – forget it. You’re persona non grata when it comes to taking stress off.

    So now what do we do?

  • But wait.. there’s more: with respect to PSAV’s sponsorship of this .. first, look at the photos on the landing page when one submits to receive the report. (I did .. submit.. twice and have received nothing. So much for technology! It’s not in my spam box either.) Look at the bad lighting and room sets and how inaccessible they are showcasing things. I love that they underwrote this and hope you two got paid bundles! BUT and I mean but and not “and” .. unless they too walk the talk of the report – and teach their technicians and designers how to work w/ people with disabilities for lighting, etc., and how to NOT TURN THE LIGHTS OFF (uh huh.. bit issue!) for presentations, then the credibility is lost. Now.. Done. Thanks.