CMP Series


AV technology offers a direct path to your attendees’ brains. Use it well, and you can make their learning more effective, resonant — and engaging.

When Andrea E. Sullivan, founder of BrainStrength Systems, began speaking about neuroscience 12 years ago, she was careful not to actually use the word “brain” in the titles of her talks. “Brain science — nobody knew what that was about,” said Sullivan, who holds a master’s degree in organizational psychology, and whose Philadelphia-based company specializes in using brain-based principles to help individuals and companies improve performance. “They were like, ‘Brain what?’” It was almost that basic. “I used to start my presentations asking people, ‘So who here has a brain?’ I would say, ‘Okay, [your brain] is a part of your body, part of your mind, and this is who you are.’ No clue.”

Both the field of neuroscience and public understanding of how the brain works have come a long way since then. Sullivan’s basic interest is in “helping people understand how we work — specifically how our biology works — so that we can work better,” she said. “And we really have not had that information until neuroscience really started taking off 20 years ago.”

One of Sullivan’s specialties is meetings — a focus that grew out of her interest in how the modern brain contends with the amount of stimuli we encounter on a daily basis. “It’s really a huge issue for our society — that we are all learning to use our brains differently to deal with information overload and an overload of stimulation from our many digital technologies,” she said. “And with meetings and events, there is a big question: How do we actually go to these things and retain anything?”

But Sullivan didn’t drill down into the specific role that audiovisual technology could play in learning at meetings until she participated in an industry event as part of a panel alongside Greg Van Dyke, senior vice president for global sales and marketing at PSAV Presentation Services. After hearing Sullivan speak about neuroscience and technology, Van Dyke asked her to partner with him on a project that looked at brain science and AV. “I said okay,” Sullivan said. “We all talk about a lot of things when we are leaving conferences, right? I did not give it a second thought.”

But Van Dyke persisted, and eventually Sullivan dug into the project, looking at how the ever-expanding capacity of technology to project images, sound, and color could be grounded in neuroscience principles and theories to help planners use AV most effectively. Sullivan came away convinced that event technology deserved to be treated as a key component of meeting design — not just another logistical detail. “Knowing what we know now about how the brain processes information and about how we experience events,” she said, AV “really needs to be a part of a learning design and a strategy.”

Brain Basics

That’s already happening at many events, according to Sullivan. But she sees a lot of haphazard event technology being used as it always has been — without a lot of thought. “Some people,” Sullivan said, “are just looking at the price point when they do their AV: ‘How can we get what we need for the lowest price?’”

Or, on the flip side, some planners may load up on so many audiovisual elements that it ends up being counterproductive. “I see things [where] somebody really went through a lot of trouble to create an experience, but they end up with an overload or with an environment that is really not conducive to people feeling good. They are looking to create something wonderful, only they do not follow any principles. They go by feel and intuition, but they just don’t have enough information yet.”

To help fill that gap, Sullivan and PSAV coproduced a white paper called “Audiovisual Technologies and Adult Learning in Meetings,” which doesn’t just offer AV strategies that capitalize on how attendees’ brains work, but also explains the science behind them. While meeting planners don’t necessarily need to be steeped in neuroscience, it’s helpful for them to know the principles and applications — if only to understand the odds against any single bit of sensory information lodging in an attendee’s brain.

“We are taking in about 1 million bits of information every second, but we can be conscious of only 16 to 40 bits,” Sullivan told a packed audience at Convening Leaders 2013 this past January, where, along with Van Dyke and Kati Quigley, CMP, senior director for worldwide partner community events at Microsoft, she presented the session “Using AV to Enhance Learning, Memory, and the Meeting Experience.” (The information for this story comes from the presentation, the white paper, and an interview with Sullivan.)

“We are taking in all this information through our senses, but sensory memory is really short — we’re talking fractions of a section,” Sullivan said. “We miss most of what happens. We have to get out of thinking that people learn and remember just because we tell them something.”

When sensory information is noticed, it goes into our working memory, which can be compared to a sieve. “Without rehearsal, we can only hold about four elements of information in our working memory at any given time,” Sullivan said, “and information — if it is not rehearsed — is lost after 30 seconds.” Learning occurs when stimuli are processed in working memory and then stabilized in our long-term memories. Meeting planners can increase the odds of information being noticed and processed, Sullivan said, by taking advantage of the brain’s ability to integrate stimuli that come through multiple senses.

When both auditory and visual channels are activated, for example, learners generate two mental representations — auditory and visual — and build connections between them. “Our brains do this little miracle, that neuroscientists don’t quite understand, of compiling all the information from the different senses into one experience in real time,” Sullivan said. “The more areas of the brain that we activate, the more brain cells communicate with each other and maintain associations. Combining sensory input around a concept can really enforce learning.”

But you can have too much of a good thing. Simply piling on sensory stimulation may look good on the surface — and make for a superficially dazzling presentation — but massive amounts of color and sound produce a sense of overload and an inability to process information in a meaningful way, Sullivan said. Instead, you should use visual and auditory principles in ways that allow you to produce the specific experiences you want.

Among the key principles of brain-friendly AV:

1. Learning increases when you add images to spoken words. Sight is by far our most dominant sense, using up to 50 percent of the brain’s resources. Indeed, Sullivan said, 83 percent of learning occurs visually.

Educational research has further shown that audiences retain an average of about 10 percent of what a speaker says. But add visual images, and that figure shoots up to 65 percent. “Do not throw out PowerPoint!” Sullivan said. “It’s unbelievable how much visual imagery adds to our learning. But you need to use it properly.”

One way to use PowerPoint improperly is to load slides up with printed text. The research cited above, which showed a 55-percent increase in retention of information when images were added to a presentation, did not include slides with printed text. “Text is really inefficient on a screen,” Sullivan said. Our brains process text by first translating it into spoken words, but images don’t go through that step. So if you’re trying to lighten the cognitive load and aid learning, adding a lot of printed words is counterproductive.

It also matters whether the images you add match the subject the speaker is talking about. Ruth Colvin Clark, president of Clark Training & Consulting and an expert in instructional design, has written about what she terms “pumpkin slides” — the temptation to dress up slides with decorative visuals like Halloween jack-o’-lanterns. Slides that are unrelated to the topic, according to Clark, not only don’t add any boost in learning, they actually can decrease it.

2. Sounds are more effective than images for getting attention. As sensory input, sound runs a distant second to visuals in terms of learning: 11 percent of learning is auditory. But used judiciously, sound is more effective than visuals at getting our attention, Sullivan said. (One of her favorite quotes about sound, she said, comes from Italian researcher Elisabetta Làdavas: “Unlike our eyes, our ears can never be shut.”)

Sound can also focus our attention and make learning more engaging, including by keeping out competing sensory stimuli. In order to be effective and to strengthen the effect of visual elements, sounds should be appropriate to the point being made. Even something simple — the sound of a phone ringing at the same time that a photo of a phone appears on a slide — can cement learning. Sullivan said: “That is so much more powerful than either one alone.”

Similarly, irrelevant or competing sounds can decrease learning, such as noise from other rooms and hallways. Some people are so sensitive to sound, Sullivan said, that even the hum from a fluorescent light distracts their attention.

3. The music should count. One form of audio sensory input, according to Sullivan, is so powerful that it activates nearly every region of the brain: music. Depending on the rhythm and tone, it can energize or relax us, boost intelligence, engage the emotions, and support memory.

You can use music at your meetings to create moods, aid in transitions between spaces, and generate emotions targeted to what you want people to feel at specific times; a recurring musical theme can help attendees recall targeted moments. If you doubt the power of music to create emotionally charged memories, Van Dyke told the Convening Leaders audience, just think of the theme song to the movie “Jaws.” Yet despite the power of music to engage attendees, planners often fail to use it strategically. Van Dyke said: “They’ll tell us, ‘Just throw in a little walk-in music.’”

Much of the buzz at Microsoft’s annual global sales meeting is given over to wondering what song CEO Steve Ballmer will choose to accompany his talk, Quigley added. Ballmer chooses the music himself, and it always fits his message. “To have someone at that level … know that [music] is important,” Quigley said, “is pretty cool.”

4. Color influences our mood — and our thinking. Although meeting rooms are often neutral, with white and gray walls and artificial lighting, that kind of “sensory poverty” creates environments where the brain is not stimulated enough and leads to less engagement and learning, Sullivan said.

But adding color without considering the effect it will have on attendees can backfire. “We seem to have a species-wide response to certain stimuli, including physiological responses to certain colors,” Sullivan said. For example, warm colors, such as reds and oranges, produce animated states, while blue creates a quiet, inward focus. In one study, students tested in a room with red walls scored better on tests that required attention to detail and accuracy. Subjects in a room with blue walls did worse on those tasks, but were twice as imaginative and creative as students in the red room.

“If I am doing brainstorming or strategic planning, I will definitely bring in blue in one form or another,” Sullivan said. “I do project management trainings, and when we are working on risk management and budgets and all that detailed stuff, I will use red in one form or another. Either I will have it in my PowerPoint slides or I will use red paper.”

Quigley has used a strategic combination of the two schemes at a Microsoft event, bringing jolts of bright, hot color into an environment bathed mostly in cooler colors. The spots of color “bring energy,” Quigley said, and reset how attendees are thinking about things. “They are fun flashes that make [attendees] energized and ready to go.”

Putting It Into Practice

Sullivan’s research on biology and learning has changed how she approaches the way she herself presents information, including the attention she pays to AV. “I used to be focused, like everybody else, on, let’s make sure that the quality is good, let’s make sure there are no interfering noises, let’s make sure that we have enough microphones in the room,” she said. “Now I want the screen to be right, I want there to be some music — I want it to be the right music. I want the speakers to be placed properly.”

She also makes sure that the environment will stimulate rather than dull the senses. “If I am going into a corporate training [session] and the space is white and gray — that starkly neutral thing — I will bring in flowers or I will bring in some plants,” she said. “I will bring in a little visual something for people to look at.”

Sullivan’s orchestration of the presentation at Convening Leaders didn’t just convey the principles about how AV can affect learning; it demonstrated them, with a mix of images, animations, colors, recurrent music, body movement, and surprise. “If you look at my slides, they are all in alignment,” she said. “I work very hard not to overload, I chunk material — it all goes back to learning design.”

Earn Your CEU Hour

Here’s how to earn your CEU hour. Once you finish reading this CMP Series article, read the report “Audiovisual Technologies and Adult Learning in Meetings,” produced by BrainStrength Systems and PSAV Presentation Services, at

To earn one hour of CEU credit, visit to answer questions about the information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material

The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.

Sidebar: We All Scream for Large Screens

Research on screen size is just beginning, but studies have shown that viewers pay more attention and have better memory of what they have seen when it appears on a large screen, compared with a smaller screen. “The larger the image,” said PSAV Presentation Services’ Greg Van Dyke, “the more powerful the emotional response.”

Studies also argue against a presentation setup where attendees are asked to toggle their attention back and forth between two screens, with the speaker in the middle. Although that configuration is common, it means that attendees have to think about where they’re looking. A better solution for presenting multiple images, Van Dyke said, is one large, wide screen, with technology blending any competing images.

Be Your Meeting’s Maestro

Given that music has a huge potential for emotionally engaging attendees and reinforcing meeting content, it’s surprising that such a small number of event organizers invest much energy in hitting the right notes, according to PSAV Presentation Services’ Greg Van Dyke.

Van Dyke asked PSAV’s producers for ideas on where meeting planners can find musical resources, and got the following feedback: First off, don’t give up on pop music. If you find the right combination of sound and lyrics that is relevant to your message, you’ll have hit a home run. However, as some popular music clearly carries some risk with their lyrics, here are some other options.

  • First Com ( is inexpensive relative to the value. A blanket annual license for unlimited downloads costs $1,200 and offers excellent quality and diversity of music with a huge catalogue.
  • Royalty Free Music ( provides inexpensive licenses per download with good quality and a modest catalogue size.
  • American Music Company ( is available for a $30 annual registration and then requires a license per use. The music is safe, with a neutral tone selection.
  • Freeplay Music ( is a relatively inexpensive site with licenses available per download, but has a smaller catalogue of music.

Rethinking Learning Styles

Many common training practices are based more on fads and fables than on evidence of what works, according to Ruth Colvin Clark, a leading expert in instructional design. Here, she takes aim at what she has called the No. 1 myth about training: learning styles.

I think learning styles represent one of the more wasteful and misleading pervasive learning myths of the past 20 years. From audio learners to visual learners or from “sensors” to “intuitive,” learning styles come in many flavors. Corporations and universities alike frequently incorporate the concept of learning styles and sometimes even use learning-style assessments as part of their instructor training. For some reason, the idea of a learning style has some kind of cosmic intuitive appeal that is very compelling. Ask almost anyone whether they are a visual learner or a verbal learner and you will get an immediate commitment to a specific learning style!

The learning style myth leads to some very unproductive training approaches that are counter to modern evidence of what works. For example, many trainers believe that visuals should be described by words in text format for visual learners and narration mode for auditory learners. To accommodate visual and auditory learners, a visual on a slide is explained with text and audio narration of that text. This practice has been proved to actually depress learning.

From Evidence-Based Training Methods, by Ruth Colvin Clark, ASTD Press, 2010.

Earn Your CEU Hour

Find an interview with molecular biologist John Medina about brain rules and meetings in the November 2011 issue of Convene at

To earn additional credit, you can take more more tests in our series here:

This Convening Leaders 2013 session kicked off “The Intersection Series: Where Techology Meets Inspiration,” a partnership between PSAV Presentation Services and PCMA. Insightful videos are posted monthly at

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.