The Intersection

5 Tips for Creating Brain-Friendly Events

What is it like for one of your attendees to walk into your opening general session?

People are milling about, music is blasting, and there are hundreds or thousands of open chairs. He or she is probably thinking: “Am I going to be embarrassed? Am I going to know anybody?”

Our brains react to and organize information in two ways, according to Janet Sperstad, CMP, program director of meeting and event management at Madison Area Technical College. Our reflexive reactions, which result from external stimuli, are automatic and quick; they protect the brain from real or perceived danger. Our other reactions are reflective, and come once we’ve had a chance to think — or reflect — on the situation at hand.

These principles are familiar to neuroscientists, but also apply to meetings, according to Sperstad, appearing in this month’s video for The Intersection Series: Where Technology Meets Inspiration, presented by PCMA and PSAV Presentation Services. “Meetings and events are centered around creating meaning,” Sperstad said, “about creating context and helping people access information.”

It’s when people’s brains are happy and relaxed that they are most receptive to information and able to react to it in a reflective way. “Our brain selects and inhibits information based on our motivations,” Sperstad said. “If our motivation is ‘protect yourself,’ it’s almost like you can see all these doors shut for protection.”

Here are five of Sperstad’s tips to help keep attendees’ brains open at your meeting:

This may seem basic, but if you want to make an attendee feel welcome at registration or walking into your opening general session, “make sure that there’s someone at the door to greet them,” Sperstad said. “Smile at them — it activates the reward region of our brain, and we feel happier and more connected.” And a happier attendee is a more receptive attendee.

Research has shown that brain- storming sessions that occur in rooms with a plant generate 19 percent more ideas than those held in rooms without a plant, Sperstad said. In fact, you don’t even need live foliage — our brains don’t know whether a plant is real or not until we touch it or our other senses kick in. Pictures of nature work, too. Sperstad recommends putting photos of natural elements on welcoming session slides that include the session title and speaker name. “These are things we can do that are no cost,” she said.

Ninety-four percent of the information our brains process is visual, Sperstad said, and “visual intelligence activates more regions of the brain, which allows it to have residue in the long-term memory.” Use images during sessions and to promote the event as a whole. Similarly, encourage your speakers to use more case studies, especially those with people in them — they’ll play like “movies inside the head,” which also create longer-lasting memories.

Based on the psychology of loss, which states that we are intrinsically afraid of losses, research has found that people pay closer attention and act more quickly when you tell them what not to do versus asking them to do something. “We use words like ‘don’t,’” Sperstad said. “‘Don’t lose out!’ Marketers and politicians use this beautifully, and for planners, it’s about influencing [attendees’] behavior, influencing their decisions, and moving them to action.”

Prioritizing and decision-making are really intensive for the brain,” Sperstad said. “It takes a lot for our brains to compare and contrast,” so when communicating information, it is important to get to the point. Bullet points are an effective way to do this, partially because our brains love “chunking” information and patterns. “If you have a big amount of information and it takes you a while to say it,” Sperstad said, “the audience’s brain is not going to take it in.” 

Katie Kervin

Katie Kervin was formerly assistant editor of Convene.