My post for ASAE’s Acronym’s “Big Ideas” month for association bloggers.
What if associations provided brain-friendly annual conferences?
If you wanted to create a conference environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like today’s conferences, meetings and workshops. If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you would design a full day of lectures in general sessions and breakouts. (Just like today’s learning institutions).
What if associations tore down old traditional conference models and started over?
Here are four brain-friendly principles from brain scientists that association leaders and meeting organizers should consider when planning their next annual meeting. (There are many more!)
Passive Listening Versus Movement And Interactivity
1. Your brain is not designed to sit passively for eight hours a day listening to lectures.
In the evolutionary process, our brains developed while working out and walking. The brain still craves that experience. Movement boosts brainpower. Physical activity is cognitive candy.
Suggestion: Conference organizers should encourage presentations that get people up, moving around and require interactivity, not sitting in chairs all day.
Your Short Term Memory
2. Your brain is not designed like a recording device—push record to learn new information and push playback to remember it.
German psychologist and memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus is best known for one of the most depressing facts in education: people usually forget 90% of what they learn in a class within 30 days. The majority of this memory loss occurs within the first few hours after the presentation. Wow, normal conference attendees only recall 10% of what they learn at the annual meeting. That’s low ROI.
The moment of encoding, or learning, is mysterious and complex. We do know that the process is similar to a blender running without a lid. The information enters the blender, is sliced into pieces and splattered all over the insides of our mind. Content and context are stored separately. Recalling that information requires more elaborate encoding in the initial moments of learning.
Suggestion: Conference organizers need to structure and provide emotional arousal, context and meaning which lead to more elaborate encoding and thus better recall.
Adult White Space
3. The brain is not an open vessel that you can constantly pour content into during an eight-hour day and expect it to recall the information at will.
Have you seen the film Mondo Cane? The Italian shockumentary consists of vignettes intended to raise Westerner’s eyebrows. One memorable and disgusting scene shows farmers force-feeding geese to make Pâté de foie gras. They stuff food down the throats of these animals and then fasten a brass ring around their throats, trapping the food inside the digestive tract. Repeatedly jamming them with an oversupply of food eventually creates a stuffed liver pleasing to the world’s chefs. The geese are sacrificed in the name of expediency.
Most conferences try to overstuff their attendees with several days of eight to ten hours of presentations. Subject matter experts shovel data dumps into attendees’ minds thinking more is best. Pushing too much information, without enough time devoted to context, meaning, connecting the dots and digestion, does not nourish the brain. The attendee’s learning is sacrificed in the name of expediency. The brain needs breaks.
Suggestion: Conference organizers need to schedule adult white space: time for attendees to discuss new learnings with each other. They should plan for moderated chats where attendees re-expose each other to the information and share detailed elaborations of their impressions. When attendees spend time in these gabfests sharing their new learnings, retention increases. Brains recall information that is repeated out loud. The more the experience is retold, the more the brain encodes it and the more likely it will be remembered.
Attention Spans And Boring Things
4. The brain does not pay attention to boring things.
I know, you’re saying, “Duh!”
Research shows that presenters have 30 seconds to grab someone’s attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. Most conference presentations are 60 to 90 minutes long. If keeping someone’s interest in a presentation were a business, it would have an 80%-90% failure rate.
Presenters and conference organizers can help grab attention by ensuring every 10-minute segment is rich with meaning, stories and emotional connections. Connecting each segment to previous segments also helps the brain learn and remember.
Suggestion: Conference organizers should secure speakers that change their content and raise attention every 9 minutes and 59 seconds to restart the attention clock.
These four brain-friendly principles are just some of the things association leaders and meeting professionals can do to create brain friendly conferences.
What others would you add?