Four Principles For Planning Brain-Friendly Annual Meetings

My post for ASAE’s Acronym’s “Big Ideas” month for association bloggers.

What if associations provided brain-friendly annual conferences?

Planning Brain-Friendly Conferences

Planning Brain-Friendly 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?


  1. says

    These are very helpful principles to keep in mind. At the 2009 ASAE Annual Meeting, I was thinking that #3 would have been great to have. I recall someone else on Twitter having the same idea — he was looking for a place to go and have an informal chat about a session he was just in. We had a few follow-up sessions in the Engagement Lounge with some of the keynote types but they were more of a Q&A session than a real participatory chat, probably also due to the table configuration (it was like being in class).

    Maybe you’ve already done this, if so, point me in the right direction — I would love to get your ideas on good books to read about this topic.

    • Jeff Hurt says

      Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      Yes, #3 is very important and even more so in today’s world of social networking. We crave connections with others. It’s time for conference organizers to have a session, then plan for a 30 to 45 minute peer-to-peer discussion to recap the presentation. Then the presentation’s main take-aways have a higher possibility of being solidified in our brains.

      Books to read on the subject?: There are many. I suggest John Medina’s Brain Rules, SFN’s Brain Facts, IHHP’s Emotional Intelligence White Papers, Dr. Ellen Weber’s Blog Brain Leaders And Learners and Olivia Mitchell’s blog Speaking About Presenting.

  2. Joan Eisenstodt says

    My continuing ‘soap box': facilities need to support and promote different environments! When we are forced, because of the “rooms to [meeting] space” ratio, to use only a certain amount of space, including so-called public space, we are forced to work w/in the confines of what we are “allowed” to have or will pay to use.

    Having done some sessions that were directed at suppliers (CSMs and Sales/Marketing) even in the conference center industry (that is supposed to be/marketed as more creative), I’ve found incredible resistance — to learning about what brains (and tushies) need for meetings to be worthwhile. Just as Dec. is the month on which bonuses are based for sales/marketing, so is the standard thinking about what a meeting “looks” (feels, is) like.

    @Deirdre – at ASAE ’09, I was so unhappy with room sets and inability to interact, I tweeted my location a few times and was joined by, at one point, up to 10 people (some of whom came out of standard sessions), who wanted to talk. And we did and it was engaging and wonderful.

    (Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a conference where you paid to attend in a different way? You wanted to be around and able to interact w/ those who also attended and you only wanted to go to a bit of a few sessions.)

  3. says

    Did you know that when we doodle, we are more likely to remember the content being delivered?
    The idea is that it’s not so much the doodling that is so productive, but the fact that it keeps us from daydreaming:

    I’m really liking #4…as I finalize upcoming presentations for next year, I see a lot of opportunity to split my sessions into 9:59 increments :-)

    Midori Connolly, Chief AVGirl
    Pulse Staging and Events, Inc.

    • Jeff Hurt says

      @Donna – Yes, I’m a fan of John Medina’s too. Now if we can just get the education instituions and conference organizers to become fans, we’ll have some awesome learning happening! Thanks for sharing the link to his video too.

      @Joan – I love your soapbox and continuing mantra! Yes, status quo on how workshops, conferences and meetings are designed seems to prevail…it’s easier that way too. Let’s not give up the fight yet though…as I know you wouldn’t! Thanks for adding your feedback too.

      @Midori – I’m a constant doodler, especially in meetings. If I can’t type my notes on my laptop or mobile device (usually in Twitter), I’m writing notes and doodling nonstop. Something I’ve always done. And when I’m really bored in meetings, I start drawing pictures of everyone in the room. (Yes, art is one of my hidden talents.)

      I’m loving #4 and have always felt it’s important to keep the presentation hooks coming. Every 9:59 minutes, start fresh by connecting new content to previous content, sharing a story, building visuals and then laying the groundwork for the important point. Thanks for sharing and the link too.

  4. Joan Eisenstodt says

    @Jeff .. not a chance I’ll get off my soapbox! Thanks for joining me on it .. we can make it a grand stage for others, ya know?

    @Midori: I always use fun, creative stuff for the training programs I do … or at least those that are more than 45 mins. over lunch (!) — and often have color pencils, crayons, ModelMagic(TM) and other stuff. Instead of the usual pens and pads that hotels usually put out .. why not something fun? Perhaps those that are using the (awful!) scents in lobbies and elsewhere could, instead, buy Smencils(TM) and give those out! (I love the peppermint-scented ones — they make one’s brain work better.)

  5. says

    Great discussion! Last week I participated in a panel at IAEE Expo! Expo! The session was entitled Attendee Engagement – Onsite + 30 Before the session, I hit Jeff Hurt up for research data on how quickly learning seeps from our head. I used the blender analogy during the session and it got quite a few chuckles. I think my hand gesters added to the humor.

    Any way, the majority of the session at IAEE was focused on applying simple tactics to improve attendee engagement. I love the idea of the discussion immediately after a thought provoking session. Retention and learning could also be improved by:

    Before the Conference Encourage attendees to subscribe to a speakers blog, follow them on twitter, attend an advance webinar, and/or create a discussion group before the conference around the topic.

    After the Conference Quick follow up webinar or handout supplement, blog posts that encourage comments from participants, access to archived content so you can press playback

    I think the key is to interact with the content a little before and a little after to help improve stickiness and retention. You have to come to the game prepared. If we rely solely on the 60 – 90 minute session (where attendees run the gamot of novice to expert), I think we’ll have a harder time competing against virtual alternatives.

    Dave Lutz – @velchain

    • Jeff Hurt says

      Absolutely. We’ll invite the event professionals community and conference attendees everywhere to join us on our soapbox for discussion about creating more engagements at conferences and events! If you’ve not ever used Catalyst Ranch in Chicago for a meeting, workshop or event, I highly encourage you to consider it. They understand the need for a good learning environment with a lot of different and unique seating arrangements and engagement tools. One of my favorite venues for workshops!

      Yes, you are so right that the key is interaction with the content in specific intervals. The more we engage with the content and with each other about the content, the higher the recall. (That’s the simplified version of all the science that happens when the brain encodes information for short and long-term memory.) I’m an advocate of seeing the entire meeting experience within the larger context of before, during and after.

  6. Joan Eisenstodt says

    @Dave .. of course! Now let’s look at the tactics. First some observations from many years of trying and wondering what and why and how.
    1) In the earlier days of social media – before it was called that – people were pretty engaged because there wasn’t much and it wasn’t overwhelming.
    2) Boomers are known to be more the ‘socializers/engagers’ – the ‘plays well with others’ generation.
    3) The suggestions you made, @Dave, were in 2 too-long-ago-and-never-redone studies by the MPI Foundation about what makes meetings work (corp.) and why people attend assn. annual meetings. I used all the research (published in white papers) with clients — and when PRACTICED, it works. Sadly, few others used it – tried it – made it part of their cultures.
    4) Do we concentrate only on those who WILL engage b-d-a (before-during-after)? Do we hope that others will get it .. when shown “the way”?

    It would be sorta obvious to me that we who are having this discussion are the engagers who get it.

    Now .. other than my GIANT soapbox, how do we bring others along as they begin to buy in?

  7. says

    Hi Jeff,

    Love your tips and totally agree with them.

    Two challenges I see to engagement learning…

    My personal pet peeve… Rooms that only light up to dim or dimmer. Many of the rooms I speak in are ballrooms that don’t expect people to really want to see each other. And speakers who PPT their talks.

    The second is waking up learners.

    If more people experienced the kind of learning experience you describe, they would start to insist upon it.

    Too many are conditioned to boring PPT training. They don’t realize there’s a beautiful, multi-colored world of learning out there.

    Shifting gears slightly, as I read your comments I also thought about how this applies to learning via webinars. It’s interesting food for thought.

    Thanks a great conversation!

  8. Jessica Levin says

    Jeff – Do you have any specific examples or suggestions of how this might be applied to the teaching of very technical material such as new tax regulations?

    • Jeff Hurt says

      Depends on how much tax regulation you would be teaching. I suggest breaking the regulations down into 10 minute segments. Teach one reg, then have people turn to a neighbor and explain how that impacts them. Teach the next reulation and then have that pair turn to another pair and discuss. That’s the quickest way I can think of with out knowing the specifics.

  9. says

    Great comments. I wonder how virtual technology will become part of this ongoing extension of the meeting. Imagine the day when the actual presentation is given prior to the meeting, and the live meeting is designed as an interactive analysis of the presentation and a discussion on its relativity in today’s workplace.
    The other side of this is the fact that today’s presentations are designed as a “one to many” scenario, and that needs to change. The collective knowledge of the audience needs to be tapped into, as it can provide as much insight into solutions as the presentation itself.
    The virtual could create a platform where the audience could respond to the presentation in a flurry of short responses, and this discussion can carry on all year long.
    It’s pretty apparent that attending a 1 1/2 hour session is not enough to create professional change and extending the meetings discussions to an all year event will add significant value.

  10. says

    James, great addition to the dialogue here! I’m more of an advocate for face2face than I am virtual, but the way you frame it makes a ton of sense. One of my favorite books was written by Ken Blanchard, High Five! The Magic of Working Together. One of the best quotes from that book is “None of us is as smart as all of us”. That’s proven over and over in interactive learning environments, like this blog or in your combined virtual/face2face example.

    Bottom line, the more we each interact with and dig deeper into how to apply good content the more the learning sticks, the retention improves and business results are delivered.

    Maybe this virtual learning does have a place?? Cool stuff!

    Dave Lutz – @velchain

  11. says

    This is awesome article every conference organizer should read. I’m always puzzled when an organizer don’t provide its attendees with notes and a recording of the event.

    No one can remember a 3-day bootcamp without something to refer to once it’s over. It’s not like the attendees can take notes with the presenter going on so fast.

    I’ve always believed it’s the teacher’s responsibility for the student’s learning. If you fail to teach a kid, it’s your fault, not the kid’s. You ARE the adult!

  12. says

    Hello from Germany! May i quote a post a translated part of your blog with a link to you? I’ve tried to contact you for the topic Midcourse Corrections » Blog Archive » Four Principles For Planning Brain-Friendly Annual Meetings, but i got no answer, please reply when you have a moment, thanks, Spruch

  13. Louisa Wirth says

    I would like to know where I can acquire permission to use the above image…/uploads/2009/12/Brain.jpg.

    Thank you in advance,


    • Jeff Hurt says

      I purchased the use of this photo at If you want to use it, you’ll need to go to their website and purchase use of it.

  14. says

    Also, you may consider using an outside speaker who can not only provide content but entertainment, as well. As a funny motivational speaker many of my clients have used me to “break up” the glut of information they provide their groups. Of course, I customize my presentation and deliver solid content, but the entertainment factor provides a great way to recharge the brain. Laughter is wonderful and when done correctly, it can add not only a pleasurable experience to any meeting, but also allow more information to be delivered later by others.

  15. mélanie says

    After reading your post I came to wonder if you know about a conference format called Open Space Technology. It’s a format I’ve tried out for a small group of people, but I know others who’ve managed to organise OST for 300 people.
    If you’ve come across OST, what’s your view on it?
    If it’s the first time you’ve heard about it and want to know more, here’s a starting point If so, do you have a view on it. If not, here’s where to find out more:

  16. says

    I love OST! Experienced it for the first time in the late ’80s and have facilitated the experience and been part of it many times. It is not for all groups; it needs to be done well and facilitated well and, preferably, to be done with enough time to experience the full force of it. (Much of what is done is “open space light” – where groups want to do it in an hour or two or even a half day.

    There are lots of web sites where you can learn more; there’s a linkedin group for OST (where there’s been a lively discussion of OST being “stolen” by the “unconference” movement) a book to read before embarking on it is

    • Jeff Hurt says

      I really enjoy OST. As Joan mentioned in the following comment, a lot of organizations are creating OST-Light as a format to use. Thanks for the link to OpenSpace as well.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, you are right that a lot of groups are taking OST and reformatting it into their own type of experience. Thanks for sharing the book too.

  17. mélanie says

    @ Joan: thanks for the book link and the group on Linkedin :-)
    @ Jeff: thanks for the blog AND your ‘reply time’.

  18. says

    Hope I’m not repeating myself, I wasn’t sure my previous comment went through;

    By checking the date, I’m late to this party but I did want to let yo u know how exciting this article was.

    I am a new CMP, employed by a hotel. My goal is to learn as much about not only how meeting planners think, but what they need (even if they don’t know it)and what will make them successful.

    Because of this article, not only will I be able to sell my hotel more effectively; we have untold space for people to casually gather and could post “talking about here” signs for after the sessions, but I will be hopefully to suggest something new to my prospects.


  19. says

    Jan – YAY YOU! First – by coming in now, it means we all can re-read the other posts and remind ourselves where we are. Then .. that you are with a hotel is a BIG DEAL! Hotels and convention centers and conference centers are, in many ways, the barriers to better/different meetings.

    Tell us how you will use all this (including the discussions) to “get to” those who assign space, set up space, provide for space (like AV companies) with some new ideas. You might also like Paul Radde’s book “Seating Matters” – and go to publications. It takes what most groups will still want to do and tweaks it into more “audience-centric” seating. It is not too radical for anyone and it is doable for facilities w/o them saying “OH NO we can’t do that.” Post again with what happens. We can all learn from you.

  20. says

    I really love this article, as I agree with many of the things stated. Many ways of presentation or educating which people think will appeal to others is actually not very effective. Perhaps providing audio or visual recordings of the events would help reinforce what had been taught or said during the events.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *