Creating Memory-Filled Emotional Conference Experiences

Take a stroll with me down memory lane.

Imagine your favorite food that your mom, dad, grandmother, grandfather or other relative used to cook for you.

Got it in your mind? Recall how it looked, it smelled and tasted.

Now, close your eyes and think about where that food was lovingly made. Where are you in your mind? Your mom’s kitchen? Your grandparent’s home? What does the kitchen look like? What do you smell as it’s being cooked? As you think about that food, where it’s made and the aromas, what memory is triggered? What do you recall? How do you feel?

For me, I recall my tiny Great Grandmother Hurt in her gingham blue and white dress, covered with her favorite white apron. It’s early morn and she’s singing in the kitchen. The kitchen is small, with off-white and yellow walls trimmed in blue. A small area rug covers a magical door in the floor that opens to stairs. They lead to her basement, which is full of her canned foods fresh from her garden, homemade jams and jellies.

The aroma of cinnamon, butter and homemade bread waft through her house. My body is flooded with the emotions of excitement, anticipation and joy. She’s making her famous cinnamon toast just for me. The cinnamon and sugar on top is a dark brown, hardened like the sugar on top of Crème Brule. As I bite into the toast my tongue is flooded with the sensation of butter, home made bread, cinnamon and sugar. It’s crispy and sweet to the taste. Only Great Grandmother Hurt could make it like that.

This mental journey highlights how our brains access our emotional, episodic and procedural memories.

The Five Memory Lanes
For learning to be permanent, it has to follow specific paths or lanes. The brain has at least five memory lanes—automatic, emotional, episodic, procedural and semantic—that can be used for permanent storage of information. Some neuroscientists have identified additional lanes as well.

These lanes are like grocery store aisles. Go to the correct aisle, and you’ll find cinnamon and sugar for cinnamon toast. Go to the wrong aisle and you can get frustrated trying to find something. Just like grocery stores, each of these lanes serves as gateways to specific areas within the brain for accessing memory and learning.

Each of these memory lanes contain either explicit (voluntary) or implicit (involuntary) memories. Explicit memories deal with facts, places and words. Episodic and semantic memories are explicit. Implicit is a compulsive response to an experience or stimulus. Automatic, emotional and procedural memories are implicit.

Let’s take a look at the most powerful of all memory lanes: emotional memory. We’ll cover the other four memory lanes in the next post.

Emotional Memory
Emotional memory is the most powerful of all memory lanes. It is located in the amygdala (uh-mig-duh-luh) in the forebrain next to the hippocampus. This brain filing cabinet holds all the folders containing a variety of experiences that made you happy, sad, fearful, excited or any other feeling you can imagine.

The brain gives priority to emotions. When an experience enters the brain, the amygdala will grab that information and go to work. This is the part of the brain that can highjack your emotions with a fight or flight response if it is a negative experience. The emotional highjack can cause a lot of havoc by creating a stress response. During a stress response, cortisol and adrenalin is released and suddenly it’s impossible to think logically. All of the memory lanes become blocked and learning stops. This is something you want to avoid creating in conference experiences—negative stress responses.

Active emotional engagement is a critical key to learning and memory. Amazingly, engaging emotional memory also activates other memory lanes. Recall an emotional experience and your brain automatically opens other memory lanes as well.

Because of the power within emotional connections, conference organizers need to capitalize on how to create meaningful experiences that engage emotions and increase learning.

Here are several tips on how to engage emotional memory in conferences and events.

  • Create a safe and secure environment.
    A feeling of safety and security is necessary for the brain to learn and recall new information. Secure speakers that can facilitate open discussions without putting any attendee on the spot or making them feel uncomfortable. Avoid speakers that strong-arm attendees into participation or make attendees feel insignificant.
  • Use music to set the mood.
    Music is a powerful tool in creating an emotional memory. Set the tone for learning with some dramatic, upbeat or well-known instrumental theme.
  • Secure speakers that are enthusiastic and passionate about their topics.
    A presenter’s enthusiasm and excitement for learning can be contagious and serve as an emotional trigger. Sharing feelings about a topic or experience causes others to relate emotionally.
  • Share stories
    Storytelling taps the emotions. We identify with others’ responses and often share their emotions.
  • Create unique unusual conference celebrations.
  • Create short videos that pack an emotional punch and move people.
  • Schedule sessions with panelists that engage in debate.
    Allow for point and counterpoint discussions. Honest, open adult dialogue allows attendees to view different perspectives.
  • Don’t be afraid of controversial topics that arouse emotions.
    While you don’t want to stimulate a fight or flight response, acknowledging negative emotions and setting the stage for disagreement without being disagreeable can add to emotional memory.

Intentionally creating deliberate strategies that access the emotional memory lane can make learning more enjoyable and information easier to retain. Conference organizers need to capitalize on how to create memory-filled emotional conference experiences to increase learning.

What are some other ways you can engage attendees’ emotions at a conference? What are some of your most memorable emotional experiences at conferences and events?

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  1. Barbara Palmer says:

    “Use music to set the mood” reminded me of the wonderful sounds of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra at PCMA’s Annual Meeting in New Orleans.
    There’s another kind of “music” that face-to-face meetings provide and it’s the hum of engaged people talking. I think we are hard-wired to love that sound — it gives me a sense of safety and security, as long as acoustics are warm. I noticed it at the recent #140conf at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Just a lovely cascade of voices.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Love your thoughts about a cascade of voices and the hum of engaged people talking as another type of music. So true. Presenters can help create this buzz by providing a couple of questions and instructions to find someone and chat for walk-in before the session begins.

      I’m with you. When I find a presenter that has walk-in music playing, I know that I’m in for a great presentation ride. It can set a great stage and put people in the right frame.

      Thanks for providing the links to the great content that extends the conversations about engaging the emotional memory lane.

  2. Why don’t we use music more effectively before and after conference sessions? It doesn’t have to blast out of the speakers (since people want to chat) but personally I like a little tune roiling around in my head.
    If Led Zeppelin music was playing as I entered the room, I would definitely sit up and take notice and it would open my mind for the content.

  3. 1. To extend your sensory approach consider storyboarding the moment-by-moment experience for your attendees:

    2. Enable exhibitors and speakers to generate more value and visibility for attendees and for themselves:

    3. Provide more ways for attendees to participate and gain value for that participate:
    Create relevant, crowd-attracting events/contests within your conference:

  4. WOW – lots of great information to consider. As always, this blog continues to spark new thoughts… and ultimately new actions.

    Aromas are powerful triggers and you sure captured that with your description of aromas coming from your Great Grandmother’s kitchen.

    I read recently that people recall smells with 65% accuracy after a year, but recall of photos drops to 50% after just 3 months.

    Not sure how to incorporate THAT trigger in a conference learning experience, but it’s food for thought 😉

  5. Scott Gould says:

    This is good – reminds me of some things that are essential and I mustn’t forget as I prep for Like Minds Helsinki!

    I’m adding these things to my checklist now – thanks Jeff.

  6. Justin Locke says:

    just a little mitzvah for my erstwhile musician friends,

    when doing an event it is not all that expensive to scare up a real live freelance musician and park them in a nook somewhere. there are usually booking agents that do this kind of thing in every city (usually wedding bands etc) so for a couple hundred bucks or maybe a little more for a string quartet, you make some cello player’s day. harps are always pleasant and classy. even mediocre student players, when seen and heard up close, are intensely memorable. there is some software company that was featured on 60 minutes that employs musicians and artists to hang out in their office spaces to relax and inspire employees. –jl

  7. […] Emotional Memory Emotional memory and tips to creating emotional event memories were discussed here. […]

  8. Nick says:

    I thought there was a lot of great information here and was wondering if you had any suggestions specifically for webinars and/or audio conferences?


  9. […] experiences that cause attendees to use the automatic, episodic and procedural lanes as well as the emotional lane can create long-term, lasting memories. Accessing the semantic memory lane is the most commonly […]

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