Thinking About How Conference Meeting Design Impacts The Brain

Image by eaubscene

Image by eaubscene

The things that make you go hmmm.

I’ve been reading a lot of books recently about how our brains experience emotions, engagement and learning, and how we remember, retain and apply information. I’ve been thinking about the application of cognitive neuroscience to conferences, events and meetings.

These are the things that make me go hmmm.

Why do you attend a conference or event?

Is it for the education? The networking? To see likeminded friends? To get out of the office? To get business leads? For the experience?

The majority of post conference surveys show that the primary two reasons people attend conferences and events are networking and education. Networking and education! Read those two words again. Networking and education.

These are the things that make me go hmmm.

If networking and education are that important…

If networking and education are that important, why don’t meeting professionals spend more time thinking about designing the best education experiences possible? Why do we think that securing speakers for our conference will produce great educational experiences? Is a speaker call for proposal enough?

These are the things that make me go hmmm.

If networking and education are that important to our conference attendees, why don’t we have more professional educators working with meeting design and experience? Where are the 21st Century learning professionals for the meetings industry? Go ahead, and name the top learning professionals for conferences, events and meetings? Who are they?

These are the things that make me go hmmm.

Three Things Meeting Professionals Should Consider About The Brain And Learning

I think meeting and event professional need to pay attention to three things in order to positively impact future conference education.

1. We have to get beyond the perception that meeting professionals don’t know anything about the brain and creating learning experiences.
The average conference of 500 people has more than 1,500 pounds of brain in live labs called general sessions, breakouts and workshops. We need to pay more attention to what is and isn’t working with our audiences, what engages their emotions, what stirs their souls, what gets them talking, what stimulates their minds, what they remember and what they apply. With attention and intention, trial and error, best guess, modification, adjustment and adaptation, we should continually find the best ways to help our participants learn.

2. We need to realize that the meetings profession is a brain-oriented profession without a universal brain theory.
We’ve relied on theories that are now proven to be folklore. We have a recipe mentality of creating the same experience without much variance. We need to reach out to academic institutions, professional education leaders, and cognitive neuroscientists and learn from them. We need to partner with the learning profession to see more relevant and practical application of brain-friendly conferences that lead to improved results.

3. We need to prepare ourselves to back away from old models and adapt to new ones.
The brain is biological and we need to understand how biological systems work. We need to understand the affects of our meeting design on our biology, our emotions, our thinking and our brains. Then we need to translate that biological thought into conference educational application.

Conference attendees are demanding better experiences, better education offerings, deeper learning and less fluff. The time is ripe for the meetings industry to plan conferences with the brain in mind.

What are some meetings, event and conference things that make you go hmmm? How important do you think cognitive neuroscience and brain-friendly learning are to the conference environment?

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Hurt, nancyrubin and Business Travel, Business Travel. Business Travel said: RT @Jeffhurt: Thinking About How Conference Meeting Design Impacts The Brain #eventprofs #mpi […]

  2. Janet Hansen says:

    My experience is that those who set up conferences are not tied to the experience so much as attendees, therefore, the outcome is based on a buffet-service set-up. Those in charge of the set up are simply fulfilling their duties; and perhaps using political ties to their own organizations; therefore a political buffet for attendees.

    Is that the best offering for attendees? I’d venture to guess 95% of the time the answer is no.
    Conferences are set up on a buffet style agenda. Buffet for meals; buffet for content; buffet in terms of networking.

  3. Paul Salinger says:

    I don’t know how you do it, my friend. yet another amazingly thoughtful post about a topic I keep thinking about as well.

    even with B2B conferences, where I spend most of my time, I hear much the same thing. for whatever reason, people come back, keep complaining about too much marketing or fluff and we keep repeating the same pattern every time.

    what I haven’t heard a lot (at least from our audiences) is what they would consider good, engaging learning experiences or education. I think the audience needs to weigh in more as well and not just accept sitting in a session room listening to a speaker present to 60 Powerpoint slides for an hour and then complain about it afterwards.

    as we have been talking about, we need a lot more speaker training, but I do agree that bringing in some experts on education would be helpful as well.

    as to your other hmm – networking – the thing I wonder about is if people really consider networking as a vital part of why they go to conferences, why do we create such limited opportunities for real learning networking. parties are fun, but is that all there is to networking?

    thanks again for posing such great questions.

  4. Jeff, loved this post. I, too, am fascinated by neuroscience. It has occurred to me that even as we marvel at the revolution in communications, we are witnesses to a similar revolution based on what science has discovered about the plasticity of the brain, and that those two things are accelerating one another.

    One conference I am following with great interest is the Wisdom 2.0 conference — it explores how to live mindfully and with compassion in a technologically advanced era.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Oooo, that’s so true. So many meeting profesionals use a buffet-service set-up. The conference or event becomes the mediocre Golden Corral or Western Sizzlin’ all you can eat smorgasboard buffet experience. Unfortunately, the quality and focus is lacking. Thanks for reading and adding your thoughts.

      Awesome point that we create limited opportunities for real learning networking. Thanks for adding your things that make you go hmmm.

      Fantastic thought: “…as we marvel at the revolution in communications, we are witnesses to a similar revolution based on what science has discovered about the plasticity of the brain, and those two things are accelerating one another.” That really resonated with me. Thanks for the conference to watch – Wisdom 2.0.

  5. TJ Wisner says:

    Very good post Jeff!
    I agree totally with your key points. However, I’m not convinced, after speaking to thousands of conference attendees for hundreds of different groups, that most people attend conferences to truly learn and improve their overall performance.
    Paul’s question re: Networking is also right on. Most of the banter at conferences is just folks having a great time. The benfit of this is that they build relationships which will hopefully help them grow both personally and professionally.
    True learning comes about from a solid needs assessment, professional (IE: Not free because I’m selling some service or product) speakers and trainers, application expectation and some sort of follow through.
    Helping people make the necessary performance improvements is the best job in the world. Working with meeting planners that get that…is a true joy!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts via this post.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. You have an interesting perspective about learning and why people attend conferences. So true about the need for good assessment too.

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