6 Barriers That Impede Conference Attendee Attention

Lego Advent Calendar - Days 4-6

Everyday our brains make a payment of their precious resources.

We try to pay attention.

We attempt to listen, read or work on a single task for as long as we can. Our visual and auditory systems strive to lock into the work at hand.

Can I Have Your Attention?

To pay attention, we have to adjust, engage and maintain our neural networks, our biological systems that process information. And we must exclude or suppress external and internal distractors.

Plus, we have to do it day-in day-out in the midst of our socially stimulating, high-energy, information media rich, fast-paced, physically-driven, emotionally charged environments.

In short, paying attention is not easy to do consciously. It’s challenging!

As if paying attention during our daily routine is not difficult enough, we thrust people into a condensed conference experience and demand they give us their undivided attention. We ask them to focus wholeheartedly to the topics and networking until they leave.

Why Paying Attention Is Not Easy To Do Consciously At Your Conference

In a nutshell, the areas of our brain involved in attention are highly complex and variable. Maintaining attention requires extremely disciplined internal states and just the right chemical balance.

There are a host of other brain-related factors that can impede your attendees’ attention during a conference.

1. Brain Drain – Lack of fuel for thought

Attention, learning and retaining memory drain the glucose levels of our brains. Our glucose drops considerably based on the task we are doing. Attendees that show up to a conference session with low blood sugar are likely to be tired, listless and inattentive. And an increasing number have diabetes which impairs the speed of cognitive performance.

Tip: Make sure you are providing the right fuel (foods) for thought during breaks and meals. Follow the advice from The Science Of Food For Thought white paper by The National Conference Center, Sarah Vining, Executive Chef Craig Mason and Andrea Sullivan.


2. Our Brain’s Surge Protectors

It’s true that we have a lifetime capacity for learning. Unfortunately, on a daily basis that capacity has severe limits. The brain has several built in natural surge protectors that limit learning. Our frontal lobes, synaptic gaps, neurons and hippocampus all act as gating devices inhibiting information overload.

In short, the physical process for learning begins within 15 minutes of exposure to new information. The biological process of building mental connections gets stronger within an hour and takes up to six hours to completely form. If the synapse strengthening process is disturbed, the memory is lost. In addition to that, our learning improves when there are adequate spacing and rest intervals instead of ongoing exposure to new material.

Tip: Presenting more content per minute guarantees that little will be learned or retained. Your presenters can teach more and faster and attendees will simply forget more and faster. Ask presenters to cut content and allow for more meaning-making.

3. Blocking Flow

During a conference, either you can have your attendees’ attention or they can be making meaning of the information. Unfortunately, both cannot occur at the same time. And for learning to occur, they must have time to make meaning.

Meaning is generated internally. It takes intentional effort and requires time. External input (offering more information) conflicts with the processing of prior information and meaning-making. It blocks the natural brain’s flow of learning.

Tip: Ask presenters to allow time during the presentation for participants to discuss, think about and reflect on their main points.

4. Are You Threatening Me?

Conference attendees pay attention to the content only when it is “safe” to do so. To your participants, outside influences such as calling on individuals unexpectedly to answer a question is like a potential predator.

Telling attendees that they will have to participate in a hands-on activity may trigger the threat response. In risky environments, learners cannot focus on processing information.

Tip: Teach presenters to ask for volunteers to respond to questions. Create a safe environment where attendees feel calm and divergent views are welcomed.


5. Uppers And Downers

One of the brain’s primary fuels for attention is amines. Amines are the brain’s uppers. Amine levels increase and decrease naturally during the day. Low amine levels lead to inattention and fatigue.

Tip: Help presenters learn to read their attendees’ body language so they know when the amine level has dropped. They should look for bored stares, people having trouble keeping their eyes open, yawns, etc. To increase amine levels, presenters should give attendees a break and invite them to get up and walk around, go to the restroom, etc. Amine levels increase with movement. Asking attendees to switch seats for a brief exercise also helps.

6. Recycle This

For long-term memory to form, the brain needs to recycle the proteins within neurons. To recycle the proteins, the brain must have time to incubate or settle after receiving new information. This means learning improves with shorter times devoted to listening to content and more rest time (giving the brain a break from listening).

Tip: Constant exposure to content and new information disrupts the protein recycling process. Encourage presenters to present 10-20 minutes of content and then give the audience time to reflect, think or discuss.

Practically Thinking

The bottom line is that many conferences offer content that is too wide and too shallow! Conference organizers need to make some hard choices about what to offer. Adding more content to a conference schedule does not increase learning. Conference organizers should focus on quality content and brain friendly experiences instead of adding more, more, more.

Which barrier is the toughest for you to overcome when planning conference experiences? What are some tips that you’ve used or experienced that help eliminate these barriers?

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  1. Love this post! Having managed numerous conference events over the years and spoken personally at hundreds, you have hit the nail on the head. When are we going to stop torturing our attendees?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting too. I love your rhetorical question, “When are we going to stop torturing our attendees?” Not soon enough!

  2. YES! I will be testing offering brain friendly content and delivery at Blogworld LA. WIll give you feedback on how it is received.

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