Are We Creating The Wrong Type Of Conference Experiences?

Wrong Direction

Everyone’s talking about the need to create customer experiences. (Yes, including us, the Velvet Chainsaw team.)

It’s as if Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore’s Experience Economy is just now hitting its stride—for conferences at least. The word is out: we’ve got to create conference experiences, not just conferences that feel like a patchwork quilt of our great grandmother’s dresses.

However, what we really need are transformative conference experiences! We need to create conference opportunities that change attitudes, behaviors and skills! Not conference experiences that engage the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of our brain’s limbic system inducing temporary pleasure. (Read on…)

A Disturbing Conference Trend

Several decades ago researchers across five countries compared videos of hundreds of classrooms. They made a disturbing observation about science lessons in the United States. U.S. classrooms, they said, commonly focused on “high-interest activities” (games, puzzles, excursions, humor, dramatic presentations, and so on) to increase student engagement—but teachers rarely used these activities to “support the development of content ideas in ways that were coherent and challenging for students.” (Teaching Science in Five Countries: Results from the TIMSS 1999 Video Study (Roth et al., 2006)

Now this trend is appearing in conferences across the globe.

Conference organizers, planning teams, and event producers aim to top last year’s event with a bigger-name speaker, larger budgets, trendy technology and greater wows. Planning teams pursue increasingly unique, memorable, novel formats and presentations for their events. They seek to engage attendees’ emotions. They want to increase their attendees’ pleasure and satisfaction. They are out to engage the limbic system of our brain instead of the pre-frontal cortex.

If there was a TIMSS study for conferences, they would find a repeat of what happened in science classes years ago. Just consider the following…

Today, many general sessions are filled with

  • Walk-on roles from famous people delivering sound bite welcoming messages that eclipse the opening’s featured topic. (The opening of an industry conference in Austin this past year featured a walk-on welcome from Matthew Mcconaughey. Just look at the majority of the swooning tweets that mentioned him. Yet few remember the primary conference speaker or tweeted about that message. Who won with that wow-moment? The sponsor of Mcconaughey, not the attendee!)
  • Mesmerizing eye-candy graphics, images, and videos (we even have large AV companies and agencies that now focus on creating slick productions just for your event)
  • Live and recorded music (got to get that big-name band, dance crew or DJ to perform)
  • Dramatic interludes and more. (Another recent industry conference’s press release touted that the event had moments of live music, drama and videos to engage the emotions of the audience and hook the messages. Oops, what do people remember? The music, drama and video. Not the primary messages. Wrong hook!)

None of these examples were transformative! Memorable, yes. Transformative? Absolutely not!

Ok, sure there are times when a conference audience wants a moment of levity, inspiration and passion. We need those. We just have to be intentional of when, what and where we place them.

Too often we’re expending our time and spending money on temporary fluff! We are not creating transformative events at all.

Audience Dopamine Addiction

Even worse, these unique novel conference moments of wow are creating customers that are addicted to these fleeting moments of dopamine-induced-pleasure.

As a feel good neurotransmitter, dopamine kicks in during activities that bring us pleasure. From checking off items on your to-do list to eating a bowl of waffle-cone ice cream to seeing more likes on your Facebook posts to general session wow moments. Sniff, snort…wahoo!

And our primal limbic system of our brain, in its own Billy Idol yell cries out, “More, more, more. I want more!”

As Daniel Levinin says, we need to

“…Remember, it’s is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving our limbic, emotional system that induces this feeling of temporary pleasure. It is not the planning, scheduling, higher-level critical thinking, executive functions of the prefrontal cortex that is involved.”

Conference planners beware: dopamine is also involved in drug, alcohol and sexual addition. Although our attendees may not struggle with serious addictions like drug abuse, we can easily get sucked into conference experiences that are novel. Thus our dopamine addicted audiences constantly ask what’s new or how will they top that. And our conference planning teams want to out-do last year’s novelty and wow.

The result: our attendees’ brains, now addicted to these short neural highs, want more, more, more. Sniff. Snort. Wheeeeee….

Transformative Conferences Engage A Different Part of The Brain

21st Century transformative conferences have planning teams that spend significant time observing, and reflecting about their target markets. They identify the challenges and problems their customers’ need to solve. Then they design conference experience around those solutions.

Thus they seek to integrate conference novelty that actually hooks to an overarching issue’s solutions.

And these teams use restraint incorporating temporary fluff moments.

Instead, they seek to engage the audience’s prefrontal cortex, not their pre-historic limbic system addicted to dopamine rush that shuts down thinking and mental engagement.

Then their participants’ brains are engaged with deeper insights that last. Not whiffs of dopamine-induced wow!

What was the last conference unique wow moment that you got sucked into that did not create any transformative lasting changes? What will it take to put our conference customers at the center of our design planning process?

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  1. Robin says:

    Thanks, Jeff. But what are some solutions?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. So after reading this blog post, what do you think are some solutions? If we want to get our participants’ pre-frontal cortex involved so they are using higher level thinking skills, what should we design?

      By the way, your question is a common one. Our brains often want others to tell us what and how to do something. Current neuroscience and cognitive psychology research shows we need to work at applying new information to our situations instead of just copying others. That thinking work helps us build stronger connections in the brain.

      I know this isn’t the answer you want. At the same time, I want to encourage you to think about this and offer some ideas first. So what do you think are some solutions to this challenge of planning more thought-provoking conference experiences?

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