Here is a shocking statistic: 90 percent of what we know about the brain has been discovered in the last five years. According to Roger Haskett, owner and director of Engagement Unlimited, that means that everything you were led to believe before 2011 on how the brain works probably needs to be updated. For meeting planners who haven’t changed their meeting structure in more than five years that means reevaluating your traditional approaches. Are you trying to create a conference with quiet and respectful listeners? Or are you trying to really engage your attendees?
Haskett believes that, “Engagement is the secret sauce that makes your meetings magical!” In fact, he believes engagement, which he defines as active involvement, is the key to success in networking, marriage, parenting, team dynamics, and life in general. So what does neuroscience tell us about becoming engaged?
To help attendees stay mentally active, Haskett suggests not packing the itinerary with too many events. People need breathing space to absorb information instead of feeling rushed and under pressure. He also makes the case that "sleep proxies," such as going outside in to nature, can help attendees feel more awake and energized. Guided breathing and meditation are both activities that can help attendees filter out distractions and actively focus on why they are attending the meeting. Replacing the emcee with a life coach can change the tenor of the meeting; instead of simply announcing breaks and room changes, give your attendees someone who can show them specific strategies for being the best, most authentic person they can be.
Trigger the Right Emotions
Haskett shares an insight from Daniel Goleman’s essay on the science of moods at work that suggests that the most emotionally expressive person in the room can transmit his or her emotional energy to the others within two minutes. Haskett’s technique to make sure this “emotional contagion” is a happy, positive one is to create a “threshold experience” for attendees arriving at the meeting. The experience is often a comedy routine from actors greeting the guests, so instead of pausing at the threshold of the room feeling stressed about the meeting, attendees walk in with a smile.
Haskett uses play, whether it is a game of Name That Tune or Pub Trivia, to get audience members to see themselves as participants in a team. This dispels “stranger stress,” a common emotion in large groups where individuals feel anxious about interacting with strangers, and creates trust and a sense of friendship that makes networking easier.
Meeting planners can help manage the emotions of both speakers and attendees by priming them for the event. Emotional contagion can transmit a speaker’s nervousness to the audience. Before going on stage, have your presenters prime themselves for two minutes by focusing on a happy memory, anticipating a positive future event, or listening to upbeat music. Prime the attendees by asking them questions they won’t know the answers to before a presentation. This will help them remember the information when they hear it and give them a sense of accomplishment when they learn the answers.
Haskett says, “Music is like crack for our brains, pop music in particular. If we anticipate the next note in a song, our brains release dopamine which makes us happy, more engaged, and able to relax.” One of the games that Haskett uses to turn attendees into participants is Name That Tune, and he describes how people push back their tables, form groups, sing along to songs, and move closer to the stage. “Do you want people disengaged and looking at their phones or rushing the stage?” he asks.
Haskett says that for many industry professionals these strategies make sense but they don’t know how to persuade their stakeholders to make the change. The answer, he says, is to ask them if they want to rely on cognitive theory and psychology to engage people, or traditions that predate what we know about how the brain functions.
For more on using science-based engagement techniques, watch these videos.