business people playing with blocks

Business meetings and events that incorporate play are better for learning and retention.

Getting Playful at #IMEX15

I know, conferences and trade shows are serious business, and they result in serious business getting done. But, as I learned from meetings maven Joan Eisenstodt back when I first wandered into the wild realm of meeting planning, we all work much better when some form of play is included in the mix. And yet, when it comes to events I've gone to, all too many forget to bring in the playful aspect of learning.

Not so IMEX America, as I learned over and over during my newbie trip to the mega-event in Las Vegas recently. I arrived mid-day on Smart Monday—note to self to get in early enough to do the whole education day powered by Meeting Professionals International next year!—and began looking around to see which session I could sneak into, since they were all under way at the time.

Then I heard laughter and loud voices emanating from a room down the hall from the press room. I stuck my head in, and, lo and behold, it was a very aptly named Play Room! There were people gathered in various areas of the brightly lit, colorful room, very intensely doing all kinds of things. Some were listening and laughing along with the informal campfire “quirkshops.” Others were playing with various toys and games and I’m not sure what. I ended up at the Zentangles table, doodling on a piece of paper and then filling in the doodle with more doodles. I got a little too into it and had to drag myself away so I wouldn’t miss the next session. What is a Zentangle? Check out this Pinterest board for some serious inspiration!

The play continued at the Inspiration Hub on the show floor through the rest of the event, with lots of workshops and campfires around the concept of playfulness and meetings. I only managed to squeeze in a couple of engagements in between appointments, but they were so good (and refreshing!).

If you ever need to shoot the room's energy level sky-high, invite Roger Haskett!

One was led by Roger Haskett of Engagement Unlimited, who really knew how to get us revved up. Of course, being fueled on coffee and oatmeal raisin cookies from the press room, I was already a little manic, but we had a blast while learning by doing.

He broke us up into teams—we did have to unlock the chairs in the seminar room so we could face each other, but it was pretty easy to do—and work on a series of challenges that ranged from putting names to photos of celebrities’ mouths (harder than you’d think) to answering questions silly, profound, relevant, and irrelevant, to doing a quick round of “name that tune.”

Sharon Fisher, who has more creative ideas than you can shake a stick at.

My team in particular proved one of Roger’s points—that our brains are hard-wired for competition, and collaboration takes a lot more work. “IdeaSparker” Sharon Fisher with Play with a Purpose made a similar point by having us all thumbwrestle during a campfire session. Of course, we all played to win, but what you want is for people to work together at meetings to come to solutions and new ideas, not battle each other. (My colleague went to another of Sharon’s sessions and walked away with this awesome list of networking tips.)

OK, so a few things I learned by playing at Roger and Sharon’s sessions:

• Pre-testing people on things they have yet to learn helps to lock in the learning later.

• There’s actually something called “The dead rat study” that showed that rats actually died when deprived of play—and we’re not all that different from rats. I also learned that the opposite of play isn’t work; it’s depression (or even death, according to the dead rat study). This wasn't from our session, but here's a clip of Roger explaining this phenomenon:

• Success is the result of happiness, not the other way around. I did already know that, but it bears repeating.

• If you play an icebreaker game, it’s best not to call it an “icebreaker” since so many people cringe at the very thought, myself included, sad to say.

• Make sure the game matches the purpose of the meeting and furthers its goals. Show the research behind why you’re including a game (this was in answer to my question about overcoming people’s aversion to playing at meetings instead of being serious about learning).

• Start injecting networking-inducers in small, non-threatening ways that people get something tangible out of, such as inviting people at the beginning of a general session to ask the person behind them what their favorite app is.

Roger also pointed us toward a couple of things that, when I finally checked them out on my free JetBlue Internet on the way back to Boston, made me laugh out loud and annoy my neighbors:

Ted Talk: The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor (12:20)

The Mini-Wheats Aerobics Class (2:22)

I went to Sharon's last session of the show, and she invited us to grab a handful of ideas she had collected in a basket. To paraphrase a few of the ones I snagged:

• Try five or 10 minutes of chair yoga to start off an after-lunch general session. "Wakes the mind, stretches the body, and everybody can do it."

• When we laugh, research shows that our brain activity increases and we learn, think, and focus better. So it's more than OK to inject some humor into meetings!

• Role playing is good, and creative role playing is even better for finding new solutions. "How would Mickey Mouse solve this? What would a submarine captain do about this? The ideas from that new perspective will lead to even more ideas from you."

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