Until fairly recently, a meeting was thought to be successful if it met its financial and learner-outcome goals. And while those are still important, a white paper makes the case that it’s time to stop focusing solely on the outcomes data and shift to making meetings more human-centric experiences. In the white paper, Maritz Global Events President David Peckinpaugh says that “while good meetings have well thought-out logistical execution, great meetings enrich the hearts and minds of our guests.”
Janet Sperstad, CMP, director of the Meeting and Event Management Program at Madison College, outlined the white paper’s five key elements for designing a more purposeful meeting at a keynote at the IMEX America show in Las Vegas. As Sperstad said, “It’s about providing a rich experience that supports people performing their best.”
1. Behavioral science—how people act and interact and think when in a social setting. “Where we once were fascinated by cyber space, the new frontier is inner space,” Sperstad said, adding that it’s just as important to understand how people think as it is to understand what they think. That’s because what we experience actually changes the physical tissues of our brains. Our brains are our bodies’ social organs, she said, and we like to exercise them at events through conversation—“70 percent of conversation is social. We even dream socially. We evolved as humans together in a pack.” This makes events powerful forums of influence.
“Ninety-three percent of communication is nonverbal,” she said. “We have to exchange that energy, to see what you’re not saying as well as what you are saying. If you want information, go to the Internet. If you want wisdom, go to meetings.”
Planners can make their meetings more purposeful by nurturing the social connection and sense of belonging that are such strong influencers on behavior and decision-making, she said.
• Use storytelling to make your messages your meaningful, using data to back up the facts illustrated through the story.
• Use an “audio-scape” of sounds and music to synchronize the brainwaves of participants as they walk into the event space.
2. Health and well-being—how to nourish the mind through taking better care of the body through food, sleep, exercise, and mindfulness. “The brain is like a glass of water—it can only hold so much. If you keep pouring more information in, it will just spill over. Planners can help the brain digest.”
• Along with reminding attendees to download the app and make their hotel reservation, also remind them to sleep a full eight hours and get some exercise before they head to the meeting so they’re better prepared physically for the event. When they’re on site, ensure that guest rooms have blackout curtains and otherwise are conducive to sleep. You can even place pictures of your participants’ loved ones in their room to ease the stress of being separated—and get that task sponsored.
• Build in some mindfulness elements that help participants manage their stress levels and feel more energized. One quick-and-easy idea she shared was to put a note on the mirrors in the rest rooms reminding people to take three deep breaths while they’re washing their hands. Also consider asking speakers to give participants a 120-second “palette cleanser” to take three deep breaths.
• Think about when you want participants to expand their attention to take in the whole space, and when you want them to narrow their focus. “We can leverage sound and light to create bigness and energy in the room,” Sperstad said. “Other times we need to bring the focus down.”
• Give more thought to your breaks. For the comfort breaks, can you provide some natural light, the sound of trickling water, and the smell of a freshly peeled orange to provide stimulation for participants’ senses? Connecting with natural elements helps people think more clearly, Sperstad said; research has shown that groups that look at meadows and gardens outperformed groups that looked at a cityscape. “Any time you can pick a room with a view, do it. Day dreaming is where ideas come from.”
• Provide nooks and crannies where people can hang out and regroup before running off to the next session.
3. Event design—building new experiences that will maximize performance. Sperstad said, “It’s time we stop being the architects of exhausted people” by offering the same old “imbalanced agenda” that has people running from morning coffee and muffin to general session to breakouts to lunch to more breakouts to receptions. Instead, event strategists should build agendas that balance active participation with down time, learning with laughter, and content with connection, she said.
• Think about building your agendas around how participants’ energy naturally ebbs and flows over the course of the day. For example, slot in lots of interaction and problem-solving first thing in the morning when participants’ brains are fresh. Follow that with cognitive and comfort breaks, and don’t ask people to multitask over lunch. Let them eat without having to listen to a speaker, she suggested. “Don’t drain the brain’s battery.” And that post-lunch dead zone? “It’s actually a beautiful time for reflection, peer-to-peer sharing, and case studies,” she said. Later in the afternoon is a good time for thinking and collaborating in those nooks and corners you’re providing. Top it off with a rousing closing session full of light and sound to activate their emotions.
• Declutter with right-sized sessions. Don’t stress out your attendees by asking them to sit still for an hour or longer and absorb information. Break down the information into smaller, well-defined chunks that can fit into 45-minute breakouts.
• Think about how you can limit the size of the audience to help participants make those vital connections. Sperstad talked about the Dunbar number, defined by researcher Robin Dunbar as the maximum number of people anyone can maintain a solid relationship with. That golden number, she said, is 150. Do meetings larger than that really help people learn and connect most effectively? While the white paper doesn’t answer that question, it’s one that the industry should look into in more depth, said Sperstad.
• “Layer over the logistics of the event how you want the participants to feel,” said Tahira Endean, head of events at the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence and the author of Intentional Event Design. Think about one thing you want participants to feel once they leave your event, then think about what you could add or change to event logistics or design make that happen.
4. Positive Impact—including activities that can drive new levels of meaning and connectivity. Community engagement programs also can help provide a richer, more purposeful experience, she said.
• Start by asking the local community what it needs, how you can involve local individuals and organizations in your project, and what you can do to leave a lasting legacy. “It has to be real and authentic,” Endean said.
• Put effort into minimizing any negative impact your event could have on local resources, from increased traffic to producing trash and food waste.
5. Technology—using tech to enhance ideas, connections, and creativity. Social media, video streaming, gamification, virtual reality, artificial reality, apps…the list of tech available to enhance events keeps growing. The challenge is how to use it in a human-centric way to reduce anxiety, create a conducive mood, or bring people’s brains more in sync. “We need to create a new currency of magical moments in our world,” Sperstad said, mentioning an IBM Watson-driven “cognitive dress” created for the MET Gala in New York. The LED lights on the gown changed colors in real time based on the moods being expressed on Twitter, a great visual for the crowd to take in while encouraging them to participate as well.
• It’s not about the platform or the data per se, but rather about how they can best be used to enhance the participant experience.
• The Starbucks app lets patrons order and pay for their coffee before they go pick it up. Would it be possible to do something similar for dinearounds to avoid that awkward moment when the time comes to split the check? “Technology needs to help us make real-time changes,” Sperstad said. “We are the architects of time and space.”
The white paper, called “Purposeful Meetings: How to plan with deeper meaning, innovation, and insight in mind” (free, simple registration required to download the PDF), was authored by Sperstad and Amanda Cecil, PhD, CMP, associate professor, Indiana University, and sponsored by IMEX Group and PSAV.