Creating Brain-Friendly Experiences, An Interview with Janet Sperstad, CMP

We were honored to have Janet Sperstad, CMP speak at our 2018 Hosts Global Forum in Belfast, Northern Ireland and again at a recent Hosts Global Education breakfast. Attendee feedback from both engagements was overwhelming. Janet’s keen intellect and understanding of our industry results in incredible advice for making events more “brain-friendly” through assessment of the psychology of physical meeting environments and meeting and event structure. It was a pleasure to meet with Janet once again to provide additional value to our readers…

Q: What motivates you to study and educate industry professionals on the psychology of physical meeting environments?

A: What we do as event professionals isn’t managing logistics, it’s creating experiences that move the hearts and minds of people. We’re in the people business – creating meetings and events that shape how attendees think and act. I saw some synergies and parallels between psychology and meeting planning when I was getting my Masters in Neuroleadership (a combination of neuroscience and business leadership). New perspectives really inspired me to help others see what we do differently. It’s a new way of approaching the strategy of events. We’ve had so much of our industry talk about planners “getting a seat at the table” and “the c suite”. That is a very linear path and that is only one hierarchy of need. I think the body of work that the majority of us do as event professionals is wanting to make a difference for others. We’ve mastered logistics. So now, let’s look at the psychology of physical meeting environments as a new way to evaluate what we do and produce even more powerful results.

Q: At a recent Hosts Global education event at IMEX America, you spoke about creating “brain-friendly experiences”, can share a few highlights of your talk with our readers?

A: A couple of things to keep in mind:
1. The brain is a battery and just like our devices it needs recharging. This doesn’t mean that we unplug it; we don’t use it to get recharged. It means that we look for white space for our minds to wander and moments that create emotional texture as a means of recharging. A neurochemical called dopamine could be a recharging moment. Dopamine is increased when we feel happy, when we feel safe, when feel secure, when we see a friend, when we smile to each other. When I smile, I get a little dopamine. Many of our events have educational content delivered by subject matter experts to speak and deliver in-depth content that is often very taxing for the brain. Adding in dopamine moments to allow for brain recharging is where we find the richness of events.
2. The brain is like a seesaw, it needs balance to operate smoothly. The part of the brain that is our executive center and tied to learning and decision-making, the prefrontal cortex or “PFC”, is sensitive and delicate. Like Goldilocks things have to be “just right” for the PFC to work effectively and efficiently. For meeting and event success we should balance igniting the senses and tapping into the PFC in sessions with quiet space to ensure balance.

Brain-friendly tips:
• Selecting a green building as a meeting venue. There’s scientific proof that they enhance cognitive performance – that’s one easy way to ensure a more successful event.
• Examine your agenda for bio and networking breaks AND for cognitive breaks where people can access the outdoors and natural daylight. Having down time to rejuvenate and recharge is essential for development positive attendee experience.

Q: To quote you, “A key to a successful event is not networking, but building a connection that leads to trust” – can you explain and provide our readers with a few examples of ways they can encourage this behavior?

A: As planners we ask our venue partners – What is the benefit of using your venue? We’re focused on the benefits not the features. The same is true with the structure of our event. Networking is a feature, it’s an activity – it is not the benefit. The benefit of having breaks and receptions to network, whether it is formal or informal, is about having unscripted moments to connect with colleagues and friends and have conversations that go off script. What you are really establishing in those unscripted moments is a baseline of trust because you can’t have engagement without trust and vice versa. Establishing social connections with friends and new acquaintances is essential at events.

Q: What are some of the non-brain friendly red flags you notice in meeting and event set-ups? (things our readers should avoid)

A: Be careful when you select music. Think about music as colors and those colors are filling a room. How intense would that color be? We all know when we see something too bright, we shut our eyes. We often think, let’s pick music that’s fun and pumps people up and we turn up the volume. Make sure if you look at it as a color and evaluate how it is filling the room. Is it creating ambience or is it just creating energy or anxiety because it’s too loud, too fast, too noisy?

Another thing to watch out for is entrances to a main event having too much lighting. In this instance, the brain gets overloaded with neurochemicals, adrenaline is pumping, eyes are dilated and then attendees go into a dark room. Help the brain and body transition by having enough space or transition for people to get acquainted to the new surroundings.

Another thing I often see is that there is not enough lighting on a keynote speaker. We can’t hear what we can’t see. 93% of communication is non-verbal. So, if we’re investing in a sound system and microphones it’s only useful if we can see the speaker.

Q: What is the #1 thing our readers can start doing today to make their events more successful?

A: Drive certainty for the attendee. Certainty is one of our most social drivers and calls us to action. During your planning process, for example, making sure that once people register, they get immediate confirmation; their seats, what their attendance includes and doesn’t include, notice that their invitations to private events are coming and by a certain date, not stating “soon”, etc. Certainty is also driven by proximity to people who who are going to help us be successful. For example, when attendees land at airports, having a satellite registration there makes it super easy – I am registered – check, got my name tag – check, heading to my hotel – check. All those certain elements are rewarding for the brain and overall happiness for the attendee.

Want to learn more? Let us know so we can further develop Hosts Global educational content and events to suite your needs.

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