AV technology offers a direct path to your attendees’ brains. Use it well, and you can make their learning more effective, resonant — and engaging.
Thumbnail illustration by Laurent Cilluffo
When Andrea E. Sullivan, founder of BrainStrength Systems, began speaking about neuroscience 12 years ago, she was careful not to actually use the word “brain” in the titles of her talks. “Brain science — nobody knew what that was about,” said Sullivan, who holds a master's degree in organizational psychology, and whose Philadelphia-based company specializes in using brain-based principles to help individuals and companies improve performance. “They were like, ‘Brain what?’” It was almost that basic. “I used to start my presentations asking people, ‘So who here has a brain?’ I would say, ‘Okay, [your brain] is a part of your body, part of your mind, and this is who you are.’ No clue.”
Both the field of neuroscience and public understanding of how the brain works have come a long way since then. Sullivan's basic interest is in “helping people understand how we work — specifically how our biology works — so that we can work better,” she said. “And we really have not had that information until neuroscience really started taking off 20 years ago.”
One of Sullivan's specialties is meetings — a focus that grew out of her interest in how the modern brain contends with the amount of stimuli we encounter on a daily basis. “It's really a huge issue for our society — that we are all learning to use our brains differently to deal with information overload and an overload of stimulation from our many digital technologies,” she said. “And with meetings and events, there is a big question: How do we actually go to these things and retain anything?”
But Sullivan didn't drill down into the specific role that audiovisual technology could play in learning at meetings until she participated in an industry event as part of a panel alongside Greg Van Dyke, senior vice president for global sales and marketing at PSAV Presentation Services. After hearing Sullivan speak about neuroscience and technology, Van Dyke asked her to partner with him on a project that looked at brain science and AV. “I said okay,” Sullivan said. “We all talk about a lot of things when we are leaving conferences, right? I did not give it a second thought.”
But Van Dyke persisted, and eventually Sullivan dug into the project, looking at how the ever-expanding capacity of technology to project images, sound, and color could be grounded in neuroscience principles and theories to help planners use AV most effectively. Sullivan came away convinced that event technology deserved to be treated as a key component of meeting design — not just another logistical detail. “Knowing what we know now about how the brain processes information and about how we experience events,” she said, AV “really needs to be a part of a learning design and a strategy.”
That's already happening at many events, according to Sullivan. But she sees a lot of haphazard event technology being used as it always has been — without a lot of thought. “Some people,” Sullivan said, “are just looking at the price point when they do their AV: ‘How can we get what we need for the lowest price?’”
Or, on the flip side, some planners may load up on so many audiovisual elements that it ends up being counterproductive. “I see things [where] somebody really went through a lot of trouble to create an experience, but they end up with an overload or with an environment that is really not conducive to people feeling good. They are looking to create something wonderful, only they do not follow any principles. They go by feel and intuition, but they just don't have enough information yet.”
To help fill that gap, Sullivan and PSAV coproduced a white paper called “Audiovisual Technologies and Adult Learning in Meetings,” which doesn't just offer AV strategies that capitalize on how attendees’ brains work, but also explains the science behind them. While meeting planners don't necessarily need to be steeped in neuroscience, it's helpful for them to know the principles and applications — if only to understand the odds against any single bit of sensory information lodging in an attendee's brain.
“We are taking in about 1 million bits of information every second, but we can be conscious of only 16 to 40 bits,” Sullivan told a packed audience at Convening Leaders 2013 this past January, where, along with Van Dyke and Kati Quigley, CMP, senior director for worldwide partner community events at Microsoft, she presented the session “Using AV to Enhance Learning, Memory, and the Meeting Experience.” (The information for this story comes from the presentation, the white paper, and an interview with Sullivan.)
“We are taking in all this information through our senses, but sensory memory is really short — we're talking fractions of a section,” Sullivan said. “We miss most of what happens. We have to get out of thinking that people learn and remember just because we tell them something.”
When sensory information is noticed, it goes into our working memory, which can be compared to a sieve. “Without rehearsal, we can only hold about four elements of information in our working memory at any given time,” Sullivan said, “and information — if it is not rehearsed — is lost after 30 seconds.” Learning occurs when stimuli are processed in working memory and then stabilized in our long-term memories. Meeting planners can increase the odds of information being noticed and processed, Sullivan said, by taking advantage of the brain's ability to integrate stimuli that come through multiple senses.
When both auditory and visual channels are activated, for example, learners generate two mental representations — auditory and visual — and build connections between them. “Our brains do this little miracle, that neuroscientists don't quite understand, of compiling all the information from the different senses into one experience in real time,” Sullivan said. “The more areas of the brain that we activate, the more brain cells communicate with each other and maintain associations. Combining sensory input around a concept can really enforce learning.”
But you can have too much of a good thing. Simply piling on sensory stimulation may look good on the surface — and make for a superficially dazzling presentation — but massive amounts of color and sound produce a sense of overload and an inability to process information in a meaningful way, Sullivan said. Instead, you should use visual and auditory principles in ways that allow you to produce the specific experiences you want.
Among the key principles of brain-friendly AV:
1. Learning increases when you add images to spoken words. Sight is by far our most dominant sense, using up to 50 percent of the brain's resources. Indeed, Sullivan said, 83 percent of learning occurs visually.
Educational research has further shown that audiences retain an average of about 10 percent of what a speaker says. But add visual images, and that figure shoots up to 65 percent. “Do not throw out PowerPoint!” Sullivan said. “It's unbelievable how much visual imagery adds to our learning. But you need to use it properly.”
One way to use PowerPoint improperly is to load slides up with printed text. The research cited above, which showed a 55-percent increase in retention of information when images were added to a presentation, did not include slides with printed text. “Text is really inefficient on a