Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

March 2013

CMP Series: Audio/Visual/Neurological

By Barbara Palmer, Senior Editor

screen,” Sullivan said. Our brains process text by first translating it into spoken words, but images don't go through that step. So if you're trying to lighten the cognitive load and aid learning, adding a lot of printed words is counterproductive.

It also matters whether the images you add match the subject the speaker is talking about. Ruth Colvin Clark, president of Clark Training & Consulting and an expert in instructional design, has written about what she terms “pumpkin slides” — the temptation to dress up slides with decorative visuals like Halloween jack-o'-lanterns. Slides that are unrelated to the topic, according to Clark, not only don't add any boost in learning, they actually can decrease it.

2. Sounds are more effective than images for getting attention. As sensory input, sound runs a distant second to visuals in terms of learning: 11 percent of learning is auditory. But used judiciously, sound is more effective than visuals at getting our attention, Sullivan said. (One of her favorite quotes about sound, she said, comes from Italian researcher Elisabetta Làdavas: “Unlike our eyes, our ears can never be shut.”)

Sound can also focus our attention and make learning more engaging, including by keeping out competing sensory stimuli. In order to be effective and to strengthen the effect of visual elements, sounds should be appropriate to the point being made. Even something simple — the sound of a phone ringing at the same time that a photo of a phone appears on a slide — can cement learning. Sullivan said: “That is so much more powerful than either one alone.”

Similarly, irrelevant or competing sounds can decrease learning, such as noise from other rooms and hallways. Some people are so sensitive to sound, Sullivan said, that even the hum from a fluorescent light distracts their attention.

3. The music should count. One form of audio sensory input, according to Sullivan, is so powerful that it activates nearly every region of the brain: music. Depending on the rhythm and tone, it can energize or relax us, boost intelligence, engage the emotions, and support memory.

You can use music at your meetings to create moods, aid in transitions between spaces, and generate emotions targeted to what you want people to feel at specific times; a recurring musical theme can help attendees recall targeted moments. If you doubt the power of music to create emotionally charged memories, Van Dyke told the Convening Leaders audience, just think of the theme song to the movie “Jaws.” Yet despite the power of music to engage attendees, planners often fail to use it strategically. Van Dyke said: “They'll tell us, ‘Just throw in a little walk-in music.’”

Much of the buzz at Microsoft's annual global sales meeting is given over to wondering what song CEO Steve Ballmer will choose to accompany his talk, Quigley added. Ballmer chooses the music himself, and it always fits his message. “To have someone at that level … know that [music] is important,” Quigley said, “is pretty cool.”

4. Color influences our mood — and our thinking. Although meeting rooms are often neutral, with white and gray walls and artificial lighting, that kind of “sensory poverty” creates environments where the brain is not stimulated enough and leads to less engagement and learning, Sullivan said.

But adding color without considering the effect it will have on attendees can backfire. “We seem to have a species-wide response to certain stimuli, including physiological responses to certain colors,” Sullivan said. For example, warm colors, such as reds and oranges, produce animated states, while blue creates a quiet, inward focus. In one study, students tested in a room with red walls scored better on tests that required attention to detail and accuracy. Subjects in a room with blue walls did worse on those tasks, but were twice as imaginative and creative as students in the red room.

“If I am doing brainstorming or strategic planning, I will definitely bring in blue in one form or another,” Sullivan said. “I do project management trainings, and when we are working on risk management and budgets and all that detailed stuff, I will use red in one form or another. Either I will have it in my PowerPoint slides or I will use red paper.”

Quigley has used a strategic combination of the two schemes at a Microsoft event, bringing jolts of bright, hot color into an environment bathed mostly in cooler colors. The spots of color “bring energy,” Quigley said, and reset how attendees are thinking about things. “They are fun flashes that make [attendees] energized and ready to go.”

Putting It Into Practice

Sullivan's research on biology and learning has changed how she approaches the way she herself presents information, including the attention she pays to AV. “I used to be focused, like everybody else, on, let's make sure that the quality is good, let's make sure there are no interfering noises, let's make sure that we have enough microphones in the room,” she said. “Now I want the screen to be right, I want there to be some music — I want it to be the right music. I want the speakers to be placed properly.”

She also makes sure that the environment will stimulate rather than dull the senses. “If I am going into a corporate training [session] and the space is white and gray — that starkly neutral thing — I will bring in flowers or I will bring in some plants,” she said. “I will bring in a little visual something for people to look at.”

Sullivan's orchestration of the presentation at Convening Leaders didn't just convey the principles about how AV can affect learning; it demonstrated them, with a mix of images, animations, colors, recurrent music, body movement, and surprise. “If you look at my slides, they are all in alignment,” she said. “I work very hard not to overload, I chunk material — it all goes back to learning design.”

Earn Your CEU Hour

Here's how to earn your CEU hour. Once you finish reading this CMP Series article, read the report “Audiovisual Technologies and Adult Learning in Meetings,” produced by BrainStrength Systems and PSAV Presentation Services, at convn.org/psav-brain.

To earn one hour of CEU credit, visit pcma.org/convenecmp to answer questions about the information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material

The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.

Sidebar: We All Scream for Large Screens

Research on screen size is just beginning, but studies have shown that viewers pay more attention and have better memory of what they have seen when it appears on a large screen, compared with a smaller screen. “The larger the image,” said PSAV Presentation Services’ Greg Van Dyke, “the more powerful the emotional response.”

Studies also argue against a presentation setup where attendees are asked to toggle their attention back and forth between two screens, with the speaker in the middle. Although that configuration is common, it means that attendees have to think about where they're looking. A better solution for presenting multiple images, Van Dyke said, is one large, wide screen, with technology blending any competing images.

Sidebar: Be Your Meeting's Maestro

Given that music has a huge potential for emotionally engaging attendees and reinforcing meeting content, it's surprising that such a small number of event organizers invest much energy in hitting the right notes, according to PSAV Presentation Services’ Greg Van Dyke.

Van Dyke asked PSAV's producers for ideas on where meeting planners can find musical resources, and got the following feedback: First off,

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