Four Ways to Make Events More Immersive Experiences

In our latest Meetings and Your Brain column, we look at how findings from research on training programs can help event organizers create more memorable and extraordinary experiences for their audiences.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

audience member taking microphone

Asking audience members to participate in a session, or simply asking them questions, brings up their immersion levels.

Paul Zak, a neuroscience researcher and professor at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, uses the term “immersion” to describe the set of brain signals that appear when we are having extraordinary experiences, which sets them apart, making them more enjoyable, memorable, and influential than ordinary experiences. Most of those signals happen in our unconscious, according to Zak, the author the recent book Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and the Source of Happiness. Asking people to identify those experiences isn’t a very efficient way to measure immersion, because people can’t accurately report on their unconscious emotional experiences. “Emotions are the currency of memory because they tag information as valuable,” he writes. “Even though the brain produces language, it cannot accurately reveal its unconscious emotional responses.”

Instead, using software that measures physiological reactions tied to the brain’s emotional state, Zak has consulted for clients ranging from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to grocery store chains and advertising agencies. He also partnered with the professional services company Accenture to collect thousands of hours of neurological data measuring the effectiveness of their training programs.

Here are some highlights from the research on training, which can easily inform conference program design:

Ask audiences to participate. No matter how funny or talented a speaker is, the longer they are on stage, the more the audience’s immersion erodes. Immersion goes back up however, if speakers ask audience members to participate by reflecting on the material or discussing it with others. “Immersion increases the most when a speaker asks learners to solve a problem or create something with new information,” Zak writes.

Make the lunch break a real break. Lunch sessions, even those with senior leaders, produce neural fatigue. And without time to rest, the first session after a working lunch also has low engagement rates. People need cognitive and emotional recovery periods — meals provide a chance for learners to rebuild energy stores and so does time spent socializing. Based on the research, Accenture now schedules more breaks between sessions: “Recovery,” according to Zak, “can occur in as little as 10 minutes, so breaks can be short but should be frequent.”

Almost nobody listens to introductions. The data shows that everyone — except the person speaking — is neurologically frustrated when meetings start with everyone going around the room introducing themselves. There are better ways to connect participants with one another — such as badges that say “Ask me about [fill in the blank],” which invite other participants to connect on personal and professional interests.

Get people moving. Coordinated movement — even clapping — spikes immersion. Create reasons for people to get up and move. It will warm them up emotionally and cognitively.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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