Does Making for a Slightly Uncomfortable Experience Help Attendees Learn?

Author: David McMillin       

At most conferences, attendees arrive with a good idea of what they’ll be doing for the next few days. If they’re using the event’s mobile app, they might even receive reminders of what time each session begins with instructions to help navigate their way around the venue. Without any surprises in store, attendees focus best, right?

Not necessarily. In fact, making an experience feel too familiar can lull attendees into autopilot mode, and make them less receptive to learning new things. “We are very mindful that people can only retain so much information,” said Kelly Coppola, senior director of business event strategy at PCMA. “The traditional education model does little to address that challenge.”

At the upcoming PCMA Education Conference in New York, June 11–14, Coppola wants to elevate participants’ experience in a seemingly contradictory way: By making the program a bit unpredictable. On Monday afternoon, attendees will join groups of their peers who share similar interests, based on the content they pre-selected in their registration profiles. But they won’t know where they will experience that content — until they’re en route to their respective venues, Coppola said. “It’s meant to be provocative; to make everyone just a bit uncomfortable.”

Because “this community plans for a living,” she said, “them want to know these details. But we believe that this will activate their senses in a more creative manner than if they simply choose a venue.”

Coppola’s belief that feeling slightly off kilter will increase attendees’ ROI is supported by scientific research — being in new or uncomfortable situations is linked to increased levels of dopamine in the brain and increased memory retention.

Giving Attendees Some Sense of Comfort and Control

While Monday afternoon will surprise attendees, many of them will feel more in charge during Tuesday’s program, when they will be helping to determine what’s on the agenda. “We’re framing crowdsourcing a bit differently this year,” said Carrie Johnson, senior program manager at PCMA. “Instead of having topics [to choose from], we’re inviting everyone to embrace the concept of the power of questions.”

Attendees can submit questions via the mobile app. Using a formula that kickstarts the question process, attendees can complete one of three introductory phrases — how might we, what happens if, and how do you — and vote on questions they would most like to discuss. Johnson said the PCMA team will pull the data on Monday night to program the sessions for the following day. “We believe this new approach can create a more useful brainstorm throughout the entire Education Conference community,” Johnson said. “It can unlock the most pressing questions and pave the way to the most thought-provoking conversations.”

Stay tuned to to know when the app is available for download.

Interested in learning more about the power of questions? Check out this feature on the topic in Convene.

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