New Research Considers Human-Centered Meeting Design

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Human-Centered Meeting Design

‘Purposeful Meetings’ research initiative is multidisciplinary deep dive into human behavior and meeting design.

“At the end of the day,” says Janet Sperstad, CMP, “we’re all human.”

That observation is at the heart of a new study that Sperstad, program director of the meeting and event management degree at Madison College, is writing with Amanda Cecil, Ph.D., CMP, associate professor and chair of Indiana University’s School of Physical Education and Tourism Management. Titled “Purposeful Meetings: How to Plan With Deeper Meaning, Innovation, and Insight in Mind,” the multidisciplinary study is intended to move the strategic conversation about meetings beyond financial ROI and learner outcomes, according to a survey Sperstad and Cecil sent out, and to “the elements of a meeting experience that impact human behavior and leverage the experience to influence decision-making, create moments of meaning and insight, and inspire creativity.”

plenary-janet-sperstadSperstad will present results from the study at IMEX in Frankfurt, Germany, this month. The final report, supported by IMEX and PSAV, will be delivered at IMEX America in Las Vegas in October.

Sperstad brings knowledge gained not only as an event planner and event-management educator to the task, but as a student of the human brain and human behavior. She has a master’s degree in neuroleadership, which combines neuroscience with areas including leadership development, management training, and education. This new research won’t appear in a peer-reviewed journal, Sperstad said, “because our industry doesn’t go to those, academics do. I’m a person who really cares about practical work. I care about what we do and that the information is very usable. And while I want to advance the knowledge in our event-professional academic world, I still want to help the people doing the work do the best work they can do.”

Nor will this be a typical 30-page white paper. “It’s going to be pieces that we hope inspire curiosity, that we hope will inspire people to agree with and to disagree with,” Sperstad said. “Because if they disagree, they’re engaged in the conversation. Our goal is to pique curiosity and to shed light in areas that [meeting professionals] wouldn’t normally think of.”

As an industry, “we’re focused on the logistics, on doing the work, but the study is really about the bigger picture of reframing the outcome of our work,” she said. “Meetings and events are the strongest way to influence someone, because 95 percent of communication is nonverbal. So when you get together with people, whether it’s a thousand people or 10, you have a bigger opportunity to influence decision-making and creativity, because bringing people together brings in different perspectives.

“In the very tumultuous world that we’re in right now, meetings and events professionals can be solution providers,” Sperstad said. “When somebody has a problem or wants to create a new product, they call people like us who design experiences to bring in new people, new perspectives, and new ideas.”

“Purposeful Meetings” will be organized around five pillars, which Sperstad described as:


“This is really about looking at and understanding how the human brain works when we’re in a social environment. We are looking at memory and learning, but also at how events and event outcomes are tied to good communication and, not just networking, but genuine connections. And we are looking at how events improve decision-making and influence.”


“This is obviously nutrition, but it’s also mindfulness and meditation. I keep asking Amanda, ‘How do we help people walk away healthier and happier than when they came?’ At meetings and events, we hydrate them, we feed them, we enrich their minds, yet people walk away exhausted. Their brains don’t have to have this withdrawal of dopamine, like they’re on the downside of a sugar rush. And we’re also really curious around that question of moving away from ‘digital dementia’ and device overload.”


“My first white paper, Mindful Event Design, was really driven around a physical sense of meeting design. This will be less about exploring the physical and more about the senses, about what is happening cognitively in an environment. We have a multisensory response to everything around us, and we are looking at how we leverage that for learning and for collaboration.”


“It’s really rare for a large meeting and event to take place without having some affiliation to a local nonprofit. What we’re looking at here isn’t old-fashioned philanthropy. We are looking at how positive actions, when intentionally woven into meetings and events, can provide new levels of meaning and connection for the participants.

“We know that people under 35 are really interested in experience over ownership. And we’re also looking at how to tap into the rising passion for conserving natural resources and protecting the environment. How do we push people even further than just rethink, reuse, reduce, recycle?”


“This is such an interesting area, because there’s so much happening right now with artificial intelligence and wearable and intuitive technology — even robotics. We are thinking about how it’s now changed the way we do business and the way we connect and live, and how we as event professionals can bring this into our events in a meaningful way, based on what our objectives are and our stakeholder needs are.

“The question is: How can technology help drive deeper meaning, and not just drive data collection? How can technology accelerate connections? How does it help participants accelerate new ideas and be creative? Technology is only a tool — it’s not a result. So how does technology help us without becoming the focus?”

Human-Centered Meeting Design

“Purposeful Meetings” will be organized around five pillars.

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