Well-Timed: ‘When’ Author Applies Scientific Insights to Event Scheduling

Author: Michelle Russell       

Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink says he’d like to see more events or sessions take place outside during a conference. (Courtesy Daniel Pink)

It turns out that the five W’s that beginning journalists are taught they must answer in every story, the ones you had to tackle in the opening paragraph of your high-school essay — who, what, where, when, and why — are the same for events. You spend time understanding and marketing to your audience and explaining what they’ll learn and experience, where the event will be held, and your value proposition, i.e., why they should make sure to attend.

But if you’re limiting your thoughts about “when” to the dates of the conference and the times of sessions and activities, The New York Times–bestselling author Daniel H. Pink thinks that you might want to become more intentional about that. Pink started to think more deeply about the right time to do things a few years ago, frustrated by the question of when was the best time to start a project or to abandon one that wasn’t working. “Even more mundane things,” he recently told Convene, “like when in the day should I exercise?”

Daniel PinkHe was making these decisions “in a pretty sloppy, ill-informed way,” he said, and when he tried to find out what experts said about the best time to make decisions, large and small, that guidance did not exist. Pink started to delve into research — across the fields of psychology, biology, neuroscience, and economics — looking for insights about things like circadian rhythms and how we humans perform best at different times of the day. And beyond that, exploring how our behavior is influenced by different days of the week, times of the month, and even the final year in which we spend each decade of our lives.

“I was really blown away by how much research there was,” Pink said,  but the challenge was that it was “splattered across two-dozen different disciplines.” It took him two years, working with one full-time and one half-time research assistant, to distill the findings for When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. He must have learned something in the process because the timing for his book was spot on: It became an instant New York Times and Washington Post bestseller, as well as No. 1 Wall Street Journal Business bestseller.

We asked Pink to look at the world of business events through the lens of When to improve the attendee experience and their outcomes. And since business-event strategists are all about the how, he also offered up ideas organizers can easily put into practice at their next event.

Was this your first book to require research assistants?

Yeah. I needed help collecting all the stuff out there and separating out the signal from the noise and then some of the research used math that was above my head, so I needed someone to help explain it. I wish I were joking, I’m not. I needed someone to help explain that math to me.

It was a massive amount of research. I think what is interesting though — although it may not be to your audience — is that you have these people in all these different disciplines pretty much asking the same questions, but they don’t talk to each other. So they have no idea they are all investigating very, very similar things because they don’t talk to each other across boundaries.

I’d say that is interesting to organizers since many of their events, unfortunately, tend to do the same thing — bring like-minded people together without a multidisciplinary focus. Nonetheless, what most events do excel at is providing education and networking. When, you say that most of us experience the day in three stages: a peak, a trough, and a rebound. With learning and building community as their primary objectives, how should events be programmed from a timing perspective?

It’s going to depend a little bit on the particular goal. But I think in general, if you’re talking about learning — let’s say you’re a professional association and you want to do some continuing education or you have something that is explicitly about learning — I think you’re better off programming that in the mornings rather than in the afternoons or later in the day. It shouldn’t be at 2 in the afternoon and it probably shouldn’t be later in the day.

If you’re looking for things that require different people collaborating on a particular project doing things like maybe cooking together, or doing some groovy [team-building] thing together, I think that those are better for later in the day and early evening when people are in a recovery period. You know from the patterns of the book, people in the morning are more vigilant, so in general it makes it a better time for learning. In the afternoon, people are less vigilant, but their mood has gone back up and so when you’re a little looser and you’re in an elevated mood, that makes it a good time for those more free-wheeling kinds of activities and things like that. I think the real challenge is: What do you do during this dead zone of the mid-afternoon?

Right, what to schedule during the trough — like from 2 to 4 p.m.?

I’m not sure actually, because it’s just not a great time for people. I think that one thing you could do is you could put in shorter programs with more breaks and that would be one way to get around that. So I do think there are some general design principles for meeting planners in all of this. I don’t think that there are specific rules that apply in every situation, though.

So, maybe part of that would be just to have more white space in the program?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely, there are two different things there. Number one is that you do want to have people have breaks. There’s no question about that. Because that white space is actually where a lot of that value happens. It happens on at least two dimensions. Number one is that if you have a session where people are trying to learn something or someone’s trying to present them with new ideas, you need some amount of white space to integrate that, to process that — and to do something with it, which you often do in collaboration with other people. So, giving people a 15-minute break and then start ringing the bell after seven minutes and they have to race back in there, that’s not actually ideal for learning. You want some time to process and to integrate.

The other thing is that a lot of learning happens in a peer-to-peer [way] rather than from a stage-to-audience way. And so you need time for that to work as well. I just feel like a lot of meeting planners feel like if the agenda isn’t jammed, they’re not doing their job.

I think that there is pressure on event organizers to make sure they’re providing value. So when they’re marketing to prospects, they want them to see that the schedule is packed with plenty of sessions to choose from. But the result can be too many choices and not enough downtime.

I want to emphasize that it’s deep time rather than downtime. Because you need that time. Everything we know about learning suggests that you need time to stop and integrate. This is why sleep enhances learning. This is why breaks enhance learning. You need that deep time and that’s not a deviation from the value of the conference; that’s part of the value of the conference. It’s a hard sell, I recognize that. But I really think that’s the way to go — especially if you want repeat attendees. You want people leaving your conference saying, “Wow, that was so great. I’m glad I took two or three days away from the office. I’m backed up on email and I didn’t get this thing done, but it was totally worth it because of all that I learned and the experience of this conference.” That’s what you want and I think you can get that reaction in a less-is-more approach.

In the book, you talked a lot about students and the optimal time to begin the school day. In a manner of speaking, attendees are students. Obviously they’re not teenagers, so they have a different biological clock, but would you say you should start a conference program at 7 in the morning? Nine a.m.?

I don’t think there’s a perfect answer to that. It’s going to depend on the representation of larks [early birds] and [late-night] owls in that group. What we know about the distribution of larks and owls is that about 15 percent of us are very strong early people, 20 percent of us are very strong late people, and two-thirds of us are kind of in the middle. So, in terms of the actual start, maybe you want to offer something super early for the larks and then maybe you want to have at the end of the day [some programming] super late for the owls. But to some extent, if you have a very large conference, you have to do that for the middle. The vast majority of us, myself included, are a little bit of both. In which case I would suggest not starting at 7, but also not starting at 10.

Timing is part of it, but there are other kinds of design principles behind it as well. At some level, it doesn’t really matter so much whether you are starting at 8 or at 9 as much as what can you do to enhance the experience of the people going to those conferences. So if there’s something at 8, you don’t want to have people wandering in there and saying, “Oh, my gosh. I don’t know anybody here. Where am I going to sit?” There should be more intentionality of how you integrate people.

I’ve started to see this a little bit more. Let’s say we’re going to have a breakfast. Why not put little signs on each table for people who are interested in this topic, and people who are interested in that topic? That way you don’t have somebody walking in by themselves with a plate of scrambled eggs, looking for an empty chair, wondering who they can sit with, like it’s a junior-high cafeteria, and having awkward conversations with and randomly sitting next to a stranger. To me, the intentionality is as valuable as the time of day.

Many conferences start off with a motivational general-session speaker so people get excited about what’s to come. Do you think that’s a good thing?

I’m not a big fan of those kinds of pump-you-up kind of presentations — the ones that are very heavy on exhortation and good feeling and light on substance and takeaways. I think that’s basically just a sugar high. Think about it like breakfast. I’ve read that the belief that breakfast is the most important meal of the day is a little bit oversold. But if you have a glazed donut and a coffee, you’re going to be pretty pumped for a half an hour and then you’re going to crash. Whereas, if you have a healthy, balanced breakfast with some protein, you’re going to have that nutrition sustain you for a longer time.

So, rather than a motivational speaker, better to have a speaker who’s going to be talking about something that’s a little more difficult to grasp in the morning, when people are sharper?

Yeah, generally. I think that’s a pretty strong general rule because the majority of people are going to be more vigilant first thing in the morning, somewhat earlier in the day. It doesn’t have to be necessarily at 7, but in the early part of the day rather than the later part of the day for that type of speaker.

It’s complicated for the very first presenter or the very first activity, the very first experience you want to have — as I wrote about in chapter three, beginnings matter a lot. You want to get people off to a good beginning. And so you need to be conscious of having a beginning that delivers not that kind of pump-you-up nonsense, but a sense of purpose. Why are we all here? A sense of belonging. What do we all have in common? That delivers a sense of possibility — “Wow, these next few days are going to be awesome.” I think you have to be very intentional about those kinds of beginnings. Even if the conference starts in the late afternoon or the early evening, I think your first “thing” needs to be intentional because what we know about beginnings is that they have a lingering effect. And so if you have a beginning that establishes a sense of belonging and affiliation — whether it’s a company saying, “Hey, we’re all part of the ACME Widget Company,” or whether it’s a professional association, “Hey, we’re all gastroenterologists,” or whether it’s a trade association, “Yeah, we’re all in the rutabaga-distribution business,” you want that kind of affiliation and the sense of purpose and the sense of potential at the beginning.

Getting back to breakfast not being the most important meal of the day, you say in the book that lunch is, in fact, more critical to our well-being. Conferences tend to put more structure around the luncheon program. How should those be designed?

Well, I think lunches can be a great opportunity for networking and for affiliation and those sorts of things. I think the challenge is that they’re often not intentional enough, so you end up, if you’re a participant, randomly sitting with someone who you might not have anything immediately in common with. There could be more intentionality about seating or even about having some kind of shared ritual at the beginning where everybody gets to know everybody.

Earlier this week I was at lunch at a conference and it was like open seating. It reminded me of junior high where some people will talk to you and some people won’t and I just think that’s a very unpleasant experience for a lot of people. So, maybe there’s some kind of ritual to start the lunch.

The other thing is, typically what happens is that you sit down, you have the lunch, and then when the dessert is passed, someone gets up on stage and talks. That’s pretty standard I think — I’m wondering whether the sequence is not quite right. What you might want is to have a speaker speak and then have the lunch so that people have something to talk about at the lunch itself. It gives strangers something to talk about with each other. What typically happens is that you have the lunch, somebody talks, and then they just race to the next thing and there’s no opportunity for integration or synthesis or talking amongst themselves about it.

One of the problems with our timing decisions is that we just kind of let them happen. So, is it ideal for people to walk into a giant room and go to the first seat that’s available that they can see, playing roulette about who’s going to sit with them? There are probably better, more intentional ways to do that. Perhaps returning to the table topics concept?

It could be table topics. It could be that you have — depending on whether it’s a company or trade association or whatever — tables with team captains whose job is to basically be a good host. When you’re a host, you have certain obligations to make sure that everyone is taken care of, to make sure that everybody knows each other. So maybe it’s assigning every table a host.

You talk in the book about the importance of well-timed naps. Some conferences have actually started putting nap pods out on the floor. What’s your take on that?

I think it’s cool. I think it’s worth experimenting with — less because of the virtues of a nap and more because of the virtues of people having conversations about it, like, “What the heck is a nap pod doing here?” I think it’s a catalyst for conversation and connection. So, why do they have nap pods and what is it like? And if somebody does take that 10-minute nap in the nap pod, what was that like? What’s abundant today are words and data and information. What’s scarce in a lot of people’s lives are meaningful experiences.

A conference is partly about conveying information and ideas — that’s part of it, no question. But it’s also about giving people an experience they can’t have anywhere else. There’s something about being with 100, or 1,000, or 5,000 other people that you can’t replicate online — where you’re in a group, you’re interacting with people whom you haven’t met before, or you’re colliding with people in different industries or whatever. And so to me anything done to enhance the meaningfulness of the experience is really important.

We’ve talked about optimal times of the day, but what does the research say about optimal days during the week to hold an event?

On that one, my suggestion would be just to survey the attendees and see what they think, see what they prefer. On days of the week, the research is really, really all over the place. The one thing we know about days of the week is that Monday is a good day as a fresh-start day and so if a conference is really about reinventing the ACME Widget Company or rethinking what it means to be a massage therapist or something like that that is a big break, I think that starting on a fresh-start date is probably better than not. So Monday would be better than on a Thursday. But on this one, I would defer to the members.

But again, here’s the thing I like about the question: It suggests intentionality. It doesn’t say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what day we do it on.” Well, it probably does. We don’t know, so let’s be intentional about that by asking people, “Hey, do you prefer starting on a Monday? Do you prefer starting this on a Thursday?” And typically what I’ve seen is, event organizers pick a day of the week to do it because that’s what they did last year. At some point, someone picked a day and it just became locked in as the law, cemented for all eternity.

So we’ve covered how to create a sense of a new beginning. How can the conclusion of an event be designed in a way that fulfills our need for meaning?

I think that’s hugely important on both a macro- and a micro-level. What sometimes happens is they’ll have a typical closing keynote. But then what will happen after the closing keynote is that someone will get up there and close it again and then the last thing the audience hears will be something like, “Oh, and don’t forget to get your luggage out of room 104C.” And ending with those logistical things just drains all of the oxygen out of the room.

So I think you have to be intentional about how you end. You want to end in a way that is meaningful and memorable and deepens the sense of affiliation and belonging. And you want to end so that the last thing people experience has a rising sequence, is big, and is memorable. Just end it there.

Talking about endings, sometimes event organizers struggle with getting people to stay until the end of the conference. What’s the best strategy? To save your best speaker for last?

I think you have to make it worth their while to stay until the end. And so maybe it’s a matter of having your best, your richest experience at the very end of it. You’re vying for people’s attention, so on the other hand, it could be that maybe the conference itself should be shorter. If people don’t want to stay until the end, then maybe there’s too much stuff there and you want to edit it down a little bit. I think that regardless, saving the richest, most transcendent experience for the end, whatever that might be, I think is really important.

Based on your own experience as a speaker and attendee, what have you seen that is well done in that respect — and in terms of the event as a whole?

It’s a great question. I think it’s a number of different things, including — although it sounds like an oxymoron — intentional white space. So that it’s almost like a loose/tight thing, that you want some looseness in the white space, but you want a little bit of structure to it so people can use that effectively. What I’ve found is that it’s effective use of white space and a sense of things moving quickly, but not so quickly that it’s a blur. I see so many conferences where people’s name tags are flying and they’re just racing to get to everything and I’m not sure that’s the ideal experience.

That’s one thing. I also think, again, this goes way beyond timing, but experimenting with different kinds of formats and things like that is really important. For instance, I think that the panel discussion should be abolished. It should be outlawed by federal statute. End the madness. It’s the worst form of programming there ever was.

Also, it’s harder to do in a big-scale conference, but require or encourage people to put their devices away, so they actually are in the experience. You could do that, if people are sitting around a table, by having a team captain or host ask everybody to put their phones in a basket on the table so they can actually listen.

I saw this the other day at a conference, the same one that I was mentioning before, where it was an onstage interview. It was so unbelievably boring. It was just bang-your-head-against-the-wall boring. Forgive me for that bluntness. It was an interview onstage and it didn’t feel like the interviewer or the interviewee were enjoying it one bit and everybody was just looking at their phones. You start thinking, why are we even doing this?

I think there are a lot of new formats that are possible that aren’t being fully explored because our muscle memory is a 45-minute keynote and then a bunch of breakouts and then a few panel discussions. There are a lot of opportunities for meeting planners to really shake things up and get people to learn and experience more.

I’d also like to see more stuff actually done outside. You could have like a networking thing where you get matched to someone and you go outside and take a 10-minute walk together.

Oh, I like that. Taking people outside.

There’s some interesting research and I’m surprised by it — some decent learning takes place when you take a class outside. If someone were to ask me: “Dan, what would be the ideal venue for learning something or having a great experience?” — my first answer would not be a ginormous, windowless ballroom.

I had this one thing happen to me years ago where I was talking at some event — the fire alarm went off about 10 minutes into my presentation. It turned out that there was a fire in the basement. It wasn’t dangerous, but we had to leave the building. Everybody went outside, there were maybe 150 people there. And I just stood up on a bench and said, “Okay, let me tell you some more about what I was talking about.” And it was great. Everybody was outside, they were into it, they were relaxed. I think it was in San Diego and so the weather was good and people were kind of looser because they were outside.

What do you get out of presenting?

While conferences should be designed with the attendees in mind, I think it’s an opportunity for the people who are presenting, who are often part of the trade or professional association or whatever, to learn, too. I certainly learn a lot when I go out and do talks, from people saying, “Hmm. Have you ever thought about this? What about that? What do you mean by that?” And so the questions that people ask when you take your ideas off the page and into the flesh-and-blood world, the way people respond and the questions they ask can often lead you to other really interesting things.

More from Daniel Pink

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