The 4 Stages of Learning in a Brain-Based Event
There has been an increased focus on events that are produced in a brain-friendly way and result in knowledge transfer in the meeting and event industry. An event should produce measurable results and fit specific learning outcomes.
However, in order for permanent, real learning to occur, the brain has to go through four stages. They are: Preparation, Presentation, Integration and Performance. Unfortunately, most of these stages are either ignored or mismanaged in the course of a typical event.
Stage one: Preparation: This is where the learner's mind gets into an optimal state to receive information. This state is characterized by:
- Arousal of interest/curiosity
- Strong desire for the learning or the benefits from learning
- Outwardly focused/aware state
- Clear about the goals of learning
Without preparing the student for the learning, the student has no compelling reason to learn and retain the material.
What happens in a “typical” event: Very little information-focused preparation for the event occurs, aside from a few invites, surveys, etc. Once at the event, the attendees enter the ballroom. The environment is familiar to the brain and it draws clear conclusions: “This is going to be more of the same”. Time to get out the smartphone. . . Previous associations of meetings being painful or a waste of time cause immediate disengagement.
Without proper preparation, not only does the brain revert to potentially negative meeting stereotypes, but it fails to connect the event with personal relevance. If something is not relevant, then it won’t be remembered.
Stage two: Presentation: The learner encounters the learning. Optimally the information is presented in a multi-sensory delivery using a variety of brain-friendly techniques:
- Appealing to all intake modalities (VAK)
- Shift of focus every 6-8 minutes
- Big picture to detail
- Utilizing novelty, humor, storytelling, etc. to engage the learner
If the material isn't presented in a way that is interesting and engaging to the learner, it won't sink in and the mind will wander. If it doesn't match their "intake style" (VAK), they wont fully receive the message.
What happens in a “typical” event: Presentation is the main focus of most events—after all, it’s all about presenting the material—whether it’s a keynote speech, learning module or executive summary. This is where most meeting professionals spend their time- but presentation without the other 3 stages of learning is a waste of time—presentation does NOT equal retention.
In the typical corporate event most presentations DON'T appeal to all learning styles; presenters tend to present in their own preferred style. This may mean that a person who is highly visual presents picture slides, but offers little interpretation. Speakers who use their PowerPoint slides to be personally comfortable with their own material tend to overload the audience—subjecting them to “death by PowerPoint”.
There's no shift in focus so the attention span of an attendee is maxed out within the first 8 minutes of a presentation and "brain overload" occurs.
Stage three: Integration: At this point the learner becomes inward-focused as he makes meaning of the new learning. This is a time of feedback, testing, making sense; combining the new learning with previously stored memories to create new neural connections.
If Integration doesn't occur, it's unlikely that the learning will get embedded into long-term memory.
What happens in a “typical” event: The “what does this mean” connection doesn’t occur, nor is there time for reflection and application. One speaker is typically lined up right after another and another (sometimes under the guise of trying to fit as much “learning” in as possible) without brain breaks, and the information becomes compressed and forgotten.
Stage four: Ongoing performance: Memory encoding and strengthening occurs here as the learner tries out and performs the new learning. While some might correctly argue that a portion of performance must occur outside of the event and on the job, the event can also be a vehicle for ongoing performance.
What happens in a “typical” event: There is no review of information after it’s presented, and no hands-on application, even if it’s viable. Typically, there is no strategy introduced within the event to connect it to life and learning AFTER the event, so the expectation of ongoing learning and preparation for retention is not met.
The Environment of the Event
That's right. When an audience walks into a room that is staged (albeit with thematic differences) exactly like an event-as-usual, you send the message that it'll be an event as usual. Their brains prepare for the same old death by PowerPoint, the same old line of speakers, the same old cocktail hour in the evening and golf tournament on the second day. If you're making the effort to produce a transformational event--like on the audience has never seen before--better start with the environment of the room.
Now I'm not saying that the room needs to be fancy, overproduced or expensive, it just needs to communicate what you're going to expect out of the audience/participants.
Rounds instead of classroom/theater seating: Send the message that it isn't just a sit-down-and-listen meeting. There will be collaboration, interaction...and intimate experience in an audience of possibly hundreds. Encourage people to get to know their round-mates right away, and even consider putting kinesthetic devices (a.k.a. toys, notebooks, play-doh) on the rounds.
Make use of peripheral visuals: Use the sides of the room to reinforce your message. Put up key points, slogans and sayings, a collective "sharing" board for insights, a road map of the event, etc. Not only will these make an impact upon entry and allow attendees to immediately begin to engage with the event, but throughout the day/s they'll reinforce messaging both consciously and subconsciously.
Pay attention to the music: Most events are preceded by some sort of walk-in music. Usually, it's some sort of popular blend that the A/V crew might have on hand, and it's not something that is typically planned out to a great degree. Leading the event with purposeful, high-energy, positive music that gets people clapping/dancing/chatting as they walk in can set the tone for an interactive event. (Just don't rely on energetic music to carry attendees past the opening if the rest of the event isn't engaging.)
Control the entrance: Don't just have attendees trickle in willy-nilly, chatting or checking their Blackberries as they mull about and wait for everything to get started. Keep the doors closed until people are mostly there. Have leaders in the room already, greeting the attendees and directing them to tables. Have PowerPoint branding/messaging up directing attendees to stay on their feet and clap along to the music.
Of course, these are just *some* suggestions. But whatever you do, if you don't want to communicate that this is an event as usual, don't start your attendees off in the "usual" environment.
The Award Ceremony Conundrum
Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh. However, clients, production companies and audience members alike have expressed such derision within my hearing at some point or another.
Then why do we still do award ceremonies?
Because they can be really, really meaningful to people and very motivational. When we're not the subject of the ceremony, it's easy to forget the impact of recognition. I first realized this when one of my family members won an award at their company and were invited to the award ceremony. It was a *huge* thing for them, and their excitement and enthusiasm was palpable.
In short--award ceremonies are important, but problematic. They're a big deal to those nominated or winning awards, and a potential bore to those in the audience, (perhaps that's punishment for not winning...) or award winners after their portion is done.
So how do we deal with this? There are a few ways we can start to improve award ceremonies:
Break the awards up into chunks during the day. I know the traditional award ceremony night appeals to many--and can take the place of another structured evening of entertainment--but we've found great success in breaking up the awards into categories and presenting them in between other topics/speakers in a general session. Not only does this give small bursts of recognition and makes the whole day about recognition, but it also gives the audience a break from straight content, or presenter after presenter after presenter.
Break the awards up with other content during the award event. Having dinner during an award ceremony is fine, but there are other business matters that can be addressed here as well. We were at an association awards dinner where there were awards, then a keynote, then awards, then dinner, then swearing in of new board leadership, then the final awards.
Increase the pace of the awards. This is really a band-aid fix, but there are ways to speed up award ceremonies. Include the bios/qualifications of all nominees in a program can eliminate lengthy readings. Holding applause until the end is a way of cutting down on transition time. Having a big group picture at the end of the night instead of having individuals come on stage, get their award, snap a picture and leave can also be a time saver.
Add entertainment! There are a few different ways to add entertainment to an award ceremony. I'm not talking a juggling act or dinner act or any other kind of hired entertainment. (Though that can be a diverting part of an award ceremony, it can make the rest of the presentation look even more deadly-dull in contrast unless there are other entertaining elements incorporated.)
Engaging hosts--We'll often pair two dynamic presenters together, get them out from behind the podium and let them have a dialogue. Humor is key, but no cheesy Oscar-style jokes allowed. Professional emcees are also a great option.
Engaging presentation--We've often pared down award PowerPoint, added in stories, metaphors, etc., so that it's not just a presentation as usual, it has captivating elements. You can change the format of the actual award presentation, too. I.e. We once had nominees "compete" in a game show format.
Video clips, multimedia, sketches, etc.--Don't just give award attendees a PowerPoint deck framed by an immaculate stage. Pick out relevant video clips (or create your own), present in a song, add in audience participation activities, etc.
Homer Simpson Builds a Computer: An Event Design Parable
Ever-ambitious, he gathers up the necessary supplies and assembles his masterpiece. He knows that a computer needs a keyboard, so he gets a typewriter. He finds a television set for a monitor. He attaches a CD player for a CD-rom drive. This continues on. All the elements come together and finally, Homer has a machine with all the functional parts of a computer.
But it doesn't work.
Just because all the elements are there, doesn't mean that it can perform the desired function, or produce the correct result.
We see the same thing happen with a lot of presentations in an event. (Or an event as a whole.) Not that we'd dare say that any meeting planner is akin to Homer Simpson, but they fall into the same trap.
They have the PowerPoints. They have the presenters. They have the content. They have the audience. They have the staging and breaks and food and evening activites. ALL elements have been collected, put together, and voila! Event!
The problem is, these individual elements don't make an event. Just as a computer is more than the sum of its parts, an event has to have every element designed with the outcome in mind. Just having content doesn't mean that the audience will absorb it. Having PowerPoint doesn't mean that there's a good presentation.
This is where event design comes in. When the event is designed with the brain in mind, instead of the individual elements that make up an event, the audience walks away knowing, doing and believing in the key objectives. Next time an event is being produced, don't just think about each element going into place--think about the whole direction of the event.
Cartoons in the Senate
Now, we're not touching the political aspects of the cartoon, proposed bill or Al Franken. What we *would* like to comment on, however, is how effective the showing of the cartoon is in making a point and as a presentation tool.
True to the form of editorial cartoons, this illustrates the crux of the issue in a highly visual manner. Senator Franken was able to leverage this to make a point that the public can easily relate to. Instead of trivializing the issue by being a cartoon--it highlighted his presentation in a way that was clear and engaging.
We've seen similar cartoons make their way into keynote speeches. Besides illustrating and highlighting particular points, they also make the audience stop, laugh and pay attention. The absurdity, the humor, the visual format all combine to make them an incredibly effective tool in a presentation.
So Senator Franken used a cartoon...and now everyone's talking about his presentation. Agree or disagree with his points; one has to admit that it's rare that a run-of-the-mill, every-day Senate presentation makes much of a ripple in mainstream news media. We doubt that such a stir would have been made if he used a PowerPoint slide rife with bullet points.
"We Have Met the Enemy, and He is PowerPoint"
Full text is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html?no_interstitial
The slide to the left was used to explain military strategy. Do you get it? Apparently, neither does anyone else--showing the striking lack of clarity that relying on PowerPoint can bring to a presentation.
A few quotes out of the article (emphasis and italics mine):
“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps
Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations. . . [likened] PowerPoint to an internal threat.
“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said. . . “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”
Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that sitting through some PowerPoint briefings is “just agony,”
Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.
Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information.
Wow. Those are some pretty powerful statements from some people who have the responsibility to convey information effectively to the troops, higher ups, strategists, etc. The highlighted points in particular are both astounding and accurate:
Sitting through PowerPoint can be agony.
PowerPoint relieves the speaker of the responsibility to convey a concise, persuasive point.
PowerPoint is great when the goal is not imparting information.
And yet, PowerPoint is used almost exclusively in corporate presentations. What we've seen through the years has been right in line with the impressions of the article. Speakers all too often use PowerPoint as a crutch, and all too often, the PowerPoint itself hinders the ability to convey information--which is the opposite of its intention.
“There’s a lot of PowerPoint backlash, but I don’t see it going away anytime soon,” said Capt. Crispin Burke, an Army operations officer at Fort Drum, N.Y.It's not going away in the corporate space anytime soon either. So what can we do about it? Find the best ways to use PPT as a TOOL instead of an obtusification device. I've spoken a lot about PowerPoint on this blog here, giving tips such as making PPTs clean, clear, concise, not having them be speaking notes, etc. Those are just a start. Perhaps we need to seriously rethink our stance on PPT as a given--or cut back drastically. After all, if the military can see it, shouldn't a CEO/VP/VIP?
What's New Versus What's Needed.
No, I'm not opposed to change or to doing something different within an event, but this approach is extremely problematic and it tends to create extreme parties and disparate event elements: The "it's not broke, don't fix it" camp and the "we can't do something they've seen before" camp.
All with attention on what's NEW instead of what's NEEDED.
Because I highly doubt that whatever new and novel juggler/act/entertainment/technology/game/etc. is really going to hide the fact that all the attendees have seen the same old PowerPoint from presenters. And novelty is great, but novelty with a purpose is even better.
Oftentimes, we'll be asked to do an AniMate for an event--something that a lot of attendees have not seen--or at least experienced--before. When we produce an AniMate character, the first thing we ask is how it will further the outcomes of the event. No outcomes? Okay, let's put down your outcomes. A presenter wants to interact with the AniMate? Okay, let's work on your presentation.
We end up doing much more than adding a novelty and consequently, though the attendees will have "seen it before", the characters are frequently brought back in subsequent years (for example).
The most frustrating thing to hear is this conversation:
"But we've done that before."
"Did it work?"
"Yeah, they loved it! And it was very effective."
"Then why aren't you doing it again?"
"Because we've done that before."
I understand the tendency to gravitate toward the novel, to impress with new technology and new elements, but if the rest of the event isn't going to change (it's still going to be a line of presenters one after another--a proverbial death-by-PowerPoint firing squad) then adding new bells and whistles is going to be a waste of money (and no wonder audiences will have little tolerance for what has "been done" if it's not on-purpose).
The point is, the search for novelty without factoring in what the event really needs is a futile endeavor. Sometimes what the event needs is what worked the last time. Sometimes the event needs something different. And sometimes the core elements of the event need to be reevaluated, and the novelty is nice to have, but not needed.
Up in the Air about Virtual Meetings
This weekend, I watched the recent blockbuster "Up in the Air", and I couldn't help but revisit the topic.
Putting all romantic and personal growth plot lines aside, at the heart of the movie is a company considering switching its face-to-face business into the virtual conferencing space. They're doing it for the reasons that I see a lot of companies eschewing in-person meetings for online conferences:
• It saves significant money on travel costs
• It saves time/energy on traveling
• It's new technology and therefore appealing
• It theoretically provides the information needed
BUT this company fires people--that's their product. George Clooney's character argues that this simply can't be done any way but face to face. By the end of the movie, the company has transitioned back to sending people on the road for in-person meetings instead of continuing to use the virtual solution.
Interesting to note here that this seems like a prime example of where virtual meetings would be most useful. All the numbers add up, the technology is there, etc. But at the heart of the movie we find that there are just some messages that have to be delivered face to face. People were insulted that they were told such life-changing news as a layoff, and there wasn't even the courtesy of having a person in the room with them. They were stuck staring at a video screen. How cold.
Companies utilizing virtual technology are, in some instances, doing so in reaction to economic hardship of some sorts. It's a cost-saving measure like anything else. But when they're not meeting in person, and are delivering OTHER economically sensitive news, what message is that sending to employees? That they don't care enough to look them in the eye and tell them that the annual yearly report isn't looking so great?
Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to be harsh. I understand perfectly the constraints of budget. However, one cannot ignore the human factor in the virtual world. And that, so far, is missing to me.
Virtual Events and The Popcorn Principle
The buzz in the event industry is, of course, that companies are either supplementing in-person events with some virtual meetings, or are replacing in-person events all together. At the very least, a lot of companies are exploring the virtual space and seeing how they can use it to cut costs or just to stay on the cutting edge of technology.
The event was incredibly educational and opened our minds to a lot of possibilities within virtual events; virtual interactions and networking, streaming media on-demand, even virtual spaces that were set up to look like "real" life.
Then, as we wandered from vendor spaces to streaming cafes to educational presentations, our senses were overwhelmed. There was...a scent. A delicious scent... Our mouths watered... Wait, it was.... Freshly-popped popcorn!
Where was it coming from?
We quickly sought out the source of enticement. One of the workshop providers had rented a popcorn machine and was handing out free snacks. As we took our tantalizing bags of buttery goodness, we wandered around their space, looking at their information and sitting down to watch their pitch. It was a great way to enhance our experience and draw us into their show.
But what is the virtual equivalent of popcorn?
The fact that it was a scent and food wasn't important. The point is this: a lot of elements go into an event. Some of these can be replicated in the virtual space, certainly; the PowerPoints/handouts, the speeches, even a bit of the networking.
Some of them are irreplaceable. Would you rather submit questions through a chat forum, or have the opportunity to network with your CEO/VP/Etc. firsthand? Would you rather video-conference about a new product, or get the chance to see it and touch it? Is a picture worth a thousand handshakes?
While we dive headlong into the world of virtual events, it's important to remember how valuable face-to-face contact and face-to-face events really can be. While the virtual world may save a bit (or a lot) of money, there's still a need for in-person events.