Making Cents: Designing Purposeful Amazing Event Experiences

By Molly Marsh, CMP

A SPECIAL SECTION BROUGHT TO YOU BY MEETING PROFESSIONALS INTERNATIONAL

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For many in the industry, “Experience Design” has become synonymous with big, extravagant productions, AI and tech-enabled engagement, and hyper-customized environments built for the “wow” effect. There’s certainly no arguing that walking into an indoor castle built from ice, illuminated by projected snowflakes, with a hologram of Ana and Elsa would be incredibly engaging and memorable*…but for most of us in the association world, our budget will never allow us to craft something on that scale.

The good news is, designing a purposeful, engaging event experience doesn’t have to break the bank – especially when we use what we know about how our adult brains find meaning in our experiences.

Neurons that fire together, wire together

Cementing learning and storing information in long term memory requires more than just hearing, seeing or experiencing something once. As our synapses fire neurons between them, strong connections are made, and these connections are made even stronger when the brain builds this new information on existing memories, emotions and senses. This is why light, music and other components of a meeting are so important. If your using all your senses, you’re more likely to be engaged in the moment and also to capture and maintain that experience so you can call upon it later.

Even if your budget doesn’t allow for huge light displays, simple and affordable LED up lighting that uses color to evoke emotion can go a long way. Also, music, food and storytelling are great ways to connect people to memories and important times in their lives. Using a song that brings people back to childhood or asking them to talk about their favorite school lunch are simple – cost free – ways to encourage engagement and interaction among participants that can really help make their experience more meaningful and memorable.

What’s in it for me?

It’s not the rallying cry of an entitled generation, it’s really just how the adult brain works. Real learning only happens when new information is able to be applied to what we already know, so connecting to a particular audience’s experience actually makes the information mean more. Affordable technology, like online polling, can allow speakers and presenters to ask questions of the participants and understand the experience and expertise they bring with them. Then, based on that, the speaker can apply his or her content to the expertise of participants.
If the folks attending a session can start to draw connections between their own experiences and what is being presented, they are more likely to be engaged, pay attention and be able to recall the information when they get home. Even better, and more cost effective, is to include sessions or opportunities on the program for peer-to-peer information sharing.

Whether it’s structured and formal, like a discussion based activity, or a more open-space concept, the opportunity for participants to dictate the direction of the conversation and ask questions of one another helps customize the experience for each participant. Employ more facilitators and fewer traditional speakers in your program and you’ll actually be triggering more engagement among participants and giving them stronger connections to be able to use and apply information learned later.

Give me a break!

Don’t spend huge amounts of money on engagement tricks and activities during breaks, the information overload can actually hinder the learning experience and disengage participants. That’s because even extroverts need a break in order for their brains to truly process the information being presented. When we overwhelm our meetings with options, choices and activities, we may actually be undermining the ability of our attendees to engage with what will be most meaningful for them.

Of course, it’s tempting to throw out a lot of things so that there’s “something for everyone” but asking good questions of your attendees about what is most important to them – and then focusing on that – can actually save you money and increase engagement. Real breaks are critical to having an engaged brain…and free time is FREE.

So, what do you think? What low-cost, high-impact engagement strategies will you try for your next event?!

* To answer your question, yes, I have been playing with Frozen 2 toys and listening to the soundtrack for weeks thanks to my three-year-old daughter. Disney is currently my only source of pop culture references.

 

Molly C. Marsh, CMP, is Association Director for the National Association for Children’s Behavioral Health in Lexington, Ky.

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