Is anyone even paying attention?

5 fundamentals for curating engaging events

If you’re able to sit down and read this article end to end without stopping to check your email, respond to a text, or complete some other task—then you’re in the minority.


We know that concentration and focus aren’t easy to come by these days. In fact, according to an article in the New York Times written by Tony Schwartz, chief executive of The Energy Project, we’re actually addicted to distraction. Thanks to the Internet, he explains, “The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification creates something called a “compulsion loop.” Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect.”


If it’s nearly impossible to hold someone’s attention for 900 words, then how are we expected to hold their concentration—and more importantly engage with them—during a 90-minute meeting or three-day conference? Add that to the fact that you’re working with an already disengaged audience. According to the GALLUP Global Workplace Study, only 16% of Canadian employees are fully engaged at work, while 70% are not engaged and 14% are actively disengaged.


But just because its hard to capture and keep people’s attention, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. In fact, the most successful events are pulling people out of their busy minds and away from their buzzing phones and giving them something worth paying attention to. Here’s how you can curate a memorable and engaging event.


Customize and personalize

If an event is going to be engaging it must first be meaningful and relevant to the audience it’s targeting. By connecting familiarity and meaning to an individual you are building neural connections.  Subconsciously, your audience only cares if it’s about them and how it benefits them. The brain asks is this relevant? And does it make sense? In planning an event you need to take the time to know who your audience is in order to answer these questions in advance.


Make room for emotion

There’s no room for emotion in the workplace? Quite the contrary. I don’t think we can create engaging events without it. Emotion is the number one determining factor as to whether something will be remembered. Scientifically speaking, when the brain experiences an emotionally charged event it releases dopamine, making it easier to remember with greater accuracy. 


Don’t rely on repetition

When working on a repeat event, it’s quite easy to take the previous year’s agenda and simply change the dates and re-populate the cells with new topics, activities, speakers etc. The risk in doing this is two fold. Any mistakes you made last year are likely to be repeated, and, you’re missing a significant opportunity to develop a more compelling and engaging experience that’s fluid and evolving.  


Ensure your events are layered and immersive

Approach each event like a museum approaches a new collection—curating individual pieces and establishing a flow that will capture the audience’s attention. Create moments that build upon each other, like chapters in a story, to guide participants through the layers of the event. Immerse them in the experience at every touch point and you’ll have an easier time holding their focus throughout.


All of this is great theory, but what specifically should you be doing to curate an event that inspires your audience, drives them to action, and stays with them after the event is over? Here are 5 simple, but essential fundamentals to incorporate in all events:  


1.     Ignite the Imagination. Imagination is best captured through story telling, so ask yourself: “what’s the story I want to tell?” Stories demand an emotional investment and affect the way we feel, think, and act. To create intrigue, begin the story before the event. Apply the same techniques used to create a movie trailer designed to get people excited about an upcoming release. Go beyond the traditional save-the-date invitation and consider using video to ask poignant questions intended to get people interested in and excited about what’s to come. Whatever story you begin in these pre-communications, be sure to weave it throughout the event, and continue it following the event to ensure the right actions are being taken.


2.     Arouse Curiosity. Prime the pump with interesting yet unfinished information at the start of your event, and continue to find moments where you can arouse curiosity throughout. Peak their interest by alluding to an upcoming surprise, announcement, set of findings, or special event, but no matter what you do, don’t tell them what it is. The idea is to leave the audience wanting more, wondering…what’s next. No longer does it work to give it all away up front. If people know everything they need to know within the first few minutes of the event—what’s the incentive to keep paying attention? Consider posing though-provoking questions through polls, bring in speakers who will challenge them to think differently about the topic, or give them a challenge upfront that must be completed by the end of the event and can only be completed if they pay attention throughout.


3.     Create Disruption. Everyone’s talking about disruption, but what does it really mean when it comes to meetings and events? Are you familiar with the saying: “if you’ve always done what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got”? The only way to break free of old patterns and get new results is through disruption, a departure from the norm in order to capture attention or bring about change. Leverage disruptive techniques that will bring about temporal landmarks—memorable milestones or events—and you’re much more likely to create a lasting impression. Assume that people’s average attention span is 5 to 7 minutes and that 95% of a presentation is forgotten within 24 hours. When people expect things, they go into cruise control, but when you put a fork in the road they pay attention. So what fork are you going to plant in your event? Disruption is most effective when it catches people by surprise and forces them out of their comfort zones. Consider changing the format of sessions, remove all the chairs, take them out of traditional meeting spaces, or find creative ways to deliver information.


4.     Ground people in design. Use design in a way that creates familiarity and evokes an emotional response. When people recognize something, they’re more likely to engage with it, so being consistent with your design throughout—from teaser to post-event communications can go a long way. Visual is the most powerful stimulus, and unlike words, which are processed by the short-term memory and are often quite easily forgotten, images go directly into the long-term memory where they tend to be imprinted. So why do we assume that clip art works? Visuals deserve as much thought as all other elements of the event. But it’s not just about the graphic design of the event brand or the images we choose, there’s also a trend around incorporating art activities into events, which I’m quite fond of. Having attendees contribute to a collective design is a great way to engage them visually while directing them toward a shared goal or outcome. At the Toronto TEDX event, organizers had participants engage in a collaborative colouring exercise that proved great results.


5.     Engage the senses. Sensory activation in events is a trend that’s here to stay, but the key is to do it skillfully and tastefully so the sensory components you integrate contribute to the experience, rather than detracting from it. Studies have shown that we rely heavily on our senses to process information. There are so many things you can do with the senses: consider integrating music (a purposefully chosen or composed soundtrack) or using sound to create a positive mood. One trend we are seeing is offering noise-cancelling headphones to give attendees a chance to zone out during breaks, to dial up a message, or to pull focus back to the moment at an outdoor event. Did you know that the sense of smell emotionally affects humans up to 75% more than any other senses—so why not pipe in a smell or find a way to bring one naturally (flowers, plants, food) into the space in order to connect with your topic or brand. Kinesthetic learners retain more information when they can feel what they’re doing or play an active role in it. Find a way to get people up and connecting with your material in a tactile way. Each of these help create a more connected and engaged participant. 


You’ve made it to the end! I hope I was able to keep your attention for the duration of this article. With these tools in hand, you’re more likely to do the same for your meeting and event attendees. With so much out there vying for everyone’s attention these days—make your event the one thing that’s worth focusing on and remembering. 

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