You wouldn’t run a marathon without the proper preparation.
You’d eat all the right foods leading up to race day. You’d break in your best pair of running shoes. Your running playlist? Ready to go. Bluetooth headset? Charged. Multiple alarms? Set.
But when it comes to cognitive marathons, we often don’t treat our brains with the same care and respect they need to perform.
Sitting in a meeting room all day for training or planning sessions can feel like as big of an energy drain as a grueling marathon. But savvy meeting planners know that they create environments more conducive to cognitive success.
Want your attendees to get the most out of the big day? Make sure you follow these tips for brain friendly meetings.
“There’s an old adage that brains work when they’re turned on,” says Lee Gimpel, founder of Better Meetings, a meeting design, facilitation, and training company. “Yet, in many meetings, it’s really easy to zone out; your brain is not asked to do anything more than keep your eyes open.”
How do you prevent this from happening in the meetings you plan? Incorporate questions into your presentations or break the group into subgroups for more intimate discussions.
“There’s a lot of attention on the dopamine reaction we get from social acceptance and appreciation, although we mostly hear about it in the context of the number of likes we get on social media. The same ideas apply to meetings. If people feel valued, it sends a signal to the brain. If you’re running a meeting, it’s not hard to build in specific time to appreciate people. You can also be more mindful about giving credit where it’s due and focusing on the people who are making things happen rather than things that are simply happening,” shares Gimpel.
When planning meetings, it is essential to remember the brain needs to digest information before more can be added. Brain experts recommend a break after 1.5 hours of work to keep participants focused, fresh, and productive. It doesn’t have to be long; just ten to 15 minutes, but it should give attendees the chance to move.
“Letting people get up, walk around, go the restroom, and mingle outside the meeting room will allow them to come back ready to listen and participate. Studies show that breaks improve productivity and creativity,” says Alexis Haselberger, a productivity, time management, and leadership coach.
“Sitting from one session to the next leads to a concept called habituation,” explains Natalie Currie, leadership coach and experiential facilitator, Natalie Currie Enterprises Inc. “The brain goes on automatic pilot, and new information shared is less likely to be remembered.”
Get attendees moving to prevent this from happening. “Have people move around the room to meet other attendees. Invite them to share something that they have learned that day. These are just two ways to break habituation, enhance memory, and create a sense of belonging,” adds Currie.
Each person has a unique way of paying attention and sustaining focus as well as making sense of things and getting clarity. This should be kept in mind when planning meetings and conferences. “Think about all the different information processing styles that are in the room. They can be visual, auditory, or tactile,” says Haselberger. In turn, be sure each is addressed. Use visual aids like slides or video as well as handouts for those who are visual learners.
Consider including some tactile items on tables, like silly putty or foam balls, for those who need to move while thinking. Proper acoustics can make or break a meeting. If attendees are expending all their energy trying to hear, not only will you not harness their brain power, you will mentally lose them. This will impact those who are auditory learners the most.
Studies have shown that the average person can pay attention in a meeting for approximately 20 minutes before starting to fade. After 20 minutes, it is advisable to change the speaker or alter the format of the meeting.
Beth Lawrence, CMP, chief event officer of Beth Lawrence Meetings & Events has more than a decade of experience in international meeting planning, and she recommends planning on plenty of break time when building your meeting schedule. Not just coffee and bathroom breaks, but networking breaks as well.
“Networking is a great opportunity for an immersive experience. Photo booths, experiential booths by a key sponsor, or a game all work great. I try to include all five senses in the experience, food and beverage, music, sound and lighting changes, and even incorporating different scents and textures into the space. This, then, creates a memory, which is stored and referred back to long after the event.”
Keeping the fact that there are countless ways people learn and process information in mind, she changes her sessions to include interactive workshops, fireside chats, interviews, and roundtable discussions. “Including a variety of formats throughout the day, and covering similar topics with different approaches, ensures that everyone’s brain is engaged throughout the sessions, and the meeting as a whole,” adds Lawrence.
Food is an excellent tool to help produce brain-friendly meetings—the right selections can help attendees focus, stay on task, and energize throughout the day.
Minimize white flours and sugars at breakfast that will play havoc with blood glucose levels throughout the day. Instead, provide complex carbohydrates, low fat, low glycemic-index foods, with plenty of protein options.
Lunch should be light. If meeting objectives require alertness and clear thinking, stimulate the brain with a high protein/low carb balance. During the afternoon break, serve fruit and some protein to counteract brain drain and mental fatigue. Have lots of water stations easily accessible throughout the day, as hydration is essential for a healthy brain.
Lighting plays a large part in a person’s state of mind and is instrumental in a brain-friendly meeting.
“If you’ve ever sat in a cubicle, conference room, or training session that’s just beige and windowless and you come away feeling drained, then you understand how our physical environment affects the way our brain works in meetings. Think about environments where your brain is firing happily. Maybe that’s outside, in a colorful room, or just a space with windows,” says Gimpel.
Heather McDonald, an entrepreneur, former teacher, and therapist, has firm opinions about making meetings brain healthy and effective. One of her top tips is to send out the agenda before the meeting and stick to it. “This helps slower critical thinkers come armed with their best ideas and doesn’t create undue stress causing shutdown and a lasting lack of productivity,” she explains.
Leadership coach and experiential facilitator Currie agrees. “The brain loves certainty,” she says. “Send a clear agenda about what the meeting is set to accomplish and stick to that agenda. A timekeeper helps to keep the agenda on track which helps people and their brains see progress and enroll in the process.”