The quest for more purposeful meetings

Paul Nolan

Janet Sperstad, program director of Meeting and Event Management at Madison College in Wisconsin, has spent her career working toward more purposeful meetings. This fall, she released a white paper co-written with Amanda Cecil of Indiana University entitled, “Purposeful Meetings: How to Plan With Deeper Meaning, Innovation and Insight In Mind.” We talked with her about her findings.

SMM: When you talk about more purposeful meetings, are you saying we need to increase the human element and have less focus on business results?

Sperstad: It’s not more or less, one or the other. It’s about using another lens to drive deeper meaning. When you ask people, “Why do you come to a meeting,” it’s “network, learn and have fun.” Those three have not changed. What we’re offering is another perspective and lens to look at what we’re doing and really focus on the human aspect of how people connect so they have a deeper meaning. How they come up and share ideas, whether it’s peer-to-peer or a subject matter expert, and really deepen that insight. It’s less about the logistics, its’ less about the outcomes and less about the learning, and really reshifting and focusing more on how those things happen. How people think is as important as what they think. How people feel is as important as what they feel.

SMM: What ignited your desire to delve into this deeper meaning of meetings?

Sperstad: Twenty-four months ago, Dale Hudson, the knowledge and events director for IMEX, and I were talking about how we’ve seen so much perfection and discussion around strategic meetings management and all of the logistics of how to create experiences. My earlier white paper on mindful event design is about the mindful approach of creating great experiences. We were seeing a lost opportunity that we, as event professionals, aren’t really able to maximize in the experience that we create that really touches the heartstrings and the cognitive potential of people. We asked ourselves, can people walk away happier and healthier than when they arrived? We think so. We started talking about these five pillars that are the driving forces of that conversation.

SMM: One thing you talk a lot about is driving creativity. Do you see that as a key reason for having meetings in the first place?

Sperstad: Yes. Creativity – you could call innovation, inspiration, motivation – is an element. No one wants to keep doing the same thing every day, because the world changes. We need to keep doing what we do, whether it as event professionals or attendees, in different ways. That takes creativity and creative problem-solving. Really looking at how we help people really reach deeper potential and come away with new ideas and new connections and new motivation to solve some of these complex problems in business that they are dealing with.

SMM: One of your five pillars of purposeful meetings is behavioral science, something that has become an area of interest for a lot of people. What did you learn about how the brain works that should change the way people design meetings?

Sperstad: Behavioral science has gotten a lot more attention overall in the world because we are now able to really look inside of healthy minds with the technology we have today where 10 years ago they couldn’t. We’re seeing more cognitive science brought into other professions. Over the three years of studying this, there are two things that really should shape how we approach designing our experiences. The first one is we are first and foremost driving by fear. We follow threat. That fear can be a very low-level fear to a high threat. We will not put ourselves in a position that feels threatening. As event professionals, that fear could also be a very low level of a sense of loss, like how we encourage people to register. The words “early bird” do not activate the threat region of our brain. It’s not a motivator. But if we said, “Only five seats left at this special price,” it ignites the threat region.

The second part that is most influential is the reward region. We run from threat and walk toward reward. Whether it is just enjoyment, comfort, feeling good, access to food and water… we want those things. Just paying attention to these two things in how we design, market and sell our events could have a strong impact on the results we want to achieve for our attendees and the financial results we want to have.

SMM: One of your pillars of purposeful meetings is healthy habits. That’s something that has been a focus for the last couple of years in the events industry. Do you feel we are still missing opportunities in this area?

Sperstad: An aspect called mind wandering is where creativity really comes from – when we let our brains relax and shift into neutral and we ponder something. If we really want people to walk away with more ideas and better thinking and be inspired to solve really complex problems, e should look at things that can influence people’s ability to daydream, mind wander and pay attention with purpose and focus. Logistics can help us do that through sound and lighting, so it’s not full-stream sensory overload and activity, and people are exhausted after day one and we have a 2½ day event. It’s looking at how we can help attendees perform better cognitively.

SMM: That ties directly to what you talk about in terms of the importance of balanced agendas. Do you feel too many offsites are cramming their agendas too full?

Sperstad: It’s tough because you need to have enough education. For some licensed professionals, that’s why they come. So they pack in their licensed credit units. Even if you have to do that for your audience, looking at things like breaks and how we can use those moments for them to unplug and then replug. Your brain can’t run at 100 percent on a 10 percent battery. What other choices can you put in there for some white space and light space for them to sit down, have an impromptu conversation or go off-script with a colleague and brainstorm some ideas? That’s as valuable as sitting in a session.

SMM: You refer to something called “the new ROI,” leaving a meeting happier, healthier and does the motivation carry over to the workplace. Can you expand on that.

Sperstad: For attendees, we’re looking at how we are enriching their performance and their life, so that after the experience they aren’t exhausted and they can continue to perform at the same pace that they came in. Life is chaotic and work is fast-paced. If they can come in look at our events as a respite to get renewed, rejuvenated and revived, our events will be more competitive in the world. People will come to events that are organized by professionals who understand these elements. The most precious thing we have in life is time. We want people to say, “I am so not going to miss that conference.”

Download the white paper, “Purposeful Meetings: How to Plan with Deeper Meaning, Innovation and Insight in Mind.”