If you wanted to create a conference environment that was directly opposed to what the brain is good at doing, you would design something like today's conferences, meetings, and workshops — a full day of lectures in general sessions and breakouts. But why not create an environment that will actually build on how people learn instead?

  1. Active brains are happy brains

    Your attendees' brains are not designed to sit passively for eight hours a day listening to lectures. Our brains evolved while working and walking — and movement still boosts brainpower. Physical activity is cognitive candy.

    SUGGESTION: Encourage sessions that get people moving and interacting, not sitting in chairs all day.

  2. Crack the encoding process

    German psychologist and memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus is best known for one of the most depressing facts in education: People usually forget 90 percent of what they learn within 30 days; most of this memory loss occurs within the first few hours after the presentation.

    The moment of encoding, or learning, is mysterious and complex. We do know that the process could be likened to a blender running without a lid. The information enters the blender and is sliced into pieces and splattered all over the insides of our mind. Content and context are stored separately. Recalling that information requires more elaborate encoding in the initial moments of learning.

    SUGGESTION: Arouse emotions and provide context and meaning that will lead to more elaborate encoding and thus better recall.

  3. Give their brains a break

    Mondo cane, an Italian “shockumentary” that is intended to raise Westerner's eyebrows, includes a memorable and disgusting scene that shows farmers force-feeding geese to make pâté de foie gras. They stuff food down the throats of these animals and then fasten a brass ring around their throats, trapping the food inside the digestive tract. Repeatedly jamming them with an oversupply of food eventually creates a stuffed liver pleasing to the world's chefs. The geese are then slaughtered.

    Most conferences treat attendees like educational sacrificial geese, trying to overstuff their brains with several eight- to 10-hour days of presentations. Subject-matter experts shovel data into attendees' minds, thinking more is best. Pushing too much information without enough time devoted to providing context and meaning, connecting the dots, and aiding cranial digestion does not nourish the brain.

    SUGGESTION: Schedule time for attendees to discuss new learning with each other. Plan moderated chats where they re-expose each other to the information and elaborate on their impressions. Brains recall information that is repeated out loud — the more the experience is retold, the more likely they will remember it.

  4. Don't be boring

    The brain does not pay attention to boring things. (I know, you're saying, “Duh!”) Research shows that presenters have 30 seconds to grab someone's attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. Most conference presentations are 60 to 90 minutes long. If keeping someone's interest in a presentation were a business, it would have an 80 percent to 90 percent failure rate.

    Presenters and conference organizers can help grab attention by ensuring every 10-minute segment is rich with meaning, stories, and emotional connections. Connecting each segment to previous segments also helps the brain learn and remember.

    SUGGESTION: Secure speakers who change their content and raise attention levels every nine minutes and 59 seconds to restart the attention clock.

Jeff Hurt is director of education and engagement, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, and co-blogger at the Midcourse Corrections blog (jeffhurtblog.com), from which this article was adapted. He has worked in the events/nonprofit arena for more than 20 years.