Give them a break
Every event has a purpose. Often this purpose includes multiple objectives: teaching a new skill, training attendees on a new methodology, facilitating workshops, practicing and improving skills, collecting feedback on a new product, or brainstorming to solve problems creatively. Achieving your objectives requires active participation and engagement with your attendees which in turn depends on attendees receiving information, processing it, and retaining it for future use.
Very rarely as an event host, sponsor, or organizer do we set out to communicate a message we want our attendees to immediately forget. Often we are hoping to teach them something that they will hang on to, use in their daily work, or build upon in the future. A lot of careful planning goes into developing sessions that are engaging, actionable, and relevant to the day-to-day lives of your audience. However, as event designers we don’t often get to create the environments that lead to maximum productivity and retention. One key aspect that is almost always overlooked in an agenda: downtime.
Downtime, or rests from active periods of focus, is essential for your attendees to retain what they have learned.
“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life, (Jabr, 2013).”
What does this mean for event planners, organizers, and hosts?
We need to resist the urge to over schedule our attendees. So often an agenda will have programming from 7am to 10pm. I empathize with the compulsion to cram as much as possible into the precious hours you have with your audience. You want to provide value for your attendees while at the same time maximizing your return for the host. But when planning your agendas, you have to be ruthless about your prioritization. If you aren’t, you risk overwhelming your attendees and preventing them from properly digesting the content.
It is when we aren’t actively focusing on a task that our brains are able to “make sense of what it has recently learned (Jabr, 2013).” This mental downtime is “essential to mental processes,” like making memories and digesting information (Jabr, 2013). Waking rest periods aren’t enough however. In order to learn something and retain it, your attendees also require sleep (Jabr, 2013). Without enough sleep and rest periods? Information is not retained and performance can suffer.
To truly deliver the most value and get the highest return, your event agenda should:
Start your day at or after 8am
End your day at or before 9pm
Include 30min + breaks between sessions to allow for proper decompression and downtime
Start your day at or after 8am. That means breakfast, not your first compulsory session. Feel free to schedule your boot camp, yoga, 5k, or other wellness focused activity earlier than that. Additionally, end all of your days by 9pm. This will give attendees plenty of time to address their ongoing projects and work, take care of their mental, physical, and emotional needs, and sleep. That means saving your afterparties or optional late nights to the final night of programming.
Breaks throughout the day are so important. The more intense your agenda, the longer your breaks between sessions should be. Give your attendees ample opportunities for “waking rest periods,” where they aren’t focusing on a task. Your attendees need time to address growing inboxes, take care of bio needs, and have a few moments for themselves. Give them an extended break where they can go for a walk, sit down outside, meditate, or even go back to their hotel rooms for a bit. All of these options can help recharge your attendees and get them ready to engage again.
I challenge planners to shake up your next agenda by adding some creative breaks. Trying out longer breaks between sessions and even extended lunch breaks.
Don’t limit yourself to physical wellness activities. Create the space in the agenda for a mid-afternoon guided meditation. Use your event app to link to a streaming meditation service so your attendees can access on their own if they prefer. Mediation is exactly the kind of waking rest that is so critical to productivity and performance.
Cramming as much content into one day may seem like the best way to get the most out of your investment in a meeting. But if your attendees don’t remember any of the content, or are so scheduled all they can do is stress out over the work they are missing they can’t pay attention, all your overscheduling has done is render your time, energy, effort, and money wasted.
Work with your event planner to design an agenda that covers your goals but also allows for breaks. If you can’t fit everything into one meeting, schedule follow up webinars no longer than 30 minutes to refresh and reinforce the material. Or make the tough, but wise decision, to table the topic for your next meeting or event.