Everything that we know about the world around us, and everything that we experience, comes to us through our five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. These powerful senses are the essential foundation of all our experiences, and the relatively new specialist fields of neuroscience and cognitive psychology have given us a clear understanding of exactly what happens in our brains when our different senses are stimulated. Scientific advances in these disciplines have allowed us to identify how our brains interpret and respond to our environment and have shown meeting planners how they can use this information to design events that are much more memorable, creative and engaging for participants. By helping us understand how event-design elements can be used to influence positive brain function, neuroscience and cognitive psychology point the way to how we can produce meetings that not only maximise the learning of the attendees but also create genuine buzz and excitement among them.
Meetings planners have long been aware that by far our most dominant sense organs are our eyes and ears. We perceive up to 80% of all impressions by means of our sight and hearing. This explains why, traditionally, we have emphasised the importance of having excellent audio-visual support for our meetings. Through the years, meeting planners have harnessed advances in production technology to provide the audio and visual elements required to support speakers and create the desired event experience for attendees, from sound amplification and sound-scaping to multiple screen and data projection systems.
But it is becoming clear that by providing participants with fully immersive experiences, incorporating not only sight and sound but also smell, taste and touch, the messages conveyed to them at conferences, product launches, product presentations and so on become much more vivid and memorable. Scientists tell us that by triggering all five of the senses we can stimulate new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving, for participants. Most importantly, by appealing to the full range of feelings and senses of events participants, we can greatly increase the chances of them learning what we want them to learn and remembering what they have learned This is simply because using multiple senses allows more cognitive connections and associations to be made with any concept. In other words, the more of the brain that is activated, the more easily learning occurs and the more likely we are to retain what we learned.
Here are a few suggestions of how meeting planners can think beyond the dominance of only sight and sound to incorporate a multi-sensory approach in designing their events.
Smell is the only sense that actually has a direct connection to our body’s limbic system, the area of the brain that processes emotions and memories. A single scent can easily stir our emotions and bring us back to a forgotten place or memory. This makes it particularly powerful. According to a study done by the Sense of Smell Institute, people only recall about 50% of the visual images they see after three months, but remarkably they can remember more than 65% of what they smelled even after a year has passed. To harness this power of our sense of smell, a whole new industry offering scent marketing, fragrance diffusion, and ambient scenting services has evolved in recent years.
Meeting planners should try scenting conference sessions, to achieve different outcomes. For example, we know that lemon scents increase concentration in people, while lavender and orange scents help to reduce anxiety. So, if the topic of the meeting is particularly stressful, subtly introducing the fragrance of lavender or orange into the room can be an effective way of helping participants become less apprehensive. Or lift the mood of those attending a mid-winter conference by diffusing the smell of suntan lotion in the venue.
Some venues have gone as far as creating their own ‘signature’ fragrance. For example, the May Fair hotel in London has its specially-created fragrance of freshly-cut grass mingled with lemon grass incense sticks. As soon as attendees walk into the hotel, the fragrance gives them a feeling of wellbeing that stays with them for the duration of the event.
In a world where so much of our interaction is virtual — Facebook, e-mails, texts — physical contact is more precious than ever. Touch permeates our lives and enables almost every activity we do, from typing to swimming to kissing. The skin is the body’s largest organ and the source of our vital sense of touch.
We can – and should - use this sense much more in our events. For example, during breaks in the conference programme professionals mobile massage services can be provided to give participants the chance to relieve tension, revitalise the body and refresh the mind through back rubs or neck and head massages. These help participants remain calm and focused for the duration of the event. It has been shown that even something as simple as greeting individual participants by shaking their hands can improve the quality of the attendees’ overall experience of the event. And, speaking of hands, our fingers are a key component of our feeling of touch, so it’s important to give attendees something to do with their hands to stimulate this sense. For example, by placing a few playthings on the meeting room tables for them to pick up and use (try stress balls, Play-Doh or paper and pens for people to doodle with) meeting planners can help participants stay alert during events.
Our understanding of the role of food and beverage at events has advanced considerably in the past few years. Most meeting planners realise that this element of their events should be much more than simply a means of keeping their participants’ hunger and thirst at bay. Refreshment breaks and meals should be a talking point and a feast for all the senses. The presentation of dishes, smells and ingredients should be as imaginative as possible, bearing in mind that we don’t just eat with our taste buds but with our eyes too. These days, attendees crave original, memorable taste experiences, and meeting planners can respond by including authentic local dishes and drinks in their meals, with information on ingredients and flavours. Food and wine pairing activities can also be offered as part of a conference’s social programme as another way of stimulating attendees’ sense of taste as well as providing them with useful new knowledge.
Rob Davidson is the Managing Director of MICE Knowledge, which provides education, research and consultancy services for the international MICE Industry. His latest book is called Business Events, and details may be found here: https://www.routledge.com/Business-Events/Davidson/p/book/9781138735767
Rob may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org