What an Event Designer Can Learn From Neuroscience

By Greg Bogue, Experience Designer, Maritz Travel

So What Do Your Guests Expect? One of the biggest challenges for an event designer in capturing attention and ultimately securing full engagement is breaking free from delivering exactly what attendees expect. The latest findings from neuroscience validate the impact of interrupting the ordinary and they provide important clues that can help us capture guests’ attention when it matters.

Have you left a meeting and not remembering a single word that was spoken? Or, have you ever driven home from work and not remembered the trip? Chances are, in both cases, you went into autopilot mode. The reason for this, one neuroscientist states (in “Neuroscience Sheds New Light on Creativity” by Gregory Berns, published by Fast Company) is that the brain is fundamentally a “lazy piece of meat!” His words, not mine. Essentially, the brain is extremely efficient and doesn’t want to waste energy.

According to Berns, here’s what neuroscientists have discovered: “…while an entire network of neurons might process a stimulus initially, by about the sixth presentation, the heavy lifting is performed by only a subset of neurons. Because fewer neurons are being used, the network becomes more efficient in carrying out its function.” In other words, your brain takes a shortcut and serves up its best answer based on past experiences “and statistical expectations.” Our past experiences have a dramatic impact on how we perceive our current experiences – ultimately affecting our ability to engage and innovate.

Simply put, sameness is the enemy of innovation and engagement.

What’s an Event Designer To Do?

Well, the first thing is to gain a little understanding of how the brain actually operates. Functional MRI (fMRI) allows neuroscientists to detect changes in blood flow in the various areas in the brain, giving them an anatomical and functional view. Because of these breakthroughs they are now able to see portions of the brain light up when presented with varying stimuli.

Back to our challenge, how do we capture attention?

In her article titled “Keeping Pace with Today’s Quick Brains,” Kathie F. Nunley highlights the Reticular Activating System (RAS) and identifies it as having the job of filtering all incoming stimuli and deciding whether or not we pay attention. Through her research as an educational psychologist, she identifies an “attention getting” hierarchy. First, we attend to physical need, second, novelty and third, self-made choices. Hmmm, now that’s interesting…

As event designers we now have something to work with – novelty and self-made choices! Let’s first take a look at novelty. Merriam-Webster defines novelty as something new or unusual, but neuroscience takes that definition further.

Based on her research, Nunley states, “The mind seems to gravitate toward novelty. Not only does a novel experience seem to capture our attention, it appears to be an essential need of the mind.” Our brains are drawn to novelty. We’re curious, and we seek to understand a new or unknown thing, experience or location. Perhaps our first rule of event design should be, “If the event or experience is boring to you, it’s boring to your guests.”

Our job as event designers is to create novel experiences that capture the attention of our guests. In other words, we need to interrupt the ordinary. I like how that sounds… interrupt the ordinary! To do that, we must ask ourselves the question posed at the top of this post, “what do your guests expect?”

In the rush to get an event planned and produced, we so often default to what has been done before. We – like our brains – take the easy route and serve up “the best answer based on past experiences.” That, my friend, does not “interrupt the ordinary!” We have to STOP. Know our guests! Who are they? What are their likes and dislikes? And most importantly, what are they expecting? We need to get their brains to a place where they cannot predict the outcome or what’s coming next.

A few years ago, we were planning an event for a very select group of executives. We knew we needed to capture their attention, and we knew the importance of the message that our client needed to deliver. What did we do? Well, we took them to a property and dropped them in a small ballroom. Pretty novel, huh?

But we had a plan, and we were setting them up. We made the ballroom extremely uncomfortable. We secured the most uncomfortable chairs we could find, and we set the room for the exact number of guests. We arranged them as close as the fire marshal would allow without a center aisle. In front of the pipe and drape, we had a small riser with an overhead projector (yes, overhead projector) and a screen.

Imagine walking into a room like that, what would cross your mind? Oh boy, here we go again… (or probably something worse). And that’s exactly what we wanted.

The meeting started like this: “Welcome and thank you for coming to this incredibly important meeting. Things are changing in our industry, and we need to do things differently to succeed. For the next three days in this room we’re going to create our future.” At that point, the presenter picked up a three-inch, three-ring binder stuffed full of overhead slides. The room went silent. From the back of the room someone shouted, “If we need to do things differently, then we can’t have the same old meeting!”

At that point the pipe and drape were pulled back revealing a room outfitted with several living-room-like seating areas and four immersive experiences highlighting brands that set the standard in customer service. And for three days participants worked, talked and explored their future – and experienced success by showing up to guests as a “brand that gets it.”

We interrupted the ordinary and created an event that helped our client succeed.
While we are not neuroscientists ourselves, we can certainly apply their findings as we did in this case to surprise, delight, break free from the expected, and interrupt the ordinary – all in a way that resonates with the functioning of the human brain.


Greg Bogue, Experience Designer, Maritz Travel


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