The Science of Audience Engagement

You know that engaging audiences is everything.  The decisions you make to engage people are subjective but informed, honed over years of experience.  You might even call it an art form.  But what’s less obvious – and critical – is the science of engagement.

Scientifically speaking, what makes people pay attention?  What happens in the brain when people are focused and tuned in?  In order to build our audience engagement tool, it was imperative for me to know these things.  To get some answers, I interviewed psychologists, neurologists AND event professionals. Here’s some of what I learned…. 

People can only keep their attention for short periods of time because our brains are wired that way.  Why?  When people try to concentrate the frontal lobe of the brain – responsible for executive functioning – is activated.  But that competes with the unconscious part of our brain which is always “on”— scanning and processing the world around us. This is why we get distracted.

What’s a marketer or planner to do?  The trick is to “restore” the brain from its constant wavering so it can refocus.  This is done by giving people new stimuli, giving them activities to perform and getting them to interact.  It’s all about ENGAGING THE SENSES.

Visuals matter.  The brain likes, even craves, visual images.  Why is picture worth a thousand words?  It’s because our brains process images much faster than words, in 13 milliseconds.  That’s 30 times faster than people can blink their eyes.  The implication:  don’t say it, show it. The imagery you use at events goes way beyond mere eye candy.  It helps people focus, gets them to process your message instantly, and creates a mental placeholder for your brand and product.

Another interesting find:  the same brain regions are stimulated when we visualize an action as when we actually perform that same action.  Athletes do this all the time.  They visualize themselves winning the race.  The implication for you: get people to IMAGINE. Ask people to use their imagination, and prompt them with visual stimuli.

Colors matter.  Marketers learn that red packaging stimulates the brain and creates excitement.  According to researchers at the University of British Columbia, red can help with focus while blue can spur creativity.  Again, you need to stay on-brand, but it’s worthwhile to think through how colors can set the tone and mood (since on some level it can trigger real emotions).

What about sound?  Some neuroscientists think that music has the same fingerprints as human movement.  Music stimulates the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, responsible for higher level functioning and social behavior. It’s tied to emotions and memory too. Want people to feel great about your company?  Play some great music.  Or try a “Name That Tune” game.

Activities that involve the sense of touch or movement can re-energize attendees.  Tactile information is processed by the posterior parietal cortex, a small part in back of the brain. But new research from Lund University in Sweden shows that a much larger part of the brain is activated by touch. Touch-screen and other technologies are not only great ways of capturing data and generating leads, they can help people focus on key messages.

In creating Lively, we incorporated sensory input into the product (an audience participation with multimedia).  Users can use the sense of  “touch” on their own devices…by sending text messages to play a trivia game shown on a big screen, viewed by all attendees (with quiz game sounds) and participate in contests.  Or their responses – sent via text – can be projected to the screen and shown flying through outer space with animation, video and branding. (And it doesn’t hurt that it generates leads too).

Bottom line, it’s about creating an experience.  That was the theme of MPI’s World Education Congress last year. And when you understand how the brain works you can use more tools in your arsenal, and really create a “wow” experience that makes a big impact.

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