Using nature to boost engagement and attention at your next event

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nature

By Ben Moorsom

Last year we were in Vienna working out of a Hilton, sitting inside dim meeting rooms for 12 hours at a time (sound familiar?). At the end of each day, we’d walk to this vibrant neighbourhood nearby for dinner. There were three different routes we could take to get there. But, every time we left the hotel that week, I noticed that we’d all naturally walk in the same direction—toward the big park with a scenic pathway through the middle.

As soon as we were surrounded by trees, flowers, birds, and water, we’d all start to feel more energized and revitalized almost instantly. Even after a full day of meetings, you could sense the energy shift in our group. There was something powerful about the effect the natural surroundings had on us, and I started to think about how we could bring these effects into our meetings and events.

50 shades of green

Ten years ago “green meetings” were hugely popular, and everyone was looking for ways to make their events more sustainable. These days, beyond sustainability, we’ve been playing with bringing green (and other colours, images, sounds, and smells of nature) into our events and meetings to boost productivity, focus and retention.

While I’ve seen events where participants are given the option to take advantage of outdoor spaces for meals and breaks, I believe that as event designers we have many opportunities to bring the power of nature inside to our attendees as well. You just have to think outside the box!

Now I’m not just saying this because I happen to be fond of nature, and find my ideas and creativity flow better when I’m out taking a walk or sitting on the beach. (In fact, I happen to be writing this article while overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.) There’s a great deal of science to back up these claims. For example, according to a study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (“40-second green roof views sustain attention: The role of micro-breaks in attention restoration”), participants who were given a brief glimpse of a flowering meadow “green roof” scene as opposed to a concrete urban roof scene, were reported to experience better sustained attention as a result.

As the authors of the study explain: “The green roof scene was perceived by participants as more restorative, as well as boosting their attention compared to participants viewing the concrete scene, who showed worsening attention over the course of the task.” There is also the rise of eco-therapy, such as the Japanese practice of Forest Bathing (the art of just being in a naturally green environment) that is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of wellbeing.

nature

As event architects we all share a similar goal of communicating a message to people with the hope that they’ll internalize it and then act on it in some way (that’s one of the main reasons we bring people together). They key then is to do whatever you can to boost an attendee’s ability to focus and retain information and of course, to associate positive feelings with your event. Finding creative ways to bring nature into your event is an oft-missed opportunity to support these goals.

Through our use of Neuroscaping™ techniques to enhance the engineering of live experiences, we have begun weaving in elements of nature through all of our event touchpoints to ensure they’re integrated in a way that provides all the benefits without causing any distraction. Here are some examples of what we’re doing, the science behind it and some ideas to help you bring “nature” into your next event.

Incorporate digital nature micro-breaks

While going out into nature is always the optimal choice, taking advantage of natural surroundings for breaks between sessions—sometimes this just isn’t possible. But just because you can’t take your people out into nature doesn’t mean you can’t bring nature in to them.  Digital nature breaks using high definition screens and quality nature footage can be equally as effective at impacting our ability to pay attention. Consider transforming your break lounges into green spaces with screens projecting moving images of forests, real plants dispersed throughout the room, and fish tanks full of beautiful assorted fish, strategically placed to harness the calming effects that the power of water and live animals have. All of this will work together to promote stress reduction, focus, and respite.

You can also find subtle ways of bringing nature into your general sessions, leveraging the technology that you are already using. For example, at an event we produced in Banff, Alberta attendees were in this beautiful natural setting surrounded by the breathtaking Rocky Mountains, but unfortunately couldn’t benefit much from this environment as they were stuck inside most days in a low-ceiling ballroom. To help bring the outdoors inside, we introduced subtle natural touches throughout the meeting, including creating a staging set made up of three equal screens—two projecting the meeting content while the middle one was projecting a bright blue sky cloudscape.  The centre screen had the subtle movement of clouds drifting through the sky and as the day moved into evening the center screen scenery subtly transformed to indicate the temporal shift, darkening and eventually showing the sunset and night sky.

Choose pathways through nature

According to an article in The Atlantic by Adam Alter entitled “How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies,” nature restores mental functioning in the same way that food and water restore bodies, giving us the opportunity to think as much or as little as we’d like, and giving us the opportunity to replenish exhausted mental resources. Knowing this, why not plan the flow of movement through your event to incorporate as much natural light and fresh air as possible?

Find routes through your venue that have attendees walk by windows (be sure the blinds have been pulled open), or lead them outside whenever possible even if just walking from point A to point B.

If it’s hard to get attendees outside then bring the nature indoors by placing potted plants (real or faux plants) at key intersections, in break areas, or inside of breakout rooms.

Bright flowers (especially in winter), strategically positioned on break stations, information tables, or in bathrooms can lighten the mood and inject positive feelings.

Large conference hotels and Las Vegas properties are great at bringing the outdoors inside with faux landscapes, mood lighting, and piping in the sounds of nature.

Infuse event spaces with the scents of nature

Recently, we Neuroscaped™ a unique product launch experience that touched on all of the senses including the power of scent. The roots for the product being launched came from an apple tree, and this was an important element that the client wanted to reinforce.  As the presenters stood on stage and delivered key details, described the product, it’s history and foundation, the audience was immersed in a subtle apple scent. The scent was very effective at aiding in the retention of this key detail.

There’s a great deal of research around essential oils and the power of these natural aromatic plant compounds to provide a number of health benefits—including naturally elevating people’s moods, opening the mind and aiding in the retention of information. As reported in the book “Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness, and Vitality” by Eva Selhub (MD) and Allan C. Logan (ND), “a 2002 study conducted in the United Kingdom showed that workers toiling in cubicles scented with rosemary had significantly better memory recall than their colleagues who worked in unscented cubicles or cubicles scented with lavender.”

The key is to know which scents derive which results, and to seek out high quality, natural essential oils that don’t use perfumes or fragrances that can cause sensitivities. You also want to use scent strategically so that its effects are not lost on your attendees. A few of our favourites include citrus oils such as lemon which promotes physical energy and purification and has been shown to lead to improved mood, and peppermint which supports memory, focus, concentration, and mental performance. We’re currently playing around with essential oils in our office, doing some unofficial research on the results of various oils to boost focus and productivity.

Apart from the health benefits of using scent to relax attendees and open minds, you can consider using scent branding to create an imprint on your attendees. Integrating a unique scent that you can pipe into common areas or at the entrance of your event space can create familiarity and positive associations. Stores and restaurants have been using this psychological technique for years (e.g. Cinnabon, Abbercrombie & Fitch, Victoria Secret). Choose your scent wisely so that this unique smell can trigger positive feelings and associations back to your event when smelled by attendees back at home.

Let the light shine in

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Science supports the power of light to improve mood, performance, and alertness. As explained in Your Brain on Nature, “an investigation involving 21,000 students in three geographic locations reported that students in classrooms with the largest window areas progressed as much as 15 per cent faster in math and 23 per cent faster in reading than students in classrooms with few windows.” Given the benefit of light, be mindful of keeping curtains open whenever possible and choose venues with lots of natural light.

Beyond natural light, it’s interesting to note from the same book that, “studies using fMRI have shown that the blue portion of the light spectrum can specifically fire up areas of the brain that involve attention and memory. In a 2008 UK study 100 office employees found that those whose work space lighting was enriched with blue light experienced improved mood, performance, and alertness.” There’s a great deal you can do, both inside the ballroom and in the common spaces, when playing with artificial lighting to change the ambiance of a space and create a desired effect.

These are just a few ideas for bringing nature into your next meeting or event. We’d love to hear of others you’ve tried and how they worked out. We know for certain that nature possesses great power when it comes to calming our nerves, boosting our focus, and inspiring our creativity—the opportunities to leverage this power are virtually limitless.

About the author

Ben Moorsom is President and Chief Creative Officer at Debut Group, an agency that specializes in corporate business communication and events across North America. Since 1997, Debut has pioneered new ways of delivering content and has mastered the art of creating greater perceived production value for their clients.  For more information on how Ben and his dynamic team of communication and production veterans deliver better results by producing bold creative that is strategically grounded, emotionally engaging, and flawlessly delivered to meet any clients budget visit Debut at www.debutgroup.com.

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