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Moderating and (co)designing events is someting we do professionaly. Partly based on learning, partly built on gut feeling. Thanks to keynote speaker Ben Moorsom (Neuroscaping), we can now also say: backed by science.
Ben specializes in the neurology science and psychology of events, providing scientific research in to ways we can optimize the participant experience and approaches that help meet objectives better. I was happy to find that some parts of the typical Masters in Moderation way of hosting are actually proven to be effective.

Here’s what Ben says about Meetings, moderation and neuroscience:

Our mental landscape is deeply polluted
Since we have so much on our mind, it is very hard to really concentrate on (new) stuff, making deep-learning a huge challenge. In our way of moderating, we always use interaction-formats to open up for each specific part of the program. This helps participants to consciously decide what it is they need and to focus on what the next speaker/workshop/session can bring them.The way our moderators constantly reach out to the audience (rather than making them just ‘sit and listen’), helps them concentrate and block out distractions.

As professionals it is our job NOT to simply add more pollution. The benchmark these days seems to be, that all moderation should be high speed, dynamic. In my view, that is just adding more noise. Great meeting design and professional moderation will also plan for downtime; for quiet, more introspective moments that will allow people to digest and refresh.

Attention is something we must give and receive
You can’t expect people to give attention to speakers/content, without any effort. You can’t expect them to come up with questions/ideas/input, just by themselves. The only way to make a session really interactive is by reaching out to people and by actively investing in making them reach out to stage. And this – I’m happy to say – is one of the central trademarks of ‘our way of moderating': we constantly bridge the gap between stage and audience, by reaching out; both literally (walking into the room) as well as metaphorically. And we constantly challenge delegates to come up with input.

Giving our attention takes effort and the research Ben does makes that clear: attention can decline after just five minutes. Strategic interruptions knock our audience out of their mental “autopilot” and get them to interact with new content and ideas in a more meaningful way. So that also means, that the moderator needs to be present regularly; or that a speaker should be able to regain attention every now and then.

Cognitive barriers stand in the way of engagement
Engagement is thé buzzword of my profession and of many event-organizers. The thing turns out to be: engagement is not something to be gained easily. In fact, our own mind is keeping us from really engaging. Science shows that peoples minds wander of up to 52% (fiftytwo!) of the time.

What really helps is if you don’t fight the wandering, but use it. Mind wandering is off-topic uncontrolled thoughts or images that pass through our minds. It could be a list of things on our to-do list or an upcoming meeting. But it’s not all bad. Mind wandering is a way for our brain to save energy by “turning off” deep thought. Sometimes we (and our brains) need a break. A moderator needs to keep this in mind, generating audience stimulation during good discussion, but avoiding constant audience interruption – allowing the audience to recharge.

Distraction makes the memory of an event less positive
What does this mean? For example, if you were to use your phone during your child’s soccer game, research suggests that you would remember that game as being less enjoyable. In other words, distractions reduce our enjoyment during an experience and after, when we remember it.

So by making sure people are really ‘in the moment’, you will raise the appreciation of an event. And you can imagine that a higher rating will make it more likely that people will actually act on the learnings. At the same time , there’s research that suggests people are only paying attention for about 25-32% of the time.

Moderation might help on two aspects: first of all, the moderator can help – both in design of the session and in interaction – to get maximum attention. But probably more importantly: the moderator can help make the most of that 25-32%, by drawing attention at the right moment(s) and by helping participants choose when to pay attention. A professional moderator will know when to act, when to engage participants and when to give people time to think, digest & plan for action.

Savouring makes the experience better
The more you look forward to what’s coming, the more you will like the experience, the deeper the impression will be, so the bigger the change or learning. Given that scientific fact, the better you can understand two of the moderator-tools we stress in all our trainings. First, there’s the introduction of the next speaker/topic etc. The value of a well-designed introduction is very much underrated and we feel that moderators should put more time into it. A great introduction can bring the savouring that people need.

A second form of ‘guided savouring’ are what we call ‘basic moderations: small interactions that help participants already focus on the next topic and assist them in opening their minds for what’s coming.

You can compare this to an upcoming holliday: the more time you put into looking forward to it (daydreaming, looking at brochures etc) and into preparing (booking, packing etc), the better the experience will be, acccording to research.

Optimal Room and Environmental Design leads to better concentration
As moderators, we also consider seating, light and sound (partly) to be our responsibility. And research suggests that these areas are important. As it turns out, bad conditions quickly bring down our learning capacity. And the reason is quite simple: if your brain needs more power to simply hear what’s being said- to filter out distracting noises or changes in the environment – there’s less capacity left to actually process the content. When seating is not exactly in tune with the format, people lose brain-capacity. So, there’s an important role for the moderator here, if only to stop the show when for instance a sound issue needs to be taken care of.

Ben Moorsom’s overall conclusion was: ‘There is immense competition on the gateway to the mind. Don’t compete. Navigate’. As a moderator, we can be that navigator.

Jan-Jaap In der Maur

Picture by JJ Ying on Unsplash

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