How to Remove Clutter to Keep Attendees’ Attention

By Joanna Lean, December 13, 2018

We all know clutter can distract us in our homes and workspaces. But have you ever thought how clutter can be disruptive to attendees at your meetings or events?

I sat down with Dr. Brynn Winegard, an award-winning professor, speaker and expert on psychology and brain science, to discuss the most optimal meeting room setup to keep attention at the front of the room and your attendees ready to learn.

“Space is very important to the brain,” says Winegard. People can get overwhelmed, which leads to “cognitive clutter.” This can happen with a meeting room set in half-rounds or pod seating.

Winegard understands it’s difficult to negate clutter with all the required tables and chairs at events. However, she suggests choosing a venue with sleeker and more modern furniture. I recently did a site visit at Hotel X Toronto and noticed one of its smaller meeting rooms was set up classroom-style with chairs in rows of yellow and purple. By color blocking the chairs, the room looked less cluttered. The clean lines made the room feel more spacious (which the brain loves!).

Winegard explains theater-style setups are optimal for getting and keeping attention. Classroom-style comes in a close second, she says.

She warns that half-rounds or pod seating is not an ideal learning environment, especially when technology is involved. When someone at the table is using their laptop or phone, the people around them are more distracted than the person on their device. “It is almost impossible for anyone witnessing someone else using technology to pay attention.” I can attest to this, as I recently attended a conference and my peers were all on their laptops—which completely distracted me.

She continues to explain that the people on their laptops or phones are still able to listen to the speaker and are less distracted than those who are not. But while you may be able to listen while on your laptop, research suggests you are not likely to learn anything. If your attendees are on their laptops answering emails or even taking notes, they are not encoding the presented information.

Research on college students taking notes on their laptops versus writing them down demonstrates that those on their laptops had a lower retention of the material than those who took notes by hand. Taking notes by hand requires the brain to process the information, which leads to greater retention. While taking notes on your laptop, you may be able to copy the lecture verbatim, but it’s quite mindless—therefore you aren’t digesting the material.

In recent years there has been an emphasis on alternative room setups. Event planners are looking at their attendees and how to engage them best along with the goals and objectives of the event. Thinking about how the attendee learns will help dictate not only your room setup but your agenda as well.

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