Lessons from Anguilla: What meeting designers can learn from religious services

On my daily vacation walk to Island Harbour, I hear singing. As I turn the corner onto Rose Hill Road, the sound swells. It’s 7:30 am, but the morning service at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church is in full swing and, as I pass, a familiar hymn from my youth washes over me, sung by a hundred enthusiastic voices. And yes, I admit it, during the second day of my vacation while enjoying the harmonies I hear, I’m jolted to think about religious meeting design…

Religious services are thought to be around 300,000 years old — by far the oldest form of organized meeting that humans have created. We know little about prehistory religious services, but the meeting designs used by the major world religions today date from the Middle Ages. Over the last thousand years, religious meetings developed a number of important features in order to maximize the likelihood that people would attend.

What’s interesting is that these features are largely absent from modern secular meetings!

So what can we learn from religious meeting design? I confine my observations to Christian and Jewish services, as they are the faiths familiar to me.

Don’t let any one person talk too long
The most frequent preaching length in Christian churches is 20 to 28 minutes. Although some pastors take more time, their number is decreasing. And in 2014, the Vatican recommended that sermons be limited to eight minutes or less!

While people joke about the length of boring sermons, contrast this relative brevity to modern conferences, where speakers typically speak for an hour. We know that listener attention drops sharply after ten minutes unless a speaker does specific things to maintain it. Religious institutions know this, and deliver short bursts of emotional content. Most meetings don’t, and attendee learning suffers as a consequence.

Include lots of communal activities
Singing is one of the most powerful fundamental, communal human activities; right up there with eating together. The oldest written music is a song, the Sumerian Hymn to Creation, dated before 800 B.C., and communal singing likely predates this by tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

Jewish and Christian religious services are filled with singing and praying. These are communal activities — each congregant contributes to a common endeavor. Some people have good voices, sing in harmony, and add pleasure to everyone’s experience. Even those who can’t carry a tune very well become part of something, a common endeavor, while they are singing a familiar and often beautiful hymn or prayer.

Communal activities are powerful because they align participants in a common experience: creating something beautiful and uplifting together. When was the last time you did something like that in a meeting?

Breaks aren’t communal activities
Most meeting organizers assume that the human interaction they’ve been told should be incorporated into their meetings is provided by breaks and socials. But breaks and socials aren’t communal activities — everyone is doing something different! The post-service Church Suppers and Jewish Kiddish give congregants time to meet socially, thus strengthening the communal experience provided by the service. In contrast, modern conferences expect attendees to bond after having primarily listened to lectures.

Keep ’em moving!
People don’t sit still at most religious services. They stand to sing and pray. In some congregations, dance is a normal component of the service. Physical movement during events is important because blood flow to the brain starts to decline within ten minutes of sitting still, leading to decreased attention. Sadly, it’s rare for meeting sessions to include any kind of body movement.

Provide an emotional experience
Whatever opinions you hold about religious services, it’s clear that they are designed to create an emotional experience. Given a choice between emotional and “book learning” experiences, people will invariably choose the former. Religious services offer the kinds of experiences that people prefer, served up in a safe and familiar way. Most conferences offer little emotional experience directly related to their content and purpose; instead such experiences — entertainment and socials — are glued onto the program as unintegrated extras.

Conclusions
I’m not suggesting that we turn all our meetings into gospel revivals. But think about it — how would your meetings be improved if they incorporated some of the religious services features I’ve shared here?

Church service photograph courtesy of The Anguillan

Give attendees experiences, not things

8324842135_5a5f4b71c4_kBranded pens, tee shirts, mugs, tote bags, water bottles, and other tchotchkes are scattered around my home, piled on shelves, and eventually consigned to oblivion without a thought. Yes, it’s hard to attend a typical conference and not walk away with schwag.

All these promotional “things” cost organizers and sponsors significant money. Is this the best way to spend money on attendees?

I’d argue—and research backs me up—that giving relevant, immersive, interactive experiences instead of presents leads to superior long-term outcomes for both participants and conference stakeholders.

Cornell psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar found that:

“…experiential purchases (money spent on doing) tend to provide more long-lasting hedonic benefits than material purchases (money spent on having…”

“…the satisfaction [experiences] provide endures by fostering successful social relationships, by becoming a more meaningful part of one’s identity, by being less susceptible to unfavorable and unpleasant comparisons, and by not lending themselves to deflating regrets of action.”
We’ll Always Have Paris: The Hedonic Payoff from Experiential and Material Investments, Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar

Let’s look at the benefits of providing great experiences at conferences.

Fostering successful social relationships
Giving everyone the same tee shirt to wear at an event doesn’t generally foster anything except a kind of uniformity. But have you ever kept an event-themed tee shirt and worn it with pride long after the event was over? If so, you’re undoubtedly doing so because the tee shirt is a representation and reminder of a great experience (e.g. that Feb. 14, 1968 amazing Grateful Dead concert at the Carousel Ballroom, the communal excitement of Spot-The-Fed at Def Con 15) that says to the world “I was there! Were you?”

Experiencing something remarkable together bonds participants. For example, it’s no accident that many of the folks who participated in EventCamp 2010 and EventCamp East Coast are still in touch years after these experimental and experiential event industry conferences. We participated in something new together, and the memories and connections made still have power.

Powerful experiences have few downsides
Part of the reason we seem to get such little enduring satisfaction from possessions is that we quickly habituate to them. That moment when you unbox the latest iPhone you’ve just bought may be exciting; using it six months later, not so much. Even if an experience is negative, going through it with others provides bonding.

Everyone who was present remembers the communication problems that surfaced at the close of EventCamp Twin Cities in 2011—either because they were helpless with laughter at the comic scene that unfolded or because they were frantically trying to make things work. As Gilovich and Kumar say, “Even a bad experience becomes a good story.”

Fear Of Missing Out motivates!
Finally, research indicates that Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) can be an important motivator for experiential sessions at events. Again, Gilovich and Kumar: “…material purchases tend to prompt regrets of action, whereas experiential purchases are more likely to lead to regrets of inaction.”

Translation: Marketing the appropriate, exciting, and fun experiences you will be offering at your conference is a much more effective way to get registrants than to promise them schwag.

To conclude
I have seen so many useful, important, and long-term connections made through relevant, experiential, participatory conference activities. The resulting connected souls become champions of your event: the core of an engaged and loyal conference community that returns year after year and encourages other peers to attend. Investing in experiences, not things, at your events is a smart choice. So, the next time you’re considering providing promotional items to attendees, you might want to allocate some or all of your schwag budget to well-designed event experiences instead.

Photo attribution: Flickr user shahiran83