Whenever I open a meeting I run a human spectrogram map, allowing participants to quickly discover everyone at the meeting who lives (or works) near them. This is one of the most useful things you can do for a group of people who don’t know each other — and it only takes a few minutes!
Why? Well, you’d be horrified if loud construction noise invaded the ballroom at the beginning of your elegant pre-dinner mixer. Any kind of competing sound makes it harder for people to hear each other, reducing the quantity and quality of interaction. Yet plenty of meeting planners seem to believe that music acts as a kind of obligatory social lubricant when people get together. Jackhammers are not OK, but “background” music is, somehow, mysteriously exempt.
Why is music often inflicted on us during socials? While I don’t know for sure, here are a couple of misconceptions that may be to blame.
Music can improve creativity and enjoyment, so doesn’t it improve social situations?
Bars and restaurants play music while we drink and eat, so shouldn’t we have music during our event socials too?
Have you ever been to a bar where there wasn’t music playing or a TV on? Me neither. In my experience, the majority of restaurants play background music. Bars and restaurants are in business for people to meet socially, so surely they must have found that playing music improves customers’ social experience, or they wouldn’t do it!
Well, actually, no. Bars and restaurants play music, not for their patrons’ benefit but for their own! Background music that’s loud enough to interfere with talking to a friend but not loud enough to drive you out of the establishment increases sales. From a 2008 French study: “high level [sound] volume led to increase alcohol consumption and reduced the average amount of time spent by the patrons to drink their glass”. And 2008 British research concludes that “people do, at least partly, drink because they can’t talk to each other”. So the reason music surrounds us in commercial social spaces is not to increase social interaction, it’s to decrease it and have consumers buy more!
We also need to bear in mind people—typically older folks like me—who have hearing loss that impedes their comprehension of conversations. Anything we can do to provide a better acoustical environment at our events will help the auditory challenged to have a better experience.
When is it OK to play music at events?
Are there times when it’s appropriate to use music during conferences? Sure. Here are some examples, feel free to add more in the comments:
Sessions where music is as an important sensory, emotional, or learning component.
Parties! (Be sure to provide quiet spaces for folks who don’t like the loud music and/or just want to talk.)
Corporate social responsibility and sustainability activities, especially if they involve repetitive activities—e.g. packing toys for needy kids.
In conclusion, avoid reflexively ordering music background for your events. It’s a fundamental distraction that, apart from a few specific situations, reduces communication, connection, and engagement. And, if you cut out the house music during the mixer, you may reduce your food and beverage bill too!
In 2011, the organizers of a large European conference invited me to give a forty-minute presentation. When I arrived and saw the conference program I was surprised to see that the day’s sessions were scheduled with NO intervening breaks. Participants were somehow expected to instantaneously teleport between session rooms—even restroom visits were apparently not on the agenda. As you might expect, I lost ten minutes of my forty minute time slot because of this elementary scheduling error. No breaks between meeting sessions!
Most event planners won’t make this kind of mistake, but, given that breaks between sessions should be longer than zero minutes, how long should they be? The answer depends on several factors:
Time needed to move between sessions held in different locations
Overall length of the event
Amount of participation and interaction designed into sessions
In my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love I describe an event where, at the last minute, we were forced to schedule sessions in two buildings that were separated by a ten minute outdoor walk. Scheduled program breaks weren’t long enough, sessions started late, and very hot weather during the conference led to additional complaints.
How long should a break be?
At the very least, breaks must be long enough for people to
decide the session they want to attend next
figure out where the next session is
take a bathroom break if needed; and
get to their desired destination leisurely.
Even at a one-day conference with sessions held in adjacent rooms, I recommend at least ten minutes between sessions; fifteen would be better. If your rooms are further apart, or in a building that is confusing to navigate, you need to allocate more time.
Breaks between meeting sessions can be shorter at a one-day event than they need to be at a four-day event. That doesn’t mean they should be. But if you have a crowded, must-do agenda you can get away with minimum breaks for a one-day event. At longer conferences, there’s no excuse for not scheduling extended breaks, and your attendee quality of experience will suffer if you don’t. A long lunch break—at least ninety minutes, preferably two hours—and a significant break between the last session of the day and dinner is a simple way to build longer breaks into the day, but having twenty to twenty-five minute refreshment breaks between morning sessions will also help to keep energy, participation, and learning high during a multi-day event.
Providing breaks in long sessions
Finally, the amount of participation and interaction included in sessions will influence the amount of break time needed. The opening roundtable I use at my conferences can last a couple of hours. When I first ran this session I innocently ran it with just a single midway twenty minute refreshment break. Eventually I noticed what an energy sink this was, and now I break up the session every twenty minutes with short participative exercises like human spectrograms and pair share introductions. A refreshment table in the room allows people to grab a drink or an apple during these frequent breaks. By using multiple short breaks, the energy level in the room now remains high.
We know that the two main reasons people attend conferences are to learn and connect with others. Traditional conferences provide little or no session support for the latter, assuming that one or two social events provide a good environment for attendees to meet interesting new people.
Do people mix at mixers? The answer is no…Mixer parties are supposed to free their guests from the constraints of preexisting social structure so they can approach strangers and make new connections. Nevertheless, our results show that guests at a mixer tend to spend the time talking to the few other guests whom they already know well. —Do People Mix at Mixers? Structure, Homophily, and the “Life of the Party” by Paul Ingram and Michael W. Morris
Conference organizers have an unfortunate tendency to stuff their programs full of sessions. It’s an understandable choice; if participants have committed all this time and money to be present, shouldn’t we minimize white space and give them as many sessions as we can cram in?
Unfortunately, filling every minute of your conference schedule does not lead to an optimum experience for attendees. We need white space; free time for attendees to do what they want and need to do. Here are some science-based, light-hearted, yet serious reasons why.
Biology Yes, all of us need to use the bathroom every once in a while. The good news is that just about all event organizers remember this.
Physics But what many forget is that Star Trek technology is not currently available; we cannot instantaneously teleport from one meeting room to another. At a minimum, breaks between sessions need to be long enough for attendees to walk leisurely between the two session locations that are furthest apart. But don’t program the minimum; people also need time to check their messages (otherwise they’ll just do it in the sessions, right?), get a cup of coffee, fall into a serendipitous conversation, etc.
Physiology On average, conference session attendees sit 99.13% of the time.
OK, I made that up. But I’m not far off. And here’s a cheerful graphic about the perils of sitting created by Jan Jacobs:
Give your attendees more time to stand up and move about between sessions (and during them, see below) and, who knows, they may live longer.
Neuroscience Neuroscience supplies the most important rationale for providing white space at your events. As molecular biologist John Medina describes in his book Brain Rules: Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once. Brains need breaks.
We need white space not only between sessions, but also during them to maximize learning. Medina suggests that presentations be split into ten minute chunks to avoid the falloff in attention that otherwise occurs. (Back in the ’70s, Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind maps, recommended studying in cycles of twenty minutes followed by a short break, a technique that has served me well for forty years.)
In addition, Medina tells us that multisensory environments provide significantly more effective learning than unisensory environments; recall is more accurate, has better resolution, and lasts longer. So make sure your sessions include multisensory input (participatory exercises, participant movement, smells, touch, etc.) and your conference locale provides a pleasant multisensory environment.
So, what to do? How do we find a balance between providing white space during and between conference sessions and our desire to provide as much potential content and opportunities for our attendees?
During sessions it’s important to provide white space between every ten to twenty minute chunk of learning, so that the learning that has occurred can be processed and retained. This is something that we should all be doing to optimize the learning experience at our events.
Between sessions it’s important to include significant unstructured time. A ten-minute break between two one-hour sessions is the absolute minimum I’ll schedule, followed by long refreshment or meal breaks. I am not a fan of providing intrusive entertainment during meals—eating together is one of the most intimate bonding activities humans have—for goodness sake, let your attendees talk to each other during this time!
I’ve saved my best advice for last. Instead of deciding how much white space should exist at your conference, let the attendees decide! At the start of the event, explicitly give people permission to take whatever time they need to rest, recuperate, think, etc. It may seem silly, but I find that if you publicly define the event environment as one where it’s expected and normal for people to take whatever time they need for themselves it becomes easier for attendees to give themselves permission to do so.