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? Research indicates that the right kind of music can improve creativity when working and improve efficiency when performing repetitive tasks. For example, I find that listening to certain music helps me write, and improves my mood while stacking wood. So, some might conclude that playing music at socials could benefit the quality of interaction and engagement.
— 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 make it challenging to talk to a friend but not loud enough to drive you out of the establishment has been shown to increase 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 we’re surrounded by music 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 used as an important sensory, emotional, or learning component.
Parties! (But be sure to provide alternative 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, according to the above research, if you cut out the house music during the mixer, your food and beverage bill may be reduced a little too!
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.