The neuroscience of making virtual events more engaging

Many of us are now attending virtual events and meetings every week, if not daily. But as virtual event fatigue emerges, Sara Drury examines how can we work with the human brain – instead of against it – to make our own events more memorable and engaging.

If you’ve been experiencing what has colloquially become known as ‘Zoom fatigue’ lately, you’re not alone.

Over the past few months, the use of video conferencing and webinar technology to meet and collaborate online has become a regular part of the average working day.

One in three of us (30 percent) now attend more than 10 virtual events and meetings a month, according to data from an annual Redback study into the changing attitudes of Australians towards virtual events – up from just 2 percent a year ago.

More than half (51 percent) of employees also expect to attend even more virtual events this time next year.

However, over the past year, the proportion of attendees that have left an online event early has also grown: 9 in 10 reports having left an online event early in 2020, up from two-thirds a year ago. We’re less likely to keep watching a virtual event if the content doesn’t meet our expectations or if the presenter fails to engage us.

Attendees we talked to also spoke about the challenges of absorbing and recalling the large amounts of information shared in online event formats such as webinars and virtual conferences.

Marketing teams put lots of effort into attracting audiences to online events, but once you have them, how do you keep them, and make your event memorable?

Using some simple techniques informed by neuroscience to engage the human brain can help you create a better virtual experience. The human brain is incredibly powerful, but it does have its limitations. For example, due to limited working memory, our brain can only do so many things consciously at the same time.

In face-to-face meetings and gatherings, we process a lot of information subconsciously. In a virtual experience, it’s important to strip away distractions and communicate in ways that engage the audience, and avoid virtual event fatigue.

Meaningful repetition

There’s only so much information our brains can take in over a limited period of time, so don’t smother your audience with data. Keep the information you’re sharing to what is necessary to clearly communicate your message.

The less time you spend on peripheral information, the more time you’ll have to amplify your key points, which is important because the brain needs meaningful repetition to lay down long-term memory.

Tell a (quirky) story

Our attention span is heavily influenced by our level of emotional connection with a particular activity, so creating a storyline or narrative that highlights why your message is important can make it more memorable.

Not only that, when we’re absorbed in a strong narrative, the brain releases oxytocin – a chemical that generates feelings of well-being, empathy, trust and social bonding. So when the brain receives information as part of a narrative, it remembers it better than a list of facts.

Tell a quirky story and you’ll have an even better chance of stimulating recall as our brains are hard-wired to notice things that are unusual.

Activate your audience

Breaking up your presentation and keeping the audience active throughout an online event also aids retention by stimulating other parts of the brain.

Build in plenty of breaks that include getting your audience to do something (as opposed to passively viewing the event) such as answering a live poll, or participating in a light-hearted Q&A or quiz.

Requiring your audience to respond to a question stimulates explicit processing.

For example, if you’re discussing the success of different strategies you’ve tried to achieve an outcome, ask your audience to vote for the one they think worked the best in an online poll. Then reveal the winner and discuss why it worked so well compared with the other options.

Build a slide deck for the brain

It’s estimated that 30-50 percent of the surface of the brain is devoted to processing visual information, compared with around eight percent for touch and three percent for hearing – so it pays to make your virtual event a feast for the eyes.

There are many ways to make your slide deck work harder to engage your virtual audience:

  • Words and pictures – Combine images and text whenever you need to make an important point. Research has shown that because we process words and pictures in different parts of the brain, if you include both words and pictures, people are twice as likely to remember your message.
  • Use visual aids to direct focus – Steer your audience’s mental focus by using visual aids such as graphs, charts and short videos to complement the main points of your presentation. The visuals should allow the audience to see what you’re discussing in your presentation in an easily identifiable way, as opposed to reading a list of points that essentially repeat what you’re saying.
  • Build it up – It’s more difficult for our brains to remember large, complex chunks of information, so if you’re explaining something detailed, break it down and build the final picture step by step, adding content to a slide one part at a time.

Put a smile on your dial

You may have been told it’s important to smile when you’re presenting a virtual event, but why?

Smiling releases chemicals including dopamine, endorphins and serotonin, which have often been described as the brain’s own party drugs. It activates the part of your brain that processes sensory rewards, so when you smile at someone, they feel rewarded.

Smiling not only makes you feel happy and as a result, more relaxed and confident, it also makes people you’re presenting to feel more comfortable.

Make eye contact

We all like to be acknowledged and spoken to rather than spoken at. Making eye contact is an important part of that. In fact, eye contact between two individuals simultaneously activates the same areas of each person’s brain and prepares them for social interaction and engagement.

But making eye contact with a virtual audience is a learned skill when your audience is not in the room with you and it’s one presenters’ must consciously develop.

Look at the camera and create a conversation with your audience as if you’re in a one-on-one discussion. And don’t forget to look away or at your co-presenters from time to time. No one wants someone staring at them non-stop.

Keep the noise down

In a physical space our brains can subconsciously filter out noise by distinguishing sounds by their location or direction. The same can’t be said when we have no visual cues, because the human ear can’t triangulate where a sound is coming from in a virtual environment.

Research has found that if we hear unusual or annoying noises we don’t expect to experience, our brain may focus on those distracting noises, which can spark negative emotions. In fact, our own research indicates poor audio is the number one ‘turn-off’ during digital events.

Typing on a keyboard, munching on a snack, sipping a coffee or rolling a squeaky chair in the background of a meeting can be just as disruptive as when participants speak over each other.

Having the ability to mute and un-mute participants is non-negotiable. Being able to manually manage audio levels of each speaker can also reduce the adverse impacts background noise will have on your audience’s level of engagement.

Simply repositioning the distance or direction of your microphone can make a difference, as can switching from your computer’s built-in microphone to a headset and microphone can also cut out a lot of background noise that you may not notice yourself.

Reward your audience

When it comes to online training and education webinars, the neuroscience of gamification can tell us a lot about the way people learn.

We’ve already talked about the benefits of a strong narrative, which is a key advantage that gamification can provide. But there are other lessons we can learn from gameplay.

For instance, there’s a reason many games have reward cabinets where players can view their medals or other riches. That’s because remembering our past successes releases serotonin, a hormone that governs our overall mood. When it’s up, we’re generally on a natural high, but when it’s down we can feel pretty low.

Rewards also create positive associations with learning because when we’re rewarded for a particular action, our body releases the feel-good hormone dopamine. When learners associate the experience with positive emotions, it prompts them to try to repeat it by seeking out more learning.

Playing games also releases endorphins which are a natural painkiller, can lower stress and anxiety, and help induce a sense of euphoria.

Gamification can also help when it comes to information overload, also known as cognitive overload. As we’ve mentioned, the brain can only handle a finite amount of information.

Presenting activities in a challenge-based format, such as a quiz, can reduce cognitive overload by reducing pieces of information to smaller chunks that are easier to remember.

So whether it’s telling a quirky story, introducing a quiz or a poll, illustrating and reinforcing your key points with images, or simply flashing your pearly whites, keeping these simple techniques in mind will help make your next virtual event a memorable one.

Sara Drury is general manager of Redback Connect.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash.