How much is too much? At many meetings and events, frazzled and fractured attention spans are put in hyperdrive with a wall-to-wall, dawnto-dusk agenda.
“Things are so rushed in today’s world,” says Angela Coleman, manager of events and meetings for KPMG, LLC in Denver. “Everybody’s got to do five things at once. We’re learning quickly that it doesn’t always benefit our attendees or conferencegoers.”
She says the basics are the same as they are for kids: “Getting good sleep, eating good food, and stopping being so rushed—slow down! That’s really hard for us as adults.”
In the iPhone era, people often develop the nervous habit of looking at the little screen whenever there’s a lull in the conversation. “We’re all guilty of that,” says Coleman, who has helped organize the annual two-day Growth Capital in the Rockies Conference since it was launched in 2015. The event, which features pitches from 20 high-growth presenting companies, drew about 200 attendees in 2016 and 2017 and was held Sept. 19-20 at the McNichols Building in Denver in 2017.
“I really wanted to focus on what would benefit conferencegoers,” Coleman says. For year two, she moved the start time for the first day from 8:30 a.m. to after lunch, emphasized healthy and organic foods and beverages, avoided “the dreaded pasta bar at lunch,” and had plenty of water available. The last item seems so simple but Colorado’s dry air means “one of the biggest forms of fatigue is dehydration,” she says.
Coleman also set up the DisconnectReconnect Lounge, where attendees left their phones at charging stations near the entry; there were also healthy refreshments and a quiet space for contemplation or meditation. “It’s relaxing,” she says. “They can put their feet up. They can get a massage.”
It offered an antidote to the typical overstructured agenda and gave attendees some room to breathe. “We don’t give conferencegoers a place to take a break,” says Coleman. “They have no place to go, especially introverts.”
As a meeting and event planner, Coleman considers a conference successful “when attendees leave the event saying, ‘That was awesome; I have never been to a conference like that before,’ and, in this case, when they leave the lounge after getting a massage with a smile and not a care in the world showing on their face and saying, ‘Thank you.’”
Outdoors for Insight
Beyond relaxation lounges and massages, it’s also key to provide a platform for authentic education. Centennial-based speaker, coach and lifelong adventurer Brian O’Malley of Spirit of Adventure has teamed up with Dean Savoca of Savoca Performance Group in Denver to bring insight learning to groups of about 25 participants or fewer with their “Go Outside to Go Inside Retreats.”
“Most of my work for the past 32 years has been keynote presentations for larger conferences,” says O’Malley. With the retreats, however, O’Malley and Savoca focus on the individual. “Teams are made up of individuals, and teams make up organizations,” he explains.
Many events tend to push a one-way content stream to attendees, O’Malley says. “They’re in a meeting space from morning to night with a rigid agenda. It’s constant information. It’s just chaotic.” There’s also “a high bamboozle factor,” he adds. Speakers “want to be seen as the expert.”
O’Malley argues that events need to offer a two-way street to have a lasting impact. “There’s a huge missing piece, and that’s insight learning,” he explains. “We help people understand where experience is being created—it’s being created from the inside out.”
Insight learning is instinctual, O’Malley continues. “As a human, that’s natural, but we don’t see it most of the time. We think this outside experience is creating what we’re feeling.”
O’Malley says insight learning is conversely about empowering attendees. “We elevate the person’s own insights,” he says. “Give people the opportunity, and they absolutely excel. If I just fill them with information, they just write down what I know. But if they have an insight, they own that. They get to take that home.”
Marrying the practice to the outdoors reaps even more rewards, says O’Malley, who climbed Mount Everest, and worked as a mountain guide, a search and rescue instructor, a firefighter and more. “Go for a walk around the lake and just let go,” he explains.
Savoca says such practices “are built around the concept of mindfulness.” The goal, he adds, is to “create a space where you can actually be mindful and reflective.”
And Colorado’s great outdoors are perfect for that. “You can see the mountains, the sun will be out, the wind will be blowing,” says Savoca. “You can go outside anywhere.”
“Usually, I jot down all these notes I’ll never look at again,” he observes. Instead, narrow the focus: “What’s the one thing that’s most important?”
For Savoca, who had open-heart surgery in his forties, he discovered that less can be more firsthand. “I was working 30 percent less and producing the same results,” he says. “I learned more isn’t always better.”
He recites a Navy SEAL maxim: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” However, this is tougher than it seems. “When people are feeling overwhelmed, stressed and anxious, it negatively impacts their performance,” says Savoca. “It challenges some people not to have a minute-by-minute agenda, because there’s uncertainty. That’s also called life.”
Savoca and O’Malley make sure to include plenty of peace and quiet. “We utilize stillness,” says O’Malley. “Think of nothing and you’ll discover everything. When one’s mind is clear, when it’s still, you will have a feeling, and that feeling will tell you to trust your thinking. For most people, it’s so noisy, they can’t hear it.”
He offers a metaphor: “Picture a snow globe. When you shake it, think of all those little flakes as your thoughts. What happens if you never stop shaking it? They never stop. What happens when you set it down?”
Barb Taylor Carpender of Denver’s Taylored Alliances says such constant motion is antithetical to engagement and mindfulness. “Mindful meetings, on the other hand, address developing a meeting agenda that engages the attendees and helps them to stay present,” she explains. Carpender says there’s a need to pivot the focus from the attendees to the content. When events are mindful, “Overall awareness of the role of wellness and mindfulness is front and center for attendees, meeting professionals, and venues,” she says. From food and beverage to apps offering guided meditation and fitness routines, the goal is “a more dynamic approach that acknowledges having a healthy balance built into meetings can further the goal of a meeting through increased focus for one and all.”
She adds, “Meditation, yoga, personal development, and spirituality are all components that are increasingly built into the agenda whether through organized activities or quiet rooms or spaces where one can go to decompress, process recently gained knowledge or just spend some time alone and away from the hustle and bustle of an event.”
Carpender says Fast Company magazine recently identified five areas to address.
Self check-in: Taking a moment at the beginning of the meeting to ask yourself about your current mental state, which impacts your level of participation.
Group check-in: Begin the meeting by going around the room and asking each person, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how present are you right now?”
State your intentions: The meeting leader verbalizes the intentions of the meeting.
Make transitions clear: Identify the parts of the meeting so that the meeting doesn’t become homogenous.
Wrap it up: Spend five minutes at the end of the meeting to create clear agreement about what’s going to happen post-meeting, which can make the difference between a useless meeting and a highly productive one.
And that last point is truly what mindful meetings are all about: getting the most out of limited time. Meetings and events are costly and finite resources, so it’s critical that they provide a fertile place for learning and networking, not a boundless sea of content demarcated by a couple of 15-minute breaks. In that context, mindfulness might just be the difference between a strikeout and a home run.