The psychology of events: Why sticking to a schedule matters


Have you ever wondered why you get so agitated sitting in a presentation longer than expected? Or why you are so relieved when it ends a few minutes earlier? To understand why this is the case, I interviewed Dr. Brynn Winegard, award-winning professor, brain science expert and keynote speaker. Dr. Winegard opened my eyes as to why sticking to a schedule matters more than you can imagine for the attendee experience.

As event planners we know how important it is to stick to the agenda. If we don’t, we may face repercussions. Will the food be ready? Will it still be hot? Or if we are running under time, how do we fill in that time? However, have you ever considered what you are actually doing to your attendees if you go over your allotted time in the agenda? Dr. Winegard spoke with me about the brain science behind why keeping to time matters for your attendees and what they really like about a speaker.

Based on research, Dr. Winegard explains that there are three components that matter to attendees when listening to a speaker – how did they make you feel; the content of their presentation and whether they finished when expected.

She says, “the number one component to a good speaker is how did they make you feel? Were you happy, comfortable and did they provide a good human experience?” Surprisingly, content is ranked second and is not as important as the experience itself. Looking further into the idea that not finishing when expected will only affect the logistics of your event is incorrect. We know that you can make adjustments, but in fact you are doing more harm to your attendees’ brains than you think.

Expectancy violation, Dr. Winegard explains, is when you are scheduled to be somewhere for an hour and are in fact stuck there for an hour and fifteen minutes. This violates your expectation that you would be done in an hour. We discussed what happens to attendees when they are being violated of their expected time. People treat their time like they would money and oxygen and are very conservative about it. The brain actually processes going over time like thievery. They feel like they are being robbed of opportunity. This is the same part of the brain that processes feelings if you’ve actually been robbed of your money.

schedule time

Interesting research has been conducted to show that when a speaker finishes earlier than expected people often feel they have been given a gift of time. They have freedom of choice and opportunity in those few minutes they’ve been given back before the next session on the agenda begins. We often see this when attendees make a call, answer an email or have the chance to chat with their peers. They feel like they’ve been given the opportunity to do something outside the agenda.

What happens to the brain when you violate their expectations and go over time all day? It was found that people can literally have physical reactions such as shortness of breath, exhaustion and become agitated. You would think there should be no concept of time at conferences. Attendees are there from the buffet breakfast until the gala dinner. So why should it matter if a few sessions run a little late? The brain really loves freedom of choice, autonomy and opportunity, and there is nothing more frustrating at events when attendees feel like the agenda is not being honoured. This can result in unhappy attendees, which is never our goal.

If you would have asked me if going over time matters to the attendee experience I would have said, “probably not, as long as the logistics were shuffled and what was planned remained the same.” But now thanks to Dr. Winegard’s insights on why time matters to your attendees brains, I will communicate to the event stakeholders the reasons why keeping on time is just as important as the logistics to making our attendees happy, comfortable and having the most enjoyable experience. What I thought was a simple question about the best length of a speaker reaffirms my belief in understanding the psychology of the attendee and how we as event planners can understand this better to ensure the most successful events.

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