5 Ways to Keep Your Meeting Attendees Focused

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5 Ways to Keep Your Meeting Attendees Focused

By Jackie Mulligan | Feb 12, 2018

It is a beautiful rose pink sunset descending on the harbor at Seahouses, a fishing village on the dramatic coastline of Northumberland. I stop to look at the calm indigo blue waters reflecting the bright red, yellow and green boats against the grey-white harbor walls. Next to me, a woman stops too, frustrating the little Shih Tzu she is walking. “We always forget to stop and look,” she says. I nod and it gets me thinking.

It took a spectacular sunset, a removal from my everyday surroundings and most of all an inability to get a phone signal to make me stop and look. It doesn’t happen often. When I do manage to look around, I wonder how much I have missed. I am not alone. More of us than ever are reading blogs about the importance of “presence,” “mindfulness” and “being”—some of us have apps for it—all primarily aimed at getting us to simply look up from our damn smartphones!

We need to be concerned about our inability to be attentive to what is around us. My research on creativity showed how the ability to pay attention is as important as it ever has been. When we pay attention we gain creative dividends. Attention enables us to discover, explore and innovate. But now more than ever it is harder for people, places, products, programs and even our children to hold our attention.

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It is easier to pay attention when we physically cannot be distracted by anything. But being away from distractions has never been more challenging in a world designed to distract us. The quickest way for us to pay attention “on the now” is if we lose battery life or signal, better still both. In those moments, we don’t need meditation to get us into feeling present. Without a phone we are forced to be present, attentive and focused.

In our increasingly distracted world, companies are making billions on how good they are at distracting and redirecting our attention. I fell victim during the years of writing my thesis, where Twitter seemed so much more important than the works of Deci and Ryan on Self-Determination Theory! At times it got so bad that I had to hide myself away and physically hide my phone. When I did allow my attention to be held, my thoughts were far longer than 140 characters. Hours passed without me noticing and I discovered new knowledge. I felt inspired and I resented being pulled away from the objects that had replaced my Twitter feed and captivated my attention.

This pinball machine world of distractions, blinking lights, vibrations and buzz alerts is a significant risk to meetings. However much we try to work with technology, we need to be more aware of the risks of letting our attendees only half-focus on our events. That chance to be attentive, to be absorbed, is a rare one, and my research at 10 events across Europe and the U.S. showed that such attention at meetings can lead to all sorts of positive outcomes. If events fail to hold the attention of attendees, they will also fail their attendees. So how do we hold attention? Here are five findings that emerged from my research that are worth considering.

1. Make sure participants know that it is important to be there

This is more than marketing. This is getting attendees to feel the importance of their participation throughout the sessions. Importance is crucial because it creates a sense of “effectance,” and this kind of motivation is very powerful for making participants feel empowered and self-directed. It makes them feel that they are attending out of their own free will and that it is important that they are there. It is all too common for speakers to tell attendees how important they are rather than how important their content is to the attendees or how important the attendees are in the presentation. Ask your speaker to give three reasons why attendees should pay attention at the beginning of a session—the “what’s in it for me” question or for the more society-focused events, “what’s in it for us”—and ask your speaker to let participants know the role they will play in the content.

2. Make sessions longer

This won’t be a popular suggestion as meetings shorten, but my research showed how long a delegate spent at a meeting was related to the quality of outcomes they gained. Why are sessions getting shorter? Why are planners accepting that attendees have shorter attention spans? Shorter sessions give less time for participants to familiarize themselves with content and with each other. No matter what the future trends, human psychology is less changeable. It is time for a different approach before the value of our meetings might be more easily compared to what you could gain from a few blogs on your chosen topic.

Try this: Give your participants a task, just slightly out of reach, and give them time to focus on it on their own. I recommend 20 minutes. During most sessions, attendees snap between tasks, five minutes here, 10 minutes there. But depth of attention is better than shallow dips into a subject. After working on their own, ask them to work in groups for a similar length of time. Sessions like this can produce outcomes way beyond what you intended by increasing motivation and self-belief. These are crucial outcomes for businesses.

Related Article: Encouraging Serendipity to Create Unique Meeting Experiences

3. Remove participants from distractions

A session on a noisy trade show floor will not work unless you are blocking out sound. If your content is important, do you want them to give 100 percent attention? This is a difficult compromise, but delegates who cannot focus on the content are not likely to be as positive or potentially as keen to meet the exhibitors who distracted them.

4. Ask attendees to write down what they have learned

Research has repeatedly shown that asking attendees what they have received from a session reminds them that they should have learned something. It focuses their attention on what they got out of the session. You can also ask what they might change as a result. Give them time at the end to focus on their own learning.

5. Are you sitting comfortably?

Sounds obvious, but all too often our participants are not. I have been to sessions at events where I have had to focus attention while balanced precariously on a beanbag. In that situation I paid more attention to how I could get up again than to what the presenters had to say. For sessions that require focus on content, less distracting environments and traditional settings work best. Just make sure participants are comfy and able to access refreshments (in particular water), and you will help them stay attentive.

Of course, it would be good if participants switched their devices off, too. But this is an issue that invites debate. If the content is important and the setting is right, they will switch them off themselves. A suggestion to switch off helps too, for the sake of their own ROI.


The ability to be attentive, to hold the focus of many in a world crammed full of distractions is a skill of the future and a skill for right now. Businesses will thank you for the outcomes such attention produces. My research revealed real value in deeper learning, discovery and motivation for those who paid attention. Online environments are built to distract us, and the successful meetings of the future will be the direct opposite. So the future is as rosy as the skies over Seahouses, if planners simply learn or relearn to hold our attention and give us time to stop and look.



Jackie Mulligan
Jackie Mulligan

Dr. Jackie Mulligan (MPI U.K. & Ireland Chapter) led her own doctoral research on the role of meetings in stimulating creativity, examining design, experience and outcomes. She co-owns and directs events for Game Republic and is CEO and founder of ShopAppy.com, a digital platform for independent retailers and franchises to boost local economies and communities. Contact her at jackie@shopappy.com or via Twitter (@JackieMulls).