And why neurodiversity can strengthen your event...
Neurodiversity in the workplace and friend-space is something I feel passionately about. This follows a bit of a personal renaissance where I finally stopped letting go of trying to be "normal" and instead started putting more time and effort into understanding why I am the way I am and how I could lean in to the unique me-- in order to be a better friend, attendee, employee and partner.
Let me give this some more color. I am a meeting planner, yes, but I am also a regular meeting attendee. My skin would crawl when I looked at an agenda with large blocks of time for content. Usually there was a title and a description but not really an idea of format so I had the "world of the unknown" creep in--and as someone with heavy social anxiety and OCD, "unknown scenarios" are my number one enemy. I knew that I would feel 'trapped' and my anxiety would be heightened as soon as I walked in the door. What if, god forbid, they made us report out what we FEEL at each table. What if I wasn't anywhere near a bathroom or what if -- even worse the room was right NEXT to the bathroom and you could hear the toilet flush! What if my IBS acted up? What if I really needed to leave the room but the only chair available was the middle seat in the middle of a HUGE row of theater seats. What if I felt panicky and sweaty and everyone noticed and I was made to feel foolish in front of people I respected. The picture goes on and on -- you get the drift. (Side note: anxiety is not fun).
But look, I knew that other people didn't necessarily feel this way. Or so I ASSUMED, and we all know how that saying goes about assuming... So anyways, I was on a journey to 'fix' me. I spent hours, dollars, EVERYTHING trying to make me normal. I was a therapy regular. Medication - of course! I was on it! I can't tell you how many sleepless nights there were leading up to events or presentations or social events where I just begged the powers that be to make me NORMAL. I just wanted to get rid of these things that I felt were holding me back and blend seamlessly in with the crowd. I got great at being self-deprecating.
Then COVID hit. Whereas others may have struggled, I flourished. Travel slowed down, social interaction slowed down. Others felt trapped and I finally felt FREE. Behind the screen I was able to start speaking virtually and connecting with others like ME. Slowly I learned that my voice isn't on an island, but on a continent with others who learn, feel and express like myself! This was my AHA! moment. We aren't all the same and that is what makes us beautifully unique. That is where our superpowers are at their shiniest!
So that brings me to today---COVID is "over", we are back to IRL interaction, and honestly I thought things with change about how we conduct business--no, about how we ENGAGE. Yet here I sit, feeling like I'm walking into the twilight zone and back to 2019.
I've always been an "accidental" leader. In 2014 I brought together a group of women I admired because I felt really strongly that women needed a voice in the events world. By 2015 the Association for Women in Events was launched. By 2016 we had over 1,000 members and I was their executive director. Today, my focus has changed to something else I feel strongly about -- diverse voices are still so important to me, yes, but also diversity as a whole. A deeper dive into what makes each of us tick.
So for months I've been thinking on this. How do we use different engagement styles, different view points and unique super powers to meet people where they are and where they are most comfortable in a conference and learning setting. At a place where they feel truly comfortable sharing and learning so that we can grow together and truly CONNECT as humans. How do we stop saying #StrongerTogether and actually WALK that talk -- hand in hand. I've always thought meeting planners rule the world - I will say it LOUDER for the back of the room. We have the power to reach communities -- in person and virtually. We have the POWER of connection! That is fundamentally who we are and one of our collective innate powers.
For Meeting Planners, I ask you to challenge yourself to think about your attendees with a new lens. Stop engaging in "personas" -- (Ok, maybe keep doing that because companies like Storycraft Labs are doing REALLY COOL things in that space) but I challenge you to dive even DEEPER. Let's realize that not all people engage the same way. Not all process information and LEARN like others. If we do ourselves one justice, let's find ways to diversify and truly reach everyone where they are at and allow more people to come to the table at their own pace.
I've gathered some tips on how YOU can be more inclusive in building your meetings and events;
Engagement & Sharing
I think it is BEYOND cool when people feel comfortable on stage or raise their hands in a meeting or do any one of those amazingly confident things that plagued me for a long time as a young adult. We APPLAUD those things -- it is easy for me to say that I believe those with the strongest and clearest voice often have the first (and last) say. But what about all of those other AMAZING perspectives that we are missing?
Spoiler alert, some people hate forced interaction. Some people need it. Do it--but also make sure attendees know it is optional. Give them a second way to engage. If you are doing a round table, give other attendees a fun and interactive mobile app engagement gamification where they can also be seen, share perspectives, talk to one another and learn!
Attention spans-- whew! This is a BIG ONE. Some people (I hear you my ADD and ADHD friends) have about 15-25 minutes of attention available at any given setting. So make your content impactful by allowing for those long 1 to 1.5 hour keynotes but also fluttering in IMPORTANT (and this is important--not just filler) content in bite-sized sections as well.
In that vein, give people BREAKS! Are you taking into account people's blood sugar? Diabetics that get trapped in those theater seats I am looking at YOU and feeling you deeply. So how do we combat? Bite sized topics, allow for more AISLES and "escape routes" --this is also super helpful for those suffering from autism. Play around with seating. Comfortable couches are also a sensory WIN! Not to mention a win for those with physical issues.
Learning styles are different for each person. I've mentioned this before but some people learn ONLY visually. Some people learn orally. Others must read it themselves to truly absorb any content. I've been in a keynote where I walked away completely frustrated and unaffected but my neighbor felt something completely differently. We are DIFFERENT, people. We learn and interact in different ways. We hear different things - even as we listen to the same thing. My learning style is visual. I need imagery to go along with the words spoken aloud. Others may only observe content through reading. Make sure they have a printed guide or a QR code to a website with either the captions from the event or a script/guide/book etc! Find ways to meet people where they are at-even if it means doing the same thing several ways.
Creating Safe Spaces
Have you ever been to an event and you feel exhausted afterwards? Why? Is it because you didn't have enough breaks? Enough time to eat or nourish your body and soul? Amplify that greatly for someone from a neurodivergent perspective.
Give people TIME. Yes, I know--this seems counterintuitive. You have a captive audience and you have a small window to engage them. However, my meetings started to change once I built in more free time. People started to thank me and my team for realizing that they are human and their own lives are important as well. We all have "stuff". We all need to connect with family on the road. To send that important email. As my colleague puts it so well "handle our business". Yes, yes we do. And for the overstimulated, you are giving them life by giving them FREE TIME.
Give people SPACE. This could be a small conference room that is darker and has a little zen music playing. I used to call them "zen dens" at my old conferences and if you have the funds, this is a great place to throw in a few massage chairs. Give people the ability to walk away at their own pace. Here is a bit of low handing fruit---change your learning rooms from florescent lighting to dim or natural lighting and EVERYONE will thank you.
"Activities" are a yes as long as people have options. Asking everyone to join outside in 95 degree heat for a community service project is great, but what about those that have auto-immune disorders that don't handle heat very well? What about those that need shade because of skin concerns or vision issues. We need to give opt outs and opt in to other ways to meet + engage.
In obvious terms-- allow people to bring their emotional support animal. But what I want to do is dig deeper on what emotional support may mean to your attendee. What about emotional support PEOPLE? Another thing that has changed my meetings is engaging people where they can also bring a spouse. Include them. Make your attendees feel like their lives outside of their business matters. Sometimes the right person can bring them comfort but also there's nothing wrong with wanting to know more about your attendees lives in an authentic way.
Lastly, I implore all of us to just ask the right questions. You may be scratching your head thinking-- "But I always ask our attendees if they need accommodations and no one ever responds!". Well I am here to tell you that language is IMPORTANT. In your registration process you can ask people if they have sensory preferences instead of "accommodations". Most people that are neurodivergent (it's me! Hi!) don't necessarily feel like we need accommodations or want to bother busy planners. But we DO have preferences and things that will make our lives easier and more comfortable. I often find blank question boxes go unanswered, but when you start to give people starter ideas, you can engage their brain more effectively. Asking questions like, "Do you prefer an ice breaker in person or virtually"?, "Would you prefer an agenda with 30 min sessions or hour sessions" in the pre-planning or post-conference survey phase may help with the "guessing game" we sometimes take on as planners.
I could go on. I am working on a more comprehensive guide--but as I scratch the surface, I wanted to share the above to get us started right away. Why? Because all of these things create a place where people can be happy and felt seen & heard. Guess what happy people do? They come BACK. They write good reviews, they give good net-promoter scores, they tell their friends. Their friends come. This is a win-win. Invest in your people and I truly believe that investment will come back to you.