“To create meaningful experiences it’s got to be entertaining. It’s got to have a story. You’ve got to give me a reason to care because my lazy brain just wants to idle. And really have authentic emotion.” – Paul Zak
How can we create experiences that are more engaging, more human, and more connected?
Paul Zak, founder and Chief Immersion Officer of Immersion Neuroscience, joins Alison Whitmire for an interactive Heal The Divide Podinar session to discuss how we can intentionally design effective learning experiences — those where participants remember information and are motivated to act on the new knowledge they have gained.
Paul Zak is the founding director of the Center of Neuroeconomics Studies and professor of Economic Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University.
In a quest to understand the neuroscience of human connection, human happiness, and effective teamwork, Paul’s two decades of research have taken him from the Pentagon to Fortune 50 boardrooms and to the rain forests of Papua New Guinea. His research on oxytocin and relationships has earned him the nickname Dr. Love.
Immersion neuroscience is the study of what causes the brain to make oxytocin and what behavioral effects it has on us. It looks at what is present in an environment that causes us to transport ourselves in an experience. For ‘state immersion’ to occur, two things need to be present: oxytocin and attention to the experience. We need to value an experience and it needs to be emotionally resonant and engage the brain. The benefit of valuing an experience or finding it meaningful in some way is that we have a higher quality interaction — we enjoy what we are doing and can recall information with much more ease.
It’s helpful to think of immersion as what happens in an engaged interaction between two people. An example of this is a movie that makes us cry. Although the character we are interacting with is an actor on a screen, we become swept up in the story which elicits an emotional response. It’s a set of mechanisms in the brain that cause us to transport ourselves into an experience.
It takes metabolic energy for us to acquire information or have an experience. Research from Accenture’s learning architect team has shown that twenty minutes is the maximum amount of time a person can sustain attention. For this reason, the ’20/20/20 rule’ can be a useful tool to create immersive experiences in training and other similar environments. Here’s how it breaks down: Twenty minutes of a presentation, followed by twenty minutes of an active ask, and then a final twenty minutes of debriefing.
As it turns out, after a time of being engaged, our neurons become fatigued just like the muscles in our bodies do following physical exercise. Shorter more intense sessions with longer breaks where we can refresh allow us to come back ready for immersion again.
For today’s predominant virtual learning situations, the time that we can stay immersed and hold our attention is even shorter. The key is to break things down into possibly even smaller chunks and offer participatory tasks, just like we would in an in-person class. There are some other ways to add to our audience experience to increase attention and connection such as offering participants time to meet in small groups through virtual break-out rooms to mix up the experience. Simply inviting participants to stand up and move around or do an exercise as a group is also effective. When we’re offering talks like keynote presentations, we can make a point to incorporate various types of media to keep people’s interest. Taking the risk to be vulnerable or perhaps adding something silly also helps to break the ice and build connection in virtual situations.
While certain things increase our attention, there are others that can inhibit it too. Long speaker introductions typically offered at the beginning of a presentation can drain the energy of the audience, and truly aren’t needed. Instead, make a point to grab people’s attention in an energetic and interesting way from the beginning. A static pace at any point during an experience will quickly nose dive attention.
The precursor for building human connection and trust in others is what we call psychological safety. We can think of it as the inverse of anxiety. If we don’t establish psychological safety from the start, it’s going to be a challenge to make that connection later on.
Creating psychological safety is also particularly important now in the virtual world many of us are operating in on a daily basis. Allowing space to get to know people on a more personal level or catch up with colleagues with informal chit chat about life can be meaningful and build connection. We can also attune to people’s facial expressions and overall energy for possible opportunities for emotional connection. Simply asking a colleague who may look a little down “How are you feeling today?” provides a chance to share and build trust and connection.
Research shows that storytelling is the most effective way to immerse people in information. This is because our brains are built to connect with stories. So what does that look like? It means telling a human-scale story with a narrative arch where real people have authentic tension or a crisis, and then that crisis resolves. The story works to evoke powerful emotional responses that generate connection. The point of immersion tends to track with the arch of the story, creating a halo effect where the audience connects with the story and with us.
To create experiences that truly matter to our audiences, we can think of it a little like ‘edutainment.’ Our brains tend to be lazy and want to remain idle so we must give them a reason to care. Making our content entertaining helps our audience retain information so they can take action on it later. Using an engaging and authentic story that follows the classic narrative arch creates the emotional resonance and connection need to engage the brain and allows us to be transported into the experience.