Encouraging Serendipity to Create Unique Meeting Experiences

Encouraging Serendipity to Create Unique Meeting Experiences

By Blair Potter | Aug 11, 2017

I have spent a lot of years talking about objectives and structures of events. It is a science and an increasingly necessary feature of meetings. But sometimes I wonder if we are losing something by over-engineering our events.

Are we over-structuring experience at the expense of fleeting moments of serendipity? Why should I care? Because researchers have recognized that fleeting moments—those encounters with the unexpected—can trigger motivation, loyalty and new ideas.

I’ll give you an example. Spending money can be quite a bland, transactional and routine exchange. But lately I have been examining my £5 notes a little more closely. The world of the great British pound has all gone a bit Willy Wonka. Not just because of Brexit.

It’s all thanks to artist Graham Short, who carefully drew a miniature Jane Austen onto four £5 notes and let them circulate in the economy before announcing what he had done. Just one of these £5 notes could be worth thousands of pounds. After that announcement, that everyday exchange took on a whole new meaning. Thanks to this bizarre initiative, we find ourselves examining something all too familiar in a whole new way.

As we peer at the reference number or hold our blue £5 notes up to the light, looking for the hidden artistry, we re-appreciate the artwork in the £5 note itself. The story reminds me that when we do something with the familiar, we look at things differently. Looking at things differently has inspired the most powerful ideas. And that element of chance makes the everyday more inspiring.

At the opposite end of the serendipity of the £5 “golden ticket” are routine experiences. In my future trends talks over the years I have asked participants to imagine what an Amazon meeting would look like. There isn’t much chance in that scenario. Participants often recognize that such a meeting would not be full of surprises.

Related Article: 5 Ways to Keep Your Meeting Attendees Focused

The Power of Serendipity in Your Meetings

An Amazon meeting would use data to curate and personalize experiences, yes, but wild cards would be few and far between. After a workshop, a participant might receive suggestions for the next session based on what others who liked similar activities had done.

Our choices would be channeled, funneled, and peripheral sessions outside our registered interests might disappear from our agendas. This would be a scientific approach, based on logic and behavioral algorithms governed by probabilities and predictions. Super efficient, but…

I worry that our increasingly structured approaches might program out the wonder, the surprise and the magic of our events. That would be a big shame given that my research has shown that positive emotional reactions sparked by novelty ignite our imaginations.

When we are surprised by something unexpected appearing in our everyday, we begin to make associations. The more distant associations we make between objects and experiences, the more new and surprising ideas become. While I am yet to experience a full-on Amazon approach to meetings just yet, there is increasing structure and design that controls our experiences creeping in.

From the scheduling apps to the recording of behaviors at events, from the tailored marketing to the speaker briefings. It is all good for helping us hit objectives, but in all that tracking of delegate data, let’s not lose track of the power of serendipity, too. After all, going off track might be where our delegates find the newest ideas.

Unexpected encounters and surprises inspire us to share our experiences more widely both on social media and face to face. Many of us are novelty-seekers, and my research showed what impact finding new content, new people and new approaches could have. But it is still more than that. At meetings it is our duty to disrupt the everyday thinking even more, because this might be the only chance our attendees get to do something different.

Is it time to inject a bit of artistry into your events? One inspiration you could use is the Books on the Underground project where “book fairies” leave their favorite books on the London Underground (http://booksontheunderground.co.uk). Emma Watson (formerly Hermione in the Harry Potter films, so more of a book wizard) recently left books around the Underground. Some included special notes from her to the reader, too.

When word (or rather tweet) got out there was genuine excitement about the potential of discovering these personalized items. Watson and indeed the project had injected a bit of wonder into the commute, an activity that often just takes place in autopilot for most of us as we trundle off and on to the subway, eyes glued to devices. I can safely say in the quest for these books and notes, I actually saw commuters raise their eyes from their screens and look around.


So how might this translate to a meeting? The most mundane of activities when you go into a big meeting can be the registration, queuing up or grabbing your lanyards. Next time you are standing in line or looking at your attendees on their meeting commute, maybe ask yourself if it is time to add a bit more serendipity and wizardry to your meeting? Expelliarmus Routinus!



Blair Potter
Blair Potter

Blair Potter is managing editor for The Meeting Professional. He likes toys and collects cats (or is it the other way around?).