There’s a reason why the popular TED Talks format is limited to no more than 18 minutes. With backing from real-world research and the field of neuroscience, TED curator Chris Anderson explains that the organization decided on the 18-minute format because “it is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention.” This approach closely matches up with the long-time standard of keeping adult learning cycles to no more than 20 minutes.

That means, if you are hosting a meeting or training that’s longer than 18-20 minutes, you’ll need to find ways to keep your audience engaged. It will require changing up the learning activities at regular intervals and allowing time and space for actual bio-breaks (restrooms and coffee refills) as well as the occasional “brain break”. In this time of COVID-19 mitigation, many of us are having to switch our day-to-day business operations to include multiple conference calls and virtual meetings as well as keep our operations running smoothly with employee onboarding, training sessions and team meetings. All of which can last a lot longer than any of us have the attention for!

Some of our other ADR Vantage posts will be offering tips for virtual audience engagement but right now, let’s consider this idea of brain breaks. Brain breaks are opportunities to re-set the attention span clock and re-focus your audience. During these breaks, the brain moves away from learning and problem-solving and is able to refresh, see new perspectives, incubate ideas and even come up with new solutions. Different people need different types of brain breaks so we’re offering a few 1 – 3-minute suggestions you can try that boost energy, creativity and attention to re-set and refresh your audience.

  • Try a simple movement exercise with your group. Whether you are on an audio or video conference call, you can ask everyone to take 1 minute to get up, move around and stretch. Our brains need oxygen to do our best work so getting your body moving is a great way to re-invigorate your audience. I used to work for the YMCA years ago so one of my favorite movement-based brain breaks is to walk your meeting attendees through how to do a “YMCA” body stretch. Imagine making each letter with your body. Start with arms above your head in a big reach-to-the-sky stretch to form the “Y”, then arch both arms down so your hands touch the top of your head like the McDonald’s golden arches to form the “M”, next make a big “C” stretching to the right and then the left (a forward and backward “C”) to get both sides moving and, lastly, end back with your arms stretched way up and have your hands come together to form a peak above your head for the “A”.
  • 5-4-3-2-1 is another great brain break activity that is simple to do and can be changed in a variety of ways to fit your particular audience. Check out wellness expert Jay Shetty’s guidance on this example that asks individuals to gently close their eyes for a few seconds and then take turns sharing aloud 5 things that they hear (lights humming, cars outside, the radio, their clock ticking, and their cat meowing in the other room), 4 things they see (computer screen, sun outside their window, letters to open on their desk, a bottle of water), 3 things they feel (warm sweater they are wearing, stomach growling, and breeze from a fan nearby), 2 things they smell (their own perfume, lemon scented candle) and 1 thing they taste (coffee from their morning java). You could swap in anything for this. Try 5 favorites movies, 4 things that make you happy, 3 pet peeves, 2 favorite snacks, 1 place they have traveled. The options are endless! The side benefit from this activity is that it’s also a de-stressor – your brain can’t stay in high anxiety mode and also pay attention to this activity. Perfect for helping your team stay calm in times of crisis!
  • Lastly, get creative! Play music; have each person share a photo of their family or their last vacation; ask a question like “what’s the last thing that made you laugh?” or “what are your weekend plans?” or “what would you do with an entire day off from work?” Anything you do to break up the pacing of the session and refocus a small bit of time on the audience, rather than your meeting or training content, can actually bring fresh energy and perspective to your session.  Your meeting participants will thank you and everyone will leave the session feeling like it was time well-spent.

Tara B Taylor, MPA
Managing Director