The Power of Proximity: What cocktail receptions, selfies & mirror neurons tell us about designing better meetings

A conversation with speaker and author David Meerman Scott and speaker bureau veteran Andrea Driessen

A marvelous, new book about fandom has significant implications for the meetings industry. I recently devoured Fanocracy: Turning Fans into Customers and Customers into Fans, by top speaker and author David Meerman Scott and daughter Reiko Scott. In this lively back-and-forth with David, we’ll examine a critical—and actionable!—concept from David’s book as it relates to events: proximity.

Andrea: I loved your book Fanocracy, David. There’s so much in it to explore, all of it relevant to today’s business climate. You devote a chapter to the idea of proximity, referring to the level of closeness among people. For our purposes here, let’s consider these people event attendees.

Why is proximity so important at meetings and events?

David: Thank you Andrea! I’m honored that you read Fanocracy and thrilled that you enjoyed it. Writing the book with my 26-year-old daughter has been a fantastic experience for me.

I remember about a decade ago when many people were predicting the death of physical events. Because the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of superficial online communications at a time when people are hungry for true human connection, in-person events are thriving like never before.

In short, humans—because we are human!—crave true personal connection. Sounds obvious, yet in an increasingly virtual world, human connection has never mattered more. And events are ideal arenas to experience the thrill of shared emotion and excitement.

Here’s what the science of proximity shows us: the closer you get to someone, the more powerful the shared emotions. This comes from the great work of Dr. Nick Morgan, president of Public Words, a communications consulting company, and author of Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others and Maximizing your Personal Impact.

Morgan expanded the pioneering work of Edward T. Hall who first identified these ideas in the 1950s.

For meeting professionals, success comes from finding ways to facilitate interactions among attendees that bring them closer together—into social space of 12 feet or less, or better yet, personal space of 4 feet or less, if only for a few moments.

Andrea: Why 12 feet or less? Sometimes in a large event that could be a challenge to achieve, right?

David: The more opportunities you create for group interactive work, during a presentation perhaps, or for social time for people to mingle (people at a cocktail party are about 4 feet away when the chat), the better.

There’s another aspect of neuroscience that comes into play with meetings. Because in these closer-up interactions, our unconscious brain can respond to what we see as if it were our own experience…even if what we see is on a far-away stage and we aren’t even directly interacting ourselves. All because of mirror neurons. These neurons activate when we perform an action—AND they fire when we observe someone else performing the same action.

So, for example, if you’re at a meeting, and those around you are happy, you’ll often smile too. We’re biologically wired for this.

Andrea: Sounds as if it’s crucial, then, for event attendees to interact more with presenters and with each other. But what if you’re staging a huge meeting, with hundreds or thousands of people? Is it even possible to generate any sense of proximity or intimacy??

David: Yes! An easy way to facilitate this is to make sure you have high quality live video at your events. Showing what’s happening on the stage allows people’s brains to tell them they are in the social space of the presenters through the power of mirror neurons. That’s why we feel we “know” movie stars or television stars. Great use of video allows attendees to bond with presenters.

A technique I use that Morgan taught me is to interact several times during my talk with several audience members. When I do, the rest of the audience simply observes this, and at the subconscious level, it’s as if everyone is interacting. Cool, huh?

Andrea: Wow, I had no idea—that has powerful implications for any meeting. Because you bring more interactivity, and don’t just “stand and deliver” from stage, the audience gets a more meaningful, and more intimate-feeling, event experience?

David: Absolutely. Because the closer someone is, the more we pay attention to them. When we bring like-minded people together into a social space—which is what an event really is—it’s HUGELY powerful. As I say in my book, “Fandom is the sharing of emotional bonds with others, and it’s a human instinct that’s hardwired into each of us.”

But this has to be authentic. Speakers need to practice the technique because if it feels contrived, then the speaker will instantly lose the audience.

Andrea: I’m totally in synch with you on this David—I’m sure my mirror neurons are firing all over the place! 😉

Your concepts align with a segment in my book, The Non-Obvious Guide to Event Planning: For Kick-Ass Gatherings that Inspire People. I share with readers that to stage a truly rave-worthy, ROARING (not boring!) event, the very best step we can take is to ask a simple but straightforward question: What are we going to do together that can only be experienced LIVE?

This one question forces us to design for emotional, memorable, face-to-face, co-created experiences. For compelling moments in time that are unique to each audience, that have never happened before and will never happen again. For moments and even days of actual listening, dialog, trust building, empathy and collaboration.

Said another way, the question becomes: “What will we do, experience and learn at this event that could never be communicated in a slide deck, video, podcast, social media post or webinar?”

David: Something that very few events do which can be super powerful is have a dedicated person to interact with social media and create a hashtag for the event. Sharing photos of people interacting gets those mirror neurons firing! And that content is available to people who aren’t at the meeting so they can experience what the event is like and maybe want to attend the next year.

Andrea: Drilling down a bit more, David, can you share some specific ways that our readers can maximize these ideas in their actual event design?

David: You bet. Here are three ways.

  1. Choose speakers who are adept at interacting with audiences, beyond just standard Q&A and beyond not-actually-interactive audience polling. Your curated list of interactive speakers is a great resource in this regard.
  2. Use videos and photos effectively. As noted above, sharing group photos and videos during and after events generates more mirror-neuron activity among attendees and produces more “conductivity” to your organization among those who weren’t there in person.
  3. Consistently schedule speaker-audience receptions with plenty of chances for selfies. We know that selfies are a powerful and immediate way to share emotion because they break the proximity barrier. And they’re a socially sanctioned means to get into others’ personal space, including and especially with celebrities.

Thanks, David! It’s been wonderful to “get proximate” with you for this dialog!

Hey readers! Let’s make this real. Here are your action steps: