Designing Events That Activate Emotion

Much has been written about experiential events, those that strive to bond attendees with the corporate brand or event organization by immersing them in fun, engaging experiences. But, there is more to experience design than delivering fun. To truly connect with an audience, the event has to plumb the depths of human emotion by addressing four key drives: acquiring, bonding, learning, and defending. It may require some new thinking about what attendees really need and how to give it to them.

The Critical Connection Between Emotion and Event Design

The four-drive theory was developed by Harvard Business School’s Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria and articulated in their 2002 book, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices. It was recently revisited by Mary Beth McEuen, former vice-president and executive director of The Maritz Institute, who used it to support her presentation at PCMA’s EduCon on a next-generation approach to leadership development. A Convene magazine interview of McEuen provided readers with her perspective on the relationship between emotion and event design:

“All of these drives are underpinned by emotion, and that is where the real richness comes into play for the [event] designer — so much of what you are trying to design is an emotional experience of the event. People are bonding with each other, laughing with each other, building relationships, building trust, generating new thinking and new ideas, and there is cooperation and even wonder awe, and curiosity. The more you have those types of emotions throughout an event, [attendees] will leave with a distinctly different memory.”

How To Plan Events That Meet Attendees’ Emotional Needs

What types of activities and programming can event planners implement to address the four drives? Here are some event ideas.


Humans, according to Lawrence and Nohria, not only want material possessions, but also nonmaterial things like status, power, and influence. Association conferences do a good job of elevating the position of attendees (primarily members) in these key areas through awards (Planner of the Year, Rising Star, 20 Under 20, etc.), advisory boards, and speaking slots on the conference program. There are other types of takeaways and recognition that planners of all types of events can also consider:

  •      Nothing beats a good swag bag—especially when it’s filled with practical items like phone chargers or earbuds provided by sponsors.
  •      Try crowdsourcing ideas before the event and giving contributors public credit for contributing. Some crowdsourcing platforms allow participants to “vote up” submissions.
  •      A game strategy was made for the acquire drive. Roll out some games and reward players with spots on the leaderboard, digital badges, and actual prizes.
  •      Make it a point to call out great content, good ideas, and major influence on social media during the event and top it off with a social wall onsite to highlight the callouts.


Conferences, trade shows, and meetings are tailor-made for fomenting relationships and facilitating interaction with people. Some traditional standbys for helping attendees bond include sporting events, such as golf tournaments or 5K runs/walks, corporate social responsibility campaigns (building houses or stuffing backpacks with school supplies), and the all-purpose networking event. But in the new world order of experiential events, there are plenty of other elements of  experience design that planners can employ at events:

  •      Try dividing up attendees with similar interests into “teams” to navigate your event “together” and report back to the group when team members break away to attend a specific presentation.
  •      For local or regional meetings, allow attendees to bring their dogs. It sounds crazy, but it’s an amazing icebreaker outside the event space and could help introverts bond more quickly inside the event.
  •      Create more intimacy with lots of comfy seating areas, micro-sessions (like campfires) and unconference-style session formats. It’s much easier to bond when there are fewer people in the group.
  •      Mobile matchmaking apps don’t exactly bond people together, but they are precursors to interaction. Without them, people are left to “work the crowd” on their own and that isn’t always as effective in large events.  


Practically every survey ever done about why people go to conferences renders the same answer; people go to meetings to learn. So it makes sense that planners would dedicate the lion’s share of their programming efforts to delivering compelling, new, and evocative content. But Lawrence and Nohria define learning as exploring new areas of life, practicing new skills, and satisfying new curiosities, which for planners, can be a license to bust the doors of in-event learning wide open, for example:

  •      Crafts and toys used to fire up brain neurons and cause attendees to think in new ways represent a new landscape for learning at events—especially given the “maker” trend of the past decade.  
  •      Discussions on topics, such as winemaking, organic farming, or books that deviate from standard conference fare can be deeply satisfying and memorable for many attendees.
  •      Presentations can be boring. Instead, do away with them altogether. Deliver content to attendees in advance and use the together time formerly known as a session to discuss and share ideas about the topic.


Even Mary Beth McEuen admits that event planners should prevent the drive to defend from being activated in attendees because it’s a stressor. Planners can take some action to protect their attendee customers and reduce their need to defend in a number of ways:

  •      Personal security is huge. Planners can do more to prevent dangerous actors from gaining entrance to meeting spaces, but they can also take action to make events more inclusive with regard to people with disabilities, life-threatening food allergies, or mental illness.
  •      Cybersecurity is and will continue to be a threat to meetings. Planners must begin to implement anti-hacking measures and attendee training to minimize risk and select event technologies that meet acceptable security standards—especially with regard to payment information.
  •      Have “the talk” with conference centers, hotels, and offsite venues and let your attendees know that you are doing everything you can to secure their safety.

Emotion, exemplified by the four key drives is an integral part of experience design. It triggers memorability which results in behavior change—returning the following year, buying a brand’s products, using more products from exhibitors, more often, etc. Event planners looking to create more compelling experiences need to embed all four elements in the design of their events. When they do, according to the four-drive theory, attendees will not only attend, but they will actively seek out events that meet their needs.

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