Google Xi Days: how to maximize return on emotion as demonstrated by a tech giant

Inclusivity. The idea of making everyone feel welcome is something meeting professionals talk about a lot, but Megan Henshall, Google strategic solution lead, Smart Women in Meetings Visionary Award winner and the first-mover behind Google Experience Institute (Xi) Days decided it was time to show what is possible by demonstrating the strategies to appeal to all types of attendees, including the half of the population that identifies as introverted.

The three-day event was designed for meeting professionals based on best behavioral science practices for designing truly inclusive events. Each day featured (and tested) was a different agenda format. Day one was a good old-fashioned general session with speakers on stage from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a truly optional F&B experience.

Day two was a “museum” format where people could walk at their leisure to explore different experiences (described as a cross between a trade show and an unconference, but structured and no one is selling anything) accompanied by TED Talk-style, 15-minute sessions about the activations being demonstrated, including an AR experience of a non-neurotypical existence by heightening a particular sense. A “tune bed” allowed participants to lay in a meditative state while a machine vibrates in conjunction with tones going through their ear. The variety of content delivery methods provided optionality and modality so everyone could learn in the way that suits them best.

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Austin-based event design company Haute supported Henshall’s vision with their Return on Emotion Rules to Engagement approach to planning events. We downloaded after the event with Haute CEO Alisa Walsh and Head of Creative Development Jordan Valdez to harness tips meeting professionals for all types of audiences can learn from this tech leader.

Rebirth and Restructuring

“It was a meeting of the minds and hearts,” Valdez said of the collaboration. “The number of times the full team would end up in tears was really wild.” He described the eruptions as outbursts of joy and frustration that occurred over the almost two years they were planning the three-day event that went down at Pier 57 in New York City in March.

One of the sessions came about as a result of the personal experience Henshall had as the mother of a newly diagnosed child on the autism spectrum. She saw for herself how few resources were available for meeting professionals and decided to identify tips for neuro-inclusion from neurodiverse experts by crowdsourcing a document to capture new methods of inclusion, a survey Smart Meetings helped circulate last year. The goal of The Neu Project was to demystify and normalize neurodiversity, inspire event professionals to design events that are more considerate and inclusive of all neuro types. That includes a whole range of autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome or brain injuries—a population that could make up as much as 20% of the population.

Valdez credited Covid with breaking the status quo so we could all envision new ways of meeting and with making the coordinated meeting in time and space more meaningful after being apart for so long. “Trauma begets rebirth and restructuring,” said Valdez.

Haute preaches the gospel of “meeting people where they are.” That doesn’t mean physically. The battle cry refers to accommodating people emotionally and intellectually, respecting how they learn and interact with words, people and information. “Despite pushing for change for a decade, that is simply not something that we’ve been seeing reflected in corporate events…up until now,” Valdez said.

The touchstone behind every decision, according to Valdez, was placing a priority on giving people agency, control of their experience. “We don’t want anyone feeling they are trapped in their seat,” he said.

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On the first day, attendees were encouraged to come and go as they needed. “This allowed people to be in their body,” he said, explaining that when you feel antsy and your mind starts to wander, it’s your body saying, “Oh, no, I’m done.” By allowing people to get up, stretch, turn off, and then turn back on, he observed that they were more engaged when they were in the room. “We’re trying to play to human nature instead of fighting against human nature,” he said.

“We’re trying to play to human nature instead of fighting against human nature.”

–  Jordan Valdez

For the more than seven hours the floor was open on the experimental day two, people were encouraged to come just in the morning or afternoon depending on their circadian rhythms and/or work/life schedules as everything was repeated.

Day three ended with a group Kumbaya moment. “Over the three days, it ceased to be an event and sort of became a movement,” Walsh said, one that is still gaining momentum in emails and relationships.

“Over the three days, it ceased to be an event and sort of became a movement.”

–  Alisa Walsh

Valdez stressed the importance of this fresh approach because while some people may desperately need the breaks, everyone can benefit from being able to breathe. “That is what we did, we provided breath. Within that breath is where all the magic happens,” he said.

Baby Steps

For meeting professionals who want to borrow a page from the Xi Days playbook, but don’t have Google-sized budgets, the Haute team had some suggestions for low or even no-cost steps that can make a big difference for those who process information differently than how many distraction-rich events are optimized for. “Inclusivity is active, it’s never passive,” said Valdez. “It doesn’t have to be expensive, but you do have to take time to think about everything in advance.”

Extreme Transparency: Give information way in advance; let people know (preferably in a format with a soft yellow background to cut down on harsh contrasts) what is going to be expected of them. This means more than posting an agenda on a tab of the website. Let them know if they might be called on to speak. Will they be required to participate in one-on-one engagements? That way they can be prepared.

Disruption Signaling: A related measure was creating icons that alerted attendees when they were entering an area where a sense sensitivity activity might be occurring—be it a dance party or bright lights. Once alerted, they could decide for themselves how to manage, whether that be bringing earplugs or preparing to leave the room.

Quiet Space: Provide a place where attendees can remove themselves any time they might need. They will not be engaged there and it will be accessible at all times.

Food Security: Reassure people who might be nervous about be access to food (or the types of nutrition they need) by providing an open pantry with healthy snacks.

Room to Explore: A soft opening of the space allowed attendees to come in early to explore so they could find their own comfort level.

Return on Emotion Metrics

If emotional shifts are the goal, how do you measure success? Haute Agency CEO Alisa Walsh reported that 95% of decisions are emotionally based, but the emotions her team focuses on for events are: hopefulness, activity, adventurousness, acceptance and motivation.

The most straightforward way to determine effectiveness in these areas is to ask attendees to rate these feelings on a scale of one to 10 in a standard post-event survey. You can also ask in polls and at kiosks using emojis on the show floor during the event (as was done at Google Xi Days) to get a real-time indication. That method also helps people think about what they are experiencing in the moment.

The emotions are also a blueprint. Ask yourself if you are hitting on all of the areas. What could be improved?

Surveys found the Google Xi Days event had some room for improvement in “acceptance” so they might add a post-event gifts or enhanced language for the teaser for the next event that really welcomes people. “Return on emotion is a science,” Walsh said. There is always room for improvement.

Having data takes an approach from being scattershot to laser point. Whether it’s anecdotal, or observed, it is actionable. The Google Xi Days event was a rich experiment that allowed the team to explore new ways of engaging emotions for all audiences.

Walsh stressed that marketers need to accept that at its core, their job is to engage people emotionally. “If you achieve in these five areas, you will have a fan, you will have developed an emotional connection.”

This article appears in the digital-only May 2023 issue. You can subscribe to the magazine here.