5 Fixes for Mediocre Meetings

The state of professional meetings and how they are planned could use a lot of improvement, according to Richard Saul Wurman, creator of the famed TED Conference. 

“There are only a few good meetings out there,” he says, “but that’s true of just about anything. Name any field, and there are only a few practitioners that you could point out as worthwhile. It’s just the nature of the world.” While some might judge Wurman’s view as a bit harsh, it’s undeniable that the art and science of gathering people together for business purposes is a process that can always be refined and improved. 

Indeed, when it comes to planning, certain basic pitfalls threaten to undermine the project, both before and during the event. This special report offers five important ways in which any gathering can better meet its objectives, from conception to execution.

Improve Your Internal Collaboration
One of the biggest problems of putting together an effective program rears its head right in the meeting owner’s backyard—before the event takes place. It’s bad internal partnering: a lack of collaboration between event stakeholders and the finance department. 

“In today’s business world, the biggest challenge is communication,” says Vlad Haltigin, a certified incentive travel executive formerly with Xerox Canada and now an independent consultant for reward and recognition programs based in Oakville, Ontario, Canada.

Most companies don’t have a system in place to facilitate interdepartmental partnering, partly because in the past, meeting planning was managed largely by marketing departments and operated in a silo. “Planning departments have been fairly autonomous for many years,” Haltigin explains.

But today, as companies grapple with the aftermath of the recession and the heightened emphasis on transparency, organizational activities and spending are more highly scrutinized, and “the planner [who] has been able to work independently for many years all of a sudden has a financial person over her shoulder asking, ‘Why are you spending this?’ ” Haltigin says. “The planner now operates in a different situation where it’s essential to partner and collaborate with others in the organization.”

This “new normal” can actually lead to better, more valuable meetings—but only if the events and finance departments establish a solid working relationship and effective lines of communication. There are a few key ways to do this, Haltigin says. First and foremost, it’s crucial for the planner to think of the finance group as a partner. “Don’t treat them as enemies, treat them as allies,” he says. “You each have goals that you have to meet in your departments and overall in the organization. Everybody has a role.”

Educate the finance department on meeting planning. “As the head of my division, from time to time I took key people in finance to lunch to explain how meeting planning works,” says Fred Diniz, managing director for Nanuet, NY-based Global Events Consultants. “I turned our lunch sessions into meeting-planning training seminars. It helps them, and it helps my team work with them.”

That kind of additional effort is critical to taking an event to the next level, says TED’s Wurman. “You have to be a little obsessive to care about everything,” he says. “In the end it comes down to passion. Most meetings are not done by people who are passionate enough to take the time to dig into every detail of an event.”

Haltigin adds that the historically siloed nature of event planning has meant that most people outside of the industry do not know what the day-to-day pressures and expectations are, and sharing this information can lead to much clearer communication and a more fulfilling partnership.

Begin collaborating early on. It’s critical to bring the finance department in during the initial planning stages, both to show the department that you understand its value and to keep colleagues abreast of the requirements and demands from each key stakeholder. By doing this, they will understand exactly where funds are going and why. 

During this stage it’s also essential to create a contingency fund comprising 10 to 20 percent of the budget—and explain the reason why to finance counterparts. “Senior managers typically ask for more than you’re able to deliver,” Haltigin notes. If you have some backup money in the bank, you’ll be able to work with both senior managers and the finance department.

Once rapport has been established, manage the relationship by keeping your counterparts consistently informed, Diniz says. “Keep them close and apprised of all the steps and changes in the planning of the budgets. Manage the relationship and the expectations—don’t blindside your finance people with surprises. Keep them informed and they will work with you,” he advises.
—Agatha Gilmore

Refine Your Strategy
The simplest way to avoid an unfocused—and thus unproductive—meeting is to align your meeting strategy with broader corporate goals. To do this, you need to put in quite a bit of work upfront. 

“If you don’t want to have bad meetings, you have to figure out what the purpose of a meeting is—why it’s being held—not to mention when and how it’s being held,” says Susan Radojevic, president of The Peregrine Agency, a Toronto-based global event portfolio alignment consultancy. “You have to look at your meeting from a strategic, 35,000-foot level.”

Don’t look at each event in a vacuum. Radojevic suggests that planners think about the events they manage as a portfolio, in much the same way financial advisors do. “When you go to a financial advisor, you bring your portfolio of investments and take a look at the return you’re getting from a goals perspective. If you want to retire at 65, how much money do you need? That’s the way we need to start looking at meetings—what’s the purpose of these meetings? Why did we choose these options to deliver? What is the current reality that we’re living in, and do these meetings fit in with that reality?”

“A failed meeting doesn’t deliver on measurable objectives,” says David Rich, founder and leader of George P. Johnson’s global strategy practice and a member of the board of directors for the International Center for Exhibitor and Event Marketing. “When meetings fail to define their objectives in a way that is actionable, they go wrong.” It’s important to review your organization’s meeting practices to see what will and won’t work for a particular event. 

“We’ve run into situations where we’re a new partner and the corporation is approaching initial meeting planning as they’ve always done. We like to start a new discussion, consider what’s been done in the past through the lens of what will satisfy the C-level stakeholders, and then think about what will impact attendees,” says Rich.

Next, craft an outcome-focused agenda. Lynn Davidson, founder and president of Los Angeles-based management consulting firm Direction Focus and the former head of strategic planning process development at Getty Oil Company, puts critical emphasis on outcomes when setting meeting agendas. “The first place people fail is in neglecting to put down on paper the goals they want to achieve as a result of the meeting,” he says. “You need to think of the goals as the design specifications for the meeting.”

The most common problem with a bad agenda is that you can simply run out of time to tackle all the items, says David Sibbet, president and founder of The Grove Consultants International, a San Francisco-based firm that works with organizations to improve planning and organizational change. For critical meetings, have a design team work on the agenda with key stakeholders. Look at it as a living document rather than a time-blocked logistics schedule.

Sibbet, who is also the author of Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity, adds that there is a school of thought that an agenda should never include time limits, but only show the flow of topics. 

“Try to imagine each stage of the agenda and what it needs to achieve,” says Davidson, from Direction Focus. “Meetings all have the same fundamental structure in that you start with a question, then you throw out ideas about how to tackle it, then you filter that feedback down into a solution.”

And consider mimicking entertainment formats, suggests Wurman, beginning with a warm-up of sorts. After all, learning is a form of entertainment. “You shouldn’t be dour about it,” he says. “You should feel entertained. That’s the way you remember things—because they’re interesting. Learning is remembering what you’re interested in.”   
—Kate Mulcrone

Enhance Your Meeting Environment
Your group is gathered in a nondescript meeting room bathed in flickering fluorescent light, sitting in rigid chairs arranged in tight rows. Onstage, a speaker drones on from behind a lectern off stage right. 

By the time your attendees get back to the office, most of what they heard at the meeting will have been long forgotten. How do you solve this? By creating an environment that supports collaboration, connection, and community—all critical to effective meetings—with proper lighting, an appropriate temperature, regulated air quality, and ergonomic seating.

The environment should provide context. There was a time when windows were considered a distraction. Not anymore. Studies show that natural light in a meeting room is an advantage. “Our brains are designed to respond to everything around us through our senses,” notes Andrea Sullivan, an organizational psychologist and CEO of Brain Strength Systems. “Some environments are nourishing and supportive, while others are toxic and draining. Ambient noise can interfere with attention and learning. Music can elicit emotional states and also [works with] our physiological rhythms, with rapid tempos speeding us up and slower ones bringing us to a relaxed state. Even furniture affects the neurotransmitters in our brains in a variety of ways: we are more alert when sitting in straight-backed chairs and more at peace when relaxing on a sofa.” Different color schemes produce different effects, adds Sullivan, with warm colors creating a state of stimulation, and cool colors encouraging greater creativity.

Don’t rely on the hotel for your meeting design. Because of the importance of the meeting environment, “you should design the meeting and not leave it up to the hotel to do it,” says Wurman. “Much thought must be given to every element of the meeting. For instance, if you put the lectern to one side of the stage in a symmetrical auditorium, you can be subconsciously telling the audience that one side [of the room] is more important than the other.”

His advice is to get rid of lecterns all together. “They make it too easy for a speaker to read from a script and that removes vulnerability,” he says. “When speakers are vulnerable, you are most likely to get at the truth of a topic.”    
—Andrea Doyle

Find and Coach Effective Speakers
You can tell with a glance that the speaker you hired wasn’t very engaging if people are hunched over their BlackBerry devices and iPhones during the presentation. So why aren’t they listening to the expert you brought in to enlighten and excite them?

One fairly common answer is that once you hired the speaker, you didn’t bother to spend any time telling him about your company, your attendees, and what challenges they are facing, says Michael Frick, president of Palm Springs, CA-based Speakers Platform, a speakers bureau. 

“Speakers should have at least one in-depth discussion, via conference call, about the event goals with the event planning staff,” Frick suggests. “It is also helpful to have the planning staff thoroughly fill out the pre-program questionnaire that speakers bureaus dispense, since it will provide the background information speakers need to customize their programs.”

Of course, for that to be of any use, the person briefing the speaker must actually know the event’s goals, says Peter Sheahan, a popular speaker and founder of ChangeLabs, a global consulting firm focusing on behavioral change. “It usually takes between an hour and an hour and a half, live on the phone, to get the answers you need. The things that I want to know, in that process, are what is the current state and what is the desired future state—where are we trying to get with this group?” he says. “I have had problems with clients who are involved in the briefing process not necessarily knowing the answers to those questions. I’ve had more than one occasion where I’ve had to go back and brief a second time with an executive, because the meeting planner, or whoever was involved with the client, didn’t really know the answers.”

One event production company that takes this process to heart is Consero, a Bethesda, MD-based firm that produces small events for high-level executives in the legal and information technology fields. 

“I was a practicing lawyer for a number of years and had attended events, and then I started a legal support company and sponsored a number of events,” says Paul Mandell, Consero’s founder and CEO. “I was never really particularly pleased with the experience.”

So Mandell teamed up with a law school classmate and two planners to form a company that would spend as much time and effort on the educational content as it did on the logistics of its events. That means “focusing a little more aggressively than is the norm in the industry on the subject matter that’s being presented,” he explains. 

“We have two separate teams for each event,” Mandell says. “One that focuses aggressively on subject matter and one [made up of] meeting professionals who manage putting together a great event in all other respects.”

Once speakers are chosen, “we’ll have at least one call and email correspondence to make sure we’re tailoring the session to what people were interested in in the first place,” Mandell adds. “We’ll review and provide feedback on any PowerPoint or accompanying information. It’s a very interactive process, and that helps us ensure we’re delivering what our participants want … [and] that the presentation is consistent with the goals we had anticipated.”       
—Leo Jakobson

Pep Up Your Presentations
Ever wonder why Steve Jobs was able to change the world? Part of the reason is that Jobs was a naturally talented showman who captivated audiences with memorable presentations that were emotionally charged and in sync with the way we absorb information. 

“In other words, a presentation needs a good, clear story, and the speaker needs some passion while delivering it,” says acclaimed TED speaker Nancy Duarte, whose presentation design and training firm, Duarte Design Inc., in Mountain View, CA, has aided numerous Fortune 500 firms. “I analyzed Steve Jobs’ 2007 iPhone launch,” says Duarte. “I calculated the number of times he marveled at his own product, saying things like, ‘Isn’t this product great? Isn’t it wonderful?’ He did it an amazing 209 times in 30 minutes.”

Today everyone is pressed for time, but it takes time—and skill—to craft a clever presentation, and that’s generally not part of corporate culture, says Duarte, who has authored best-sellers such as Slideology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations and who counts Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Google, HP, and GE as clients. 

“If you’re delivering a presentation, your goal is to be more interesting than an audience member’s inbox,” she says.

Presentations should promise and deliver value. Many presenters go about their business without delivering the true meaning of their presentations and without letting the audience know what they will get out of them, says Mark Pearson, a professional speaker and television and radio host. The first fatal mistake, he notes, is inundating the audience with text on-screen. 

“You’ve already lost your audience at that point,” he says, explaining that the brain is wired to pay attention to patterns. “As soon as a PowerPoint slide appears, the brain reacts: ‘Have I seen this before? Yes, I’ve seen many boring PowerPoint presentations.’ The brain automatically expects this to be boring and checks out.”

“The slides should be the backdrop and not the focal point,” Duarte points out, while advocating the use of notes on handouts instead to deliver important bullet points. “People turn their backs on dense visuals. There’s too much information.”

Humans have a habit of establishing standards and then mindlessly following convention, so much so that a slow, agonizing death by PowerPoint has become the norm rather than taboo. So how do you avoid a snooze fest? Both Duarte and Pearson urge greater use of picture slides, and Duarte goes as far as recommending a professional sketch artist to translate your spoken words into images on the fly. “It’s riveting, actually,” she says, since the audience will anticipate what’s coming next from the artist.

But for corporate communicators who want to fly solo, Duarte’s firm trains clients how to break the ugly cycle of reusing stale PowerPoint templates, teaching them how to deconstruct and declutter typical slides into pictures (read: not charts or graphs) that better deliver the message.

Keep attendees on track and wanting more. Part of delivering a compelling story is having a framework and structure that audience members can wrap their heads around.
“Give people a roadmap along the presentation, give them an idea of where they’re going,” says Pearson. “If there are three parts, let them know, ‘Here’s part one, and now here’s part three,’ so they can keep track.”

Duarte advocates having an actual beginning, middle, and end to your presentation with clear turning points, as well as contrast, which means making clear that, for example, a current business situation does not compare to the one you envisioned. She advises using a similar brand of conflict-and-resolution found in a good drama: “Creating tension and release is a great device. Make where you’re going sound amazing.”

Start with the big picture. “Another effective strategy is to reveal the meaning before the presentation delivers the details,” says Pearson. “When people do not grasp the meaning of something, its hard for them to pay attention to the details.”

Brief is best. There is also the “10-minute rule,” because the brain starts to weaken in digesting information at that marker, so attention dwindles. Not that this means you have to work in breaks every 10 minutes in your presentation. Rather, when you feel the audience is fading, it’s time to tell an emotional personal anecdote to regain their attention. 

“Great communicators do this,” says Duarte. Pearson leans toward survival stories because “the brain pays attention to threats.”

So what is Duarte’s mark of a pitch-perfect presentation? When even Twitter stops chirping. 

“Great presentations grab the audience to the point where there’s no tweeting, since they’re so riveted,” she says. “Sometimes we forget there are human beings in the room, and there’s really no better venue to make the human connection than with a live presentation.”       
—William Ng