The Art of Meeting Design

Over the years, I haven't had much luck getting my mom to understand what I do for a living. And now that a large part of my work is devoted to meeting design, things have not improved. When I talk about designing meetings, she smiles sweetly, nods, and then tells all her friends I'm an "entrepreneur."

She's not alone when she shrugs. Plenty of meeting planners, producers, and other business folks simply do not fully understand the term "meeting design." Sure, they understand set design and theme-logo design, but when I talk about designing human interaction at an event, many of them look at me with a familiar unfocused stare. It's ironic, but in the meetings industry—which is all about creating environments that facilitate communication—more attention needs to be focused on how people are positioned to communicate.

Having spent much of my career in the communications field, I came in recent years to the meetings industry, and I'm amazed at what I've seen. In my travels, I've frequently heard the following statements:

"Meeting planners don't care about being innovative."

"You won't be able to get them to do that."

"All they care about is if the food is good—and whether their CEO looks good in the opening speech."

"Meeting planners just want to play it safe."

One executive was candid enough to remark that when her production company offers post-event measurement of objectives (for free), the planners don't bite. In short, even a number of production company execs don't view meeting planners as serious business people. Wow.

I'm proceeding on the assumption that there are numerous meeting planners who want to deliver strategic value to their organizations. If you believe meetings are a grossly underappreciated business tool, consider how these 10 meeting design best practices could transform your next meeting:

Perform insightful stakeholder analysis in addition to traditional audience analysis. Stakeholders are people who will be affected by the results of the meeting, and might include customers, business partners, and your bosses.

Distinguish between business objectives and meeting objectives, and measure business effectiveness—not just meeting effectiveness.

Consider how the meeting fits into the overall communications strategy of the organization.

Incorporate effective interactive elements to engage people, instead of just talking at them, and utilize the intellectual capital assembled in the room.

Determine how innovative methods and new technologies can enhance and/or inhibit participants' engagement.

Involve your stakeholders in the design process with real-time testing of ideas before the meeting.

Be willing to engage your top executives to help them understand the strategic value of the meeting as a leadership tool.

Develop a meeting metaphor in addition to a meaningful (not just catchy) theme.

Provide practical takeaways that enable participants to not only learn what they should do as a result of the meeting, but also provide them with tools to actually do what needs to be done.

Find a way to extend the boundaries of the meeting to address at least two objectives: a) Allow people to get information from the meeting even if they're not there (e.g., Webcasting, podcasting), and b) Allow people to continue good conversations and connections they establish at the face-to-face meeting (e.g. threaded discussions, conference calls, blogs).

You may be saying to yourself, "I'm already planning effective meetings." Sure you are, but meeting planning isn't the same as meeting design. What's more, attending to the myriad details of what it takes to pull off the logistics of a meeting is extremely important, but completely different from understanding a meeting as a critical communications event and how it fits into the strategy of an organization.

If you're a meeting planner choosing a production company for your next meeting, you might find it useful to share this "Top 10" list during the proposal process and see how well various bidders can respond. Alternatively, you could hire a group or individual who can work with the production company you select to incorporate the above design imperatives. Then your meeting will not only be a memorable event, but one that delivers strategic value to your organization.

Mary Boone designs meetings and training programs that emphasize participant interaction, creative use of methods and technologies, and measurable results. She is the author of several books, including the best-selling Leadership and the Computer. Contact her: