6 ways to plan engaging meetings

If only your CEO would quit boring everyone in those dreary town halls. Don’t despair. There’s a better way to do it. Learn from show biz, and present one big idea.

You can see it from where you sit, but you’re hoping your leaders don’t notice up there on the dais.

That employee town hall your chief executive was so eager to hold? The entire audience is fidgeting, yawning, glancing at their watches, tweeting, checking Facebook on their smartphones.

If your meetings seem lackluster—bereft of purpose, driven by wordy PowerPoint slides and crammed with too much information—listen to Alison Davis, CEO of Davis & Co.

In a Ragan Training webinar titled “How to plan engaging meetings,” Davis offers tips that will turn your meetings from snoozers into dynamic sessions that will send employees back to work inspired and ready to advance your goals.

Davis’ firm has helped power up meetings and has offered advice to leading companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Motorola Solutions, Nestlé, Roche and Rogers Communications.

So put down the smartphones, and pay attention to her advice. Among her tips:

1. Don’t make your meeting an information dump.

You always hear about those information cascades. It’s how smart companies communicate, right?

Well, not necessarily when it comes to town halls, Davis says.

“Big meetings are a very inefficient way to disseminate a lot of information,” she says. “We’re making this big investment in bringing people together, and is that the best way to get information across?”

Rather, a major meeting should be a way to create presence for leaders and engage employees.

2. Take a lesson from show biz.

A meeting should be an event-like a TV talk show, Davis explains.

“What is it that makes a show a show?” she says. “Well, it’s choreographed.”

Create an agenda—what they call in the industry a “run of show”—that tells you where participants will sit, how they will move, how they will interact, who’s speaking next. If possible, walk the participants through it.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, you say. There’s no way we’ll get our busy bigwigs to rehearse a meeting.

If that’s the case, at least get Mr. or Ms. Big together on the phone with other participants to discuss the meeting so everybody is informed about what will happen.

3. Make it dynamic.

A meeting should meet these criteria, Davis says:

  • It’s participative. “We’re bringing people together, and we want to hear from them. We want them to do something.”
  • It’s memorable. When people leave, their greatest emotion should not be relief that it’s over.
  • It’s experiential. Their minds went somewhere interesting; they learned something.
  • It’s energy-producing. They should feel inspired-glad they work for your organization.

4. Set clear expectations.

Everybody involved in the meeting should know where you’re heading. Set a goal, such as, “Increase confidence in the company and trust in the leaders.”

“Don’t just be satisfied if you’ve presented a lot of slides,” Davis adds. “I mean, is that really all you expect from this?”

Rather, teach participants about an issue that’s vital to the organization, motivate them, and prepare them to take action.

Ask yourself this: “What is it that people will be prepared to do when they leave?”

They should be ready to go back to their office or cubicle and change something about the way they do their job.

5. Present one big idea.

You’re goal isn’t to cram 17 speakers into one hour. Rather, decide in advance on the big idea of your meeting: “One simple, powerful idea that influences and inspires,” Davis says.

For example, you could decide that “the objective of this meeting is that our employees really understand how important customer service is, and what we’re doing to improve customer service in our organization,” she says.

Davis cites author Christopher Witt (“Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint”), who warns you not to play whack-a-mole; that is, offering one idea, then another, then another, until they dizzy your listeners. Likewise, tell the poobahs to quit using meetings to cast scattershot information like rice at a wedding. Especially stop providing mere information—data—instead of ideas.

6. Present a story arc.

For a meeting? Yes, for a meeting.

Structure your experience in a narrative arc, Davis says: Boy is lonely. Boy meets girl. Boy wins girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins her back.

Your meeting’s big idea, too, can have a story arc that involves encountering an obstacle and overcoming it.

“That’s the way you do it in Hollywood and on Broadway and on TV, and that’s the way you can do it in your own organization,” Davis says.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

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