It has been said that nobody who buys a drill actually wants a drill. They want holes. They want the tool for what it can do: bore through plywood, metal, or a cement wall; hammer through the earth to find oil, or prepare a tooth for a filling. In sales training, students learn to look beyond what the customer is asking for in order to discover the underlying need. This is the difference between a simple order-taker and a sales consultant.

How does this apply to the meetings business? "Let's see, we'll need an Acme LCD projector with a zoom lens, a 7-foot screen, two microphones at the lectern, an overhead projector, two flip charts, and a slide projector." That's the sort of thing the AV representative hears from an event planner or facility salesperson. But how was that particular complement of AV components determined?

Did the client ask for it because that's what worked well last time? Is that what made the sales representative's last client happy? Is it part of a package?

What if we practiced a new way of asking for what we really want? What if we were to describe the hole we need, rather than the tools themselves?

What Do You Really Want? Let's consider visual displays. Describing the "hole" might go something like this: "I want a visual display that accepts both IBM and Apple laptop computers and provides a bright, high-contrast image so that everyone in the room can see and read the presentation materials. These will include both PowerPoint and Excel spreadsheets. And I would prefer the display system not be in the middle of or in front of my audience. The projector should be quiet if it is in the room, either in the back or on the ceiling." Note the emphasis on both seeing and reading.

Here's how you might describe your audio "hole:" "Everyone must be able to comfortably hear and understand both the presenter and the panelists, as well as questions from the audience. And I want a clear recording of the meeting. The sound should be consistent throughout the room, with no hot spots or dead spots."

Think in terms of expressing performance requirements rather than requesting specific equipment. And yes, you can stress that you want to keep the setup simple and reasonably priced. Give your representatives your AV budget up front, if you're comfortable doing that. Challenge their flexibility, skill, and creativity.

Expectations Lead to Questions If you ask for what you want, you are more likely to get it. Expressing your expectations and needs holds the AV department and facility responsible for overall performance, not just for taking your order and throwing some equipment in the room.

Once you have described your needs, the AV staff should begin asking questions such as: What resolution will you be using? What types of information will you be displaying? Is it OK for audience questions to be asked from the aisle? Will the presenter be moving around or remain standing behind the lectern? What is the typical age and age range of the attendees? These types of queries indicate a willingness to understand your particular needs and not try to shoehorn you into a predefined equipment package.

Beware of the AV representative who tries to get you to agree to specific products without asking these probing questions. By getting you simply to sign off on equipment, he or she may be dodging responsibility. Stick to your performance specifications. With expectations stated up front, it is much easier to evaluate the AV setup. Can you read the projected Excel sheet? Can you understand what a speaker is saying from anywhere in the room? If the room meets the specifications, you've got the right drill for the job.