Have you ever been in a meeting and, just when the presenter gets to the most interesting section, the person next to you attempts to engage you in a conversation on a completely different, but equally important, topic? Obviously, you can't pay attention to both. You end up missing a bit of each, feeling frustrated and more than a little annoyed.
Believe it or not, I often get calls from clients who deliberately want to organize a similar situation. The request goes something like this: "We're planning the annual sales (or incentive or user group) meeting, and as long as we have our team together, we'd like to take the opportunity to do some training. Can we just integrate a training event into our Big Meeting?"
Administratively, this meeting-in-a-meeting idea seems ideal. Travel expenses are optimized. Time out of the field is minimized. The hotel and other logistics are already planned. Sure, it can be done. But not without careful planning and preparation. Training and nontraining meetings can be difficult to combine and coordinate. First, the Big Meeting and its goals are bound to take priority. Your training goal most certainly will not. The agendas of the two meetings may conflict. And your audience may be in a completely different mind-set, making the training seem more like an intrusion than a benefit. Finally, with all the distractions of the main meeting, audience attention spans tend to be even more limited than usual.
Here are a few ideas to improve the results of combining a nontraining and a training event:
Before and After. If possible, schedule your training event either before or after the main meeting. This tends to lessen distractions and conflicts. Trainees will not have to make daily or hourly decisions about which event to pay attention to.
Stop and Start. Have a definitive start and end time for your training each day. Coordinate the training schedule with the main schedule so attendees won't miss important networking events. Trainees who are forced to miss these activities will not give their full attention (or simply will leave). They may feel punished, rather than rewarded, by the educational opportunity.
Introduce Management. Invite a senior manager to kick off each day. The manager's presence will reinforce the company's commitment to the training.
Immediate Value. The more closely the content is tied to the main event, the more likely attendees will be to give it their attention. A topic with clear, immediate value, such as a new sales skill, may keep your account managers in their seats, but don't expect them to give up valuable time on thefloor to learn the latest on volume pricing agreements. Consider content that could influence a sticky customer situation, offer "wizard-level" support to users, or teach techniques to demo products more professionally.
Ensure Standards. The people you want as instructors, speakers, and technical support are likely to be focused on the main event. Schedule your training so you can get the right people and so they have time to create content appropriate to your goals.
Value Participation. Take the time to connect with each trainee. It may be a pre-event letter, verbal recognition, special certification, or, perhaps, gifts or trinkets. Every attendee should feel that their time and dedication to the training "distraction" is noticed and valued.
Above all, remember that no matter how critical the content, your training is secondary to the "Main Tent." If you can offer exceptional value, minimize interruptions, and reward their attendance and attention, you can get great results from combined meetings. And what could be more efficient than two meetings at once?