What to avoid and what to be sure to do when it comes to planning small meetings
Do *Know the purpose of the meeting and state the objectives up front. Set up an e-mail or Web system so participants can get information and give input about the event before the meeting. Be prepared to act on that input.
*Give attendees an agenda. Small meetings often lack agendas because they're "not important enough." If it's not important enough, don't meet.
*Give attendees advance reading or assignments so they come to the meeting with some sense of what is expected and are psyched about possible outcomes. Get them involved in the outcome.
*Develop an advisory council of interested parties from different regions or offices if your attendees are coming from varied geographical locations. The group can work with senior management to prioritize the issues and topics for discussion.
Do *Keep attendees up and active during the day. The mind can absorb only what the seat of the pants can tolerate. Use varied presentation styles and participation techniques to involve attendees.
*Try different room setups each day if the same people are meeting in the same room. Anything to keep things interesting!
*Make sure your hotel convention services manager knows the hours you've reserved your meeting room. And even if you have a 24-hour hold on a room, it is safest to take all of the materials you'll need for the following day to a safe place--like your hotel room.
*Seat people in a circle or semicircle to encourage interaction.
*Put "reserved" on the back rows of seats in a room set larger than the audience you are expecting, forcing people to sit up front.
*Suggest casual clothing if you're encouraging ice-breaking or interaction.
*Have people fill out index cards to pose questions anonymously at the beginning of the session so the presenter can address them at an appropriate time.
*Give attendees mental and physical breaks. One company started a meeting for 30 people with a continental breakfast at 7:30 a.m., continued in the same room through a working lunch, then broke at 5:30 p.m. Attendees never got out of the same stuffy meeting room--or the same chairs!
Don't *Never get a small meeting rolling until you've given attendees a chance to introduce themselves and get their agendas on the table. This could mean simply jotting down a list of issues on a flip chart, for example, that the meeting leaders or facilitators can promise will be handled throughout the meeting. Do make sure facilitators follow through on that promise.
Don't *Don't use a resort unless you plan to make the resort's facilities a part of your meeting. Imagine a Fortune 500 company holding a national sales meeting at a resort in the Southwest when corporate policy does not permit free time to use the resort's amenities. So attendees get to see the glorious outdoors from inside a meeting room and watch and weep as others have a good time!
*Don't use sophisticated audiovisual or technical equipment unless it fits your audience's needs or unless the presenter knows how to use it; technology does not equal interactivity.
*Don't write and distribute a meeting description until you know exactly what is going to be presented. There's nothing worse than having attendees go to a session and come out of it muttering "That's not what I expected."
Do *Contact your speakers or presenters ahead of time and get all of their technical equipment needs and specifications. Stress that if they don't give you the information up front, they will not get the equipment on site. The cost of LCD projectors and other audiovisual equipment is high in today's market, so you'll want to budget for it beforehand.
*Ask your presenters for copies of their handouts before the event so that you ensure there are enough copies to go around.
*Ask people at the beginning of the program what they want to get out of the meeting to help them learn and retain information. Then ask at the end if they got what they had hoped out of the meeting.
*Set lecterns and screens at angles from each other so the presenter can see audiovisuals without turning away from audience. Many novice presenters look at the screen (to make sure the correct slide is up) and talk-- rather than face the audience.
*Consider not using a lectern. Use a wireless mike instead. Moving targets are much more interesting than talking heads, even at a small meeting.
*Have presenters check out a meeting room and the AV setup before the meeting--whether it's a session for 20 or 200. Are the slides in order? Has the presenter mixed verticals and horizontals (which won't fit on the screen)? Will the projector's "throw" provide the necessary clarity and readability? Are overheads typewritten so small that you can't read content from five feet away?
*Make sure a technician is assigned to your meeting and that you know how to get hold of him or her quickly in case of technical difficulties.
*Never have more than seven bullet points per slide in a presentation.
*Use attention-getting techniques in your introductions, like meaningful props and giveaways. At one sales meeting, after everyone was in the room and the housekeeping details were out of the way, the executive vice president asked everyone to stand, pick up their chairs, and look under their seats. Wow! Each person had a $10 bill attached to the bottom of the seat. The VP got everyone seated again and said, "The point is, you've got to get off your butts to make a buck." Then each person received a leather wallet to hold all the future bucks they would make as a result of what they would learn at the meeting.
*Coach novice presenters not to read their speeches. At another small meeting for 20 people, a new guy on the team slowly and painstakingly read every word of his material--including jokes--to people sitting just a few feet away.
*Cut back on content and give more time for processing: Most presenters prepare and then try to present much more than they need. Presentations should constitute only 25 percent of meeting time.
*Leave time for questions.
Don't *Don't insult the intelligence of attendees by reading slide content to them. Visuals should supplement or clarify what you are saying. At a national industry convention, one presenter displayed his material in PowerPoint and used his laptop to pop each line of each slide onto the screen--and read it--with no other information. And the subject of the presentation was new technology for meetings!
*Don't allow the use of laptops during your presentation unless you're conducting an interactive exercise requiring their use; otherwise attendees will be distracted. And to avoid interruptions, tell participants to turn off cell phones and pagers.
*Don't distribute hand-outs of your presentation until after you have spoken, unless you want the audience to use them during the presentation. Otherwise, the audience will read your material while you speak (or skip ahead to see what's coming) instead of paying attention to your message. If you do use handouts, consider leaving "fill in the blanks" lines. Notetaking encourages retention.
*Don't use an overhead projector if your room is small and set in a U-shape, because the projector itself will likely block someone's view.
*Don't forget to follow through. At another meeting, several presenters stopped at certain points in their visuals and said, "I'll talk about that later," but failed to get back to the subject. They built up an expectation, but left the audience holding an empty bag.
*Make sure presentations immediately after lunch don't call for lowered lights. Some people might fall asleep.
*Don't brush off attendees' opinions and experiences; respect them. Take into consideration the variety of learning styles, particularly generational and gender differences.
These tips were donated by a veteran group of small-meeting attendees and leaders: the editorial staff of this magazine and its five sister meeting publications.