"I hate to be the one to tell you, but most of your meetings fail.” With those sobering words, Matt Posard kicked off his session at the 3rd Life Sciences Meeting Management Forum–West Coast, co-organized by our sister magazine Medical Meetings and CBI in December in San Diego. The vice president of worldwide sales with Illumina Inc., a global company that develops innovative technologies for studying genetic variation and function, then offered five “ugly truths” that make sales and product-launch meetings ineffective—and how planners can overcome them. Here are his insights.

UGLY TRUTH #1

Sales meetings are information dumps. You have your salespeople for two days, and you need to stuff as much information into them as you can before they go back out into the field. The problem is that people remember little of what they learn. What they do remember is what they feel. But we seldom concentrate on creating a feeling.

UGLY TRUTH #2

They’re a mile wide and an inch deep. Every product manager wants to get information to the sales force, so the info dump spreads far as your product line can reach—meaning that attendees may retain tidbits from each presenter, but an in-depth knowledge of nothing.

UGLY TRUTH #3

Salespeople are in it for the fun. We tend to judge the success of a meeting by how the presenters did. If they nailed their topics, your work is done. The problem? You can lead salespeople to knowledge, but they might just be there for the party.

UGLY TRUTH #4

Teambuilding is not much of a fun factor. Unless you find a new way to spin it, your sales force will dread yet another contrived teambuilding activity.

UGLY TRUTH #5

“Do what I say” isn’t enough. Too often, people on stage are telling the sales force what to do, when they haven’t done it themselves. Salespeople will tune out “suits” from finance or other areas who don’t truly understand them. “They will only follow someone who has sold,” said Posard.

So why face these ugly truths? Because you’re not just giving the sales force information they need to go out and sell. You’re making a case for why they should want to keep working for your company. Salespeople increase earnings by jumping from company to company. Half your audience, Posard said, is wondering if they’re going to be with you in 12 months. “You have a few days to show them how you’ll make their life great.”

What to Do? “TEAR IT UP”

Posard’s acronym for the elements of a strategically sound, results-oriented meeting stands for:

Theme: A theme can be a great organizing feature. But don’t pick a hackneyed idea—“Reach the Summit,” anyone? “We pick provocative themes,” he said, “such as ‘Iconoclasts’—that’s what every startup wants to be.”

Experience: The key is to treat the meeting like a story. All the classic story components—content, context, emotion, conflict, resolution, meaning—should be part of your meetings, which should be paced like a story as well, with highs, lows, and well-placed pauses.

Applications: Most applications used in sales training (e.g., role-playing) have been around for decades. Think about the fun factor. Get creative with iPods and Wiis

Relevance: Companies hold sales meetings to present sales tools. “I suggest you’re giving them slingshots,” said Posard, “inadequate tools to fight their battles.” Venues, formats, and meeting flow matter, but you also have to give them what matters from a sales perspective.

Inspire: When Posard worked for a cardiac-care–related company, he said, “It wasn’t until we had a heart failure patient talk to salespeople that the impact of what they do really came home to them.”

Think: People generally walk away with three nuggets of information, so pound home your three most important points. Don’t pummel them with 50 ideas.

Unwind: Senior execs should get real, even—or perhaps especially—if that means something as silly as dressing up in costumes. It flattens the playing field.

Philanthropy: Posard’s company held an awards night in partnership with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, setting up a carnival where sales staff worked the booths for Make-A-Wish kids, and the kids and staff alike were awed by Cirque du Soleil performers. Award recipients donated their awards to a charity of their choice, and an executive even shaved his head for charity.

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