Group Meetings: Group Hug or Group Mug(ging)?

Group meetings can either be done well or very, very badly
Group meetings can either be done well or very, very badly

Every technical organization seems to have a big annual meeting of some sort. The last one of these that I attended was put on by an Executive Director at a firm who liked to do these twice a year. He would fly in all of his direct reports and have them spend 30 minutes each talking about what their team had accomplished. Some awards were given out, the Executive Director spoke some words of encouragement and then his vice president who had also flown in for the meeting wrapped things up with a motivational talk. This took the better part of a full day and for the life of me, an hour after the meeting was over I could have told you how many emails I had waiting for me once I got back to the office, but not what was discussed.

The motivation for these meetings can be quite different from group to group or even from year to year; however, each meeting seems to be painfully familiar. Although the scope of the meeting often depends on the size of the company. Now that we’ve got the inner game of public speaking taken care of, let’s talk about the outer game of how to throw a BIG meeting – those are often the biggest communications disasters.

What’s the purpose of these meetings? Often the firm has so many different products / projects / programs that they decide that a big meeting is just the way to ensure that everyone knows what’s going on at the company. These meetings are, on the surface, quite expensive to put on, and if you take an even closer look they turn out to be really, really expensive once you take into consideration the lost productivity that they cause. They could be a good use of time; however, here are a few reasons why they generally miss the mark:

  1. Who You Talking To? Most of these technical organization meetings are planned and put on by the same set of non-technical folks (the people who drew the short straws). What this means is that the topics that are covered and the sequence in which they are covered tends to be the same from meeting to meeting – why mess with success? How can you possibly expect an audience to “stay in the moment” for these types of presentations? What makes a great meeting is when controversial topics are included. Yes, this can be dangerous but that’s exactly why people will remember them.
  2. My Way Or The Highway. Who is invited to do what and how they are permitted to do it can be a real sticking point at these meetings. If every speaker is required to have 25 slides and to talk for 30 minutes and participate in one big panel session at the end, then congratulations – everyone is going to look the same and be forgotten just as quickly. If instead, each presenter is encouraged to do what they need to do in order to get their message across, then at least you’ll have some variety. Sure, there will still be some with 25 slides and 30 minute presentations; however, you’ll also have others that just might have their message stick.
  3. You’re So Popular To Me. Just because someone who is presenting during one of these meetings is popular, doesn’t mean that anyone is learning anything. I have seen plenty of presentations where a well-liked manager delivers a presentation to a packed house. However, afterwords I realized that he/she really hadn’t said anything. What a waste of time! Making sure that everyone has a point to their presentation is a key preparation step.
  4. Complex Meetings Need Simple Solutions. The more complicated the subject matter, the more simple it must be for the audience to attend and to understand what is being discussed. If the discussion requires detailed charts or process flows, then make sure that handouts are available and that the slides only show a subset of the information – no need to remind your audience that they aren’t getting any younger by making them squint at tiny fonts on a screen all the way up at the front of the room. Likewise, if everyone is going to be in one room listening to one speaker who is talking about a complex subject, make sure that everyone can see the speaker – ensure that there is a raised platform. This will go a long way to help keep their interest.
  5. Watch Those Awards. The one part of a meeting like this that can kill the whole deal is the awards show. This introduces two problems: first, they are boring and second, if I’m not winning an award then I’ll start to resent the person who is. Keep in mind what you are trying to achieve with the whole meeting and make sure that an awards show fits. If it does, then make it like a hotel room tryst – quick, pleasant, and forgotten once its done.

There are more communications keys that you need to keep in mind when planning a large meeting like this; however, we’ll cover those next time.

Have you ever had to plan one of these meetings? How did it turn out – huge success or crashing bore? Did you get picked to do it again or did someone else get lucky? Leave me a comment and tell me about your experiences.

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