Planning a Leadership Forum, Internal Conference or Strategy Summit? Use This Principle to Make Your Meeting Memorable

By this point in my career, I’ve attended a lot of “major” meetings. I’m not talking about those everyday encounters, where three or four (or 15) people gather to get work done; I’m referring to those big, expensive events where 50 or 125 or even 250 people convene to kick off the annual strategy or launch a major initiative or build a new organization.

Here’s what many of these meetings have in common: They’re designed to meet the objectives of a small group of organizers (usually senior leaders or other key stakeholders), not create a meaningful and useful experience for participants. 

How do I know? The evidence is clear:

  • The meeting starts very early (sometimes commencing at 7 a.m.) and continues until late at night so that every leader gets to share his/her stuff.
  • The agenda consists of hour after hour of deadly PowerPoint presentations.
  • Meeting participants have few opportunities to get their fundamental questions answered or understand what all this stuff means to them.
  • Sometimes, people walk away with clear action items–but usually it’s not clear what they should do as a result of attending.

The result? A big investment is made, but an opportunity is missed to change participants’ minds, get their buy-in and encourage them to take action.

That’s why you need to use this essential principle–from the science of adult learning–to take a different approach to designing your meeting. The principle is called “readiness.”

To explain, I’ve invited two learning experts, Harold D. Stolovitch and Erica J. Keeps, to stop by and visit this column. Authors of Telling Ain’t Training, the experts explain that when you want to persuade adults or teach them to do something, you can’t treat them like children: sit them down in a seat, make them listen and expect what they hear to stick.

If this is true, why are a lot of meetings organized the way they are? I can’t answer that, but what I can do is show you how to use the adult learning principle of readiness, which Stolovitch and Keeps explain this way: “Adults come to a learning situation with their own priorities and attitudes. They are ready to learn when they decide to open their minds to it.”

And a key way to open adults’ minds is to show your participants that you’re going to help them:

  • Solve a problem or avoid one
  • Provide an opportunity
  • Create personal or professional growth

“It must be clear,” write the experts, “that it is for them, not for you or the organization. You can’t fill a learner with skills, knowledge or new values and attitudes if his or her mind is blocked.”

The upshot? When you put together a conference or meeting, always focus your content and structure your experience on meeting participants’ needs. Make the session respond to participants’ essential question: “What’s in it for me?”

Here are three ways to do so:

  1. Analyze your (participant) audience. Think about what participants need and what they expect.
  2. Design your meeting to achieve this objective: Make the meeting a satisfying and meaningful event for all participants
  3. Emphasize the experience instead of data/information. I’m sure you’ve been in a planning session where the conversation goes like this: “We need to make sure we have a session about the strategy.” “Yes, and the CFO definitely needs to share last quarter’s results.” “Oh, and don’t forget about a roundup of regional activity.” “We should talk about our cool new advertising campaign.” “What about . . .? What you’re creating is a hash (a collection of disparate information), not an engaging experience. Information should not drive the bus; it has to sit in the passenger seats.

What’s the key takeway? To get the most out of your next big meeting, focus it on participants’ needs–and make sure they understand how the session will benefit them.

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