Big meetings require a lot of time and resources to plan, so their impact should be great. Guest Courtney Swartzel and host Alyssa Zeff share their advice, which is based on years of experience planning big meetings for employees. Alyssa and Courtney cover where to start, how to overcome obstacles, which activities to use and even what you can do with a small budget. This episode will help you create meaningful experiences at your next big meeting.

Episode transcript: 

Alyssa:
Hey everybody. Welcome back to Employee Buzz. I am Alyssa Zeff, your unusual card game player and by that, I mean I'm not unusual. I play unusual card games. Former professional roller skater wannabe. Yup. That was my dream when I was little. And boy band fan. I am here with Courtney Swartzel, a Project Manager here at Davis & Company. Courtney is a proud cat mom, Sudan and Rafiki. Instagram celebrities if you want to follow them. Half Dome summit conqueror, and four Disney parks in one day survivor. Wow. Very impressive.

Courtney:
Yup.

Alyssa:
Courtney, thank you for being here.

Courtney:
Thank you for having me.

Alyssa:
Today we are going to talk about big meetings. So, let's just set the stage, literally, for what we mean for our listeners when we say big meetings, what are we talking about?

Courtney: 
We mean larger town halls or internal conferences where you have lots of employees together meeting face to face.

Alyssa:
Great. You've worked on a lot of these in the last couple of years and we've had the pleasure of working on a bunch of them together. What do you think, when planning a big meeting, are the biggest challenges our clients face?

Courtney: 
The biggest challenge I see with big meetings is the lack of interactivity or even breaks for networking. These agendas are just packed with lengthy PowerPoint after PowerPoint. You spent all this time and money and planning for this meeting. It should be engaging. You don't want your employees to be bored.

Alyssa:
I couldn't agree more. I think the advantage of a big meeting is the fact that people are there together. If you're just going to talk at them, that could have been a video or a presentation. If you've taken the time to bring people into a room together, let's do something so that they are interacting with each other and that you're getting information back from them.

Courtney:
Exactly.

Alyssa:
Planning these meetings is a huge effort. Where do you even start?

Courtney: 
Yeah, it's definitely overwhelming. So, you want to think about, first off, you just want to think about the purpose of your meeting. Why are you bringing all these people together? When you start planning your agenda, think about your objectives. People often just jump into content, but really you should take a step back and ask yourself, "What is your desired state?", then work backwards to your content. You have to think about your audience. Who are they? What do they want to learn? Do they have a takeaway? What do you want them to do? What's their action item? What do you want to achieve as an experience at this meeting? Also, keep in mind that the majority of people learn best by physically doing something or collaborating. So just keep the experience in mind when planning that and then you could fill in with your content and how you best want to communicate it.

Alyssa:
That's such a great point. If I think about some of the worst meetings I participated in when I was working at a big company, it was—decisions were made for political reasons. This person has to get on the stage and this person has to get on the stage and this person has to get on the stage and that's great, but at the end of the day, you've satisfied the needs of those five people, not the 500 that were in the room. So your point about starting with what you want the takeaway from the audience to be and then working backwards from content and just wiping out that political correctness of the company and really focusing on, “you've invested in this, let's make sure they get something out of it.”

Courtney: 
So true.

Alyssa:
One of the main pieces of advice we give is make sure your meeting is interactive. We've talked about that a little bit today, that we really want attendees to participate. So, I thought we could spend a minute or two, let's just go back and forth. Rapid fire. What are some of our favorite ways to get employees participating to really build interactivity in the meetings? You go first.

Courtney:
Icebreakers.

Alyssa:
Yeah, definitely kicking things off with icebreakers. I would say questions. And by that, I mean ask, not just, "Hey, what kind of questions you have," but really give people a stack of paper and say, "Write down whatever questions you can think of.” It just gets people's brains going and gets them participating.

Courtney:
Polling. Polling is always fun.

Alyssa:
Polling is fun. I like solving a challenge. Asking people—posing a challenge to the group and asking them to work together to come up with their proposed solutions.

Courtney:
Vote with your feet. Ask your employees to just walk to the room if they think this or go to the other side of the room if they think that. Getting people out of their chairs is always a great way to bring energy into the room and just have fun.

Alyssa:
It's a great list and I'm sure we could go on with many more, but let's just dive back into a couple of them. Starting with icebreakers. When—any favorite icebreakers? And what does icebreakers do at a meeting?

Courtney:
Yes, so we highly recommend doing an icebreaker before you kick off a big meeting because people are sitting in their chairs. Like you want to make sure the energy is high before you dive in. So, one icebreaker we've liked to do, and we've seen it be very successful at a few meetings, is called “I've done that.” And what it is, is each attendee gets a list of fun activities or just general things, kind of unique things that people have done such as skydiving or going on a cruise, tend a vegetable garden. And the idea is to get up out of your seats and walk around, meet new faces, and ask your colleagues if they’ve done one of those items and then they fill it out like "Yeah, I've ran with the bulls in Spain." It's just a really fun way to get to know each other and again, boosts energy and engagement.

Alyssa:
That's true. You can also give out cute, fun prizes for that and they don't have to be very expensive prizes. We recently did one where we gave things out like bag of chips and said, "You're all that and a bag of chips." And fun things like that. I think you also mentioned polling. So, say a little bit more about that. What's a great way to use polling in a meeting?

Courtney:
Yeah, so polling is really easy to do, and it could be really fun. There are some poll websites that have a competitive polling feature, which actually captures the speed at your response and the accuracy. So, it presents a leaderboard after each question. The questions could be lighthearted, it could be evolved around the meeting itself, or you could even send out some trivia ahead of a meeting to see who's reading the emails and then quiz them the time of the meeting.

Alyssa:
We just did that. You and I just did that for a client that we worked on and it was a huge success. They loved it. So, one of the things we hear a lot from our clients is, "I don't have a big budget for this meeting." What are some things that can be done on a tighter budget but to still have a great meeting experience?

Courtney:
Go low tech. It doesn't have to be fancy. For example, you could solve a problem together, brainstorm questions just by using slips of colored paper and scented markers. You could just ditch the PowerPoint. We love it when leaders have a Q&A, and they just ask questions to the audience and walk around. You don't need to have PowerPoint slides to have your meeting be effective. And also, just think about your sessions. Does it bring value? Think about your objectives again. Does this tie back to the objective of your meeting? If it doesn't, cut it out. If you cut the length of the meeting, you will save costs in the long run.

Alyssa:
That's great advice. I think another one is, it doesn't always have to be at a fancy offsite location. It's nice and I think employees really value when they can, but if budget is tight, build a great experience in a conference room on-site or in the auditorium or whatever it is. It's about the experience, doesn't always have to be about the location. So, let's say one of our listeners is planning a big meeting for the first time. What is one piece of advice you would give them?

Courtney:
Put yourself in your audience's shoes. I can't stress this enough. What would make this experience valuable to you as an employee? And also, just have fun. You're there for probably more than one day, you want it to be fun.

Alyssa:
That's great advice. Thank you, Courtney, for sharing your experiences and for joining me today.

Courtney:
Thank you.

Alyssa:
Thanks for listening to Employee Buzz. Where practical advice meets fun. Remember to rate, review, and subscribe.

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