Learn How to

Plan, Prepare and Conduct Meetings



The article outlines the principles of meetings.


The three key principles are:

-        Plan, Plan, Plan

-        Involve Key Stakeholders in the Planning of the Meeting

-        Communicator Skills Training


These principles apply to any type of meeting.  It could be a public meeting or a meeting within your organization.  It could be one-on-one meeting or a large group meeting.  It could be highly structured such as a public hearing or a command briefing or a free flowing session such as informal discussions with community stakeholder groups.  Finally, the three key principles are not stand alone, they are related.


Principle One – Plan, Plan, Plan

Ninety-nine percent of the work done for successful meetings is done before the meeting.

Time and time again when we talk to our clients about a failed meeting, we hear comments such as, “We didn’t anticipate…” or, “We didn’t think that would happen.” Or “Who would have thought that…” or “There’s nothing you can do when they/he/she does…”


We believe, based on our own experiences conducting many types of public meetings and working with our clients that the majority of things that do happen can be anticipated.  This is particularly valid if Principle Two is followed – involve stakeholders in the planning.


The first thing that should be done is determine what the purpose/mission of your meeting is.  How many of you have attended a meeting where not everyone knew why/what the meeting was for?  That should be clear up front.  For example, is the purpose to make a decision between choice A and B?  Or is the purpose to just provide information?  Or is the purpose to gather information from a survey such as a focus group?  Or is the purpose to provide information and test reaction (answer questions)?  Or is the purpose to take questions and respond?  Is the purpose to make a sale?  Or is the purpose to apologize for an incident and take the heat?  There are others.


The purpose and mission is critical because it establishes how you will conduct the meeting, the boundaries that will be set, how you will measure success and what worst case meeting scenarios you want to test.  Once the purpose/mission is established, then you need to go through the structure of the meeting.  We’ve attached a generic checklist for the public stakeholder meetings to show just some of what needs to be taken into consideration.  This is not “the checklist”, just an example of one.


We’ve run into some amazing derailments because of one or two things that were not considered in a meeting plan.  For example, we had an open town hall type meeting that was somewhat derailed because of some material that was read by the attendees on our bulletin board that the public passed on their way to the meeting place, our cafeteria.  The bulletin board material had nothing to do with the meeting.  However we did not have a checklist that included what people would see as they walked from the parking lot to the meeting room and how they could perceive whatever they saw.  Is there anything they would see that would impact the purpose/mission of the meeting?  Regarding just this aspect of meeting preparation (moving into the cafeteria), our checklist did not include: how do they get to the meeting room, escorts, what do the escorts do and say, what will the meeting attendees see, parking lot security, should bus transportation be provided if they can’t drive, etc.


Another example could be security.  Will security be used is obviously a checklist item.  Rarely is security necessary, but if it is, the checklist should include:  will attendees be told ahead of time of the presence of security or perhaps selected attendees will be told about security.  Will security be introduced at the beginning of the meeting and state why they are present?  What exactly will security do if disruptions occur, e.g., will you end the meeting?


Another aspect of Principle One is what we call Worst Case Scenario Planning.  Corporations and government agencies do lots of contingency planning for crisis.  They consider the worst that could happen and conduct simulations.  It’s frequently called emergency preparedness and planning.  Challenging/difficult meetings with internal or external stakeholders need this same approach.  Actually most of us are pretty good at using this approach when we have meetings such as a high level briefing or presentation to our command.  We anticipate challenging questions, prepare responses, sometimes role play our responses in our head.  We sometimes even try to gather intelligence on what the command might ask.  These same techniques should apply to any challenging meeting, internal or external.


We strongly recommend for Worst Case Scenario planning to role playing/murder board.  There’s no such thing as “winging it” if you anticipate disruptions or many challenging questions and statements.  The role play should include critiquing the responses to disruptions and difficult questions and statements, both verbal and non verbal responses.  The non verbal responses (you and your communicators’ body language and how you say things are the most important – see our article on Non Verbal Communication).


Another aspect of Worst Case Scenario planning is establishing the difference between unacceptable behavior/language and rude but briefly acceptable behavior/language.  This must be clear with all your team. The key term in the second category is how long is “brief”?  For example, if the vast majority of the crowd starts demonstrating, does “brief” become as long as they keep it up or do you try to stop it?  Usually, but not always, we recommend the former.  On the other hand, if it’s a very small proportion of the group that is disruptive and the rest of the group isn’t supportive of that, how do you end it and how quickly do you end it?  The “how to” here may be many different approaches such as take a break, use a facilitator, security, ask the rest of the group what they would like to do, move on to the next questioner.  The point is that there is no one consistent way for handling these types of situations.  Therefore, they need to be thought out and discussed with other key stakeholders which leads us to Principle Two.


Principle Two – Involve Key Stakeholders in the Planning of the Meeting

Involving key stakeholders in the planning of meetings is frequently an area where we find gaps.  There are usually stakeholders (internal or external) that have some intelligence about who’s coming or what might happen and the best way to manage any disruptions.


Another version of involving key stakeholders might be a briefing to higher level command.  We’ve seen in this case assistants to be invaluable in this regard.  We had a community leader who consistently gave us open and honest information about what an activist group’s tactics were possibly going to be in public meetings.  This community leader also helped with some of our questions regarding the straddlers stakeholders such as were some of them angry, or did some of them have agendas, or did some of them have misperceptions of health risks.  We call these the three arenas of risk communications (See second page of our article, titled “Risk Communication”.).


The phrase “Involve key stakeholders in the planning” is gathering intelligence.  Gathering intelligence can range from having them on your meeting team to just an informal conversation over the phone or over “a cup of coffee”.  These stakeholders aren’t always your supporters.  They may be straddlers.  So don’t always be just asking your “friends.”


This type of stakeholder involvement is particularly critical where the culture of the group you’re planning to meet with is significantly different than the culture of your organization.  By the way, culture is not country or ethnic or racial.  It is a system of behaviors, values and core beliefs held by a group of people.  Culture can be anything from a small island in the South Pacific to soccer moms to West Point, etc.


The involvement of key stakeholders in planning meetings across broad cultural differences is a must.  This can’t be learned from a book or from a team member who has conducted one or two meetings there.  There are just too many variations including location of meetings, food, gender roles, age roles, hierarchical considerations, the value of time, doing versus being, one truth versus many truths, gestures versus eye contact, etc (see our article on Cross Cultural Communication).


Principle Three – Communicator Skills Training

As you probably already know, if there is anything that can blow you and your team out of the water, it is one poorly prepared communicator.  It’s analogous to “we all go down with the ship if one person sinks the ship”.  Everyone, whether a primary or secondary communicator, must be prepared verbally and non verbally.  We have articles on “Risk Communication Traps”, “Risk Communication Non Verbal Communication”, and “Risk Communication” that apply to these communicators, but by far the biggest trap is taking things personally. That is, try not to become irritated, angry or disgusted.  The best way to do this is to leave yourself outside the door and not enter as who you are, e.g., Keith Fulton or Sandy Martinez, but as Communicator A and Communicator B representing your organization.


Even if your communicators are ready, there is another level that needs to be planned in the skills training arena and that is planning on how you communicate with each other.  Once your roles and responsibilities in the meeting are clearly defined, you still need to determine how you will handle areas of surprise, who will do what, and how you will handle the gray areas where it is not clear who will be responding to specific questions or situations.  Is there going to be a gatekeeper and how will the gatekeeper keep control between the audience and your group.  Will you have a facilitator or moderator to be the gatekeeper as well as handling some of the worst case scenarios?  A good moderator can do the gatekeeping, but a facilitator is more capable of handling the group dynamics as well as the worst case scenarios.


In summary, as noted earlier, the three key principles are not stand alones.  They are interdependent.  The planning (Principle One) needs stakeholder input (Principle Two).  Part of the planning (Principle One) is getting the communicators ready (Principle Three).  Stakeholder input (Principle Two) requires effective communication skills (Principle Three).




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