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THE most important question to ask....

The question I refer to is, I believe, THE most important one you can ask before you plan a large business meeting.

Written Jun 20, 2008, read 1710 times since then.


In managing hundreds of large company meetings and events, particularly since the dawn the Digital Age, I’ve found the following question is THE most critical to ask before starting any aspect of your meeting-planning process. 

It can save you enormous amounts of time, boatloads of money, and high levels of frustration—both yours and the audience’s. And it will ensure your meeting is best-in-class:

“What will we do, experience and learn in this meeting…that could never be communicated in a PowerPoint file, MP3 attachment, Podcast, email or webinar?”

This one question will serve as an extremely powerful filter for you and your team, from the beginning to the end of conceptualizing your meeting.

You may find, in fact, that your meeting—at least in its current iteration—would just as well be “held” digitally. After all, if attendees are (most often) going to sit passively through spoken presentations backed up by PowerPoint, our current technology makes that possible from the comfort of employees’ offices. And of course, you save on hotel, airfare, AV, speakers, and food costs. 

So, let’s assume you will hold the meeting.

Use this question as a benchmark with which to measure the viability of every meeting element….starting with your opening program. What will make it worth listening to, traveling for, and missing work?

In other words: how will you maximize the presence of everyone in the room so they all contribute to the education and experience of the program? How can you ensure that the sum (participants+speakers+leadership+venue) is greater than the parts?

The days of talking heads delivering to observing audiences are gone. Everyone wants to be heard, counted, and recognized. Boost what people learn and what they remember by consistently eliciting more participation.

Here are ten easy ways to make this question come alive in your meeting:

  1. Current meeting technology allows you to seamlessly and affordably use real time text-ing from attendees, who text their comments, feedback and questions directly to presenters via their own handheld device or one you provide. The younger generations are going to text any way. Why not clearly allow participants to do just that—participate!—and become a key part of the meeting conversation? (Contact us for more information about proven vendors for this service.)

  2. Boldly stage the UNConference, which wikipedia defines as “a facilitated, face-to-face, and participant-driven conference centered around a theme or purpose.” Partipants, not planners, determine the agenda and content. What if even a portion of your next meeting was “UN-planned”??

  3. Have all internal and external speakers ask themselves this question as they design content. It’ll hold their feet to the fire to create and deliver more dynamic, memorable and effective programs. And ensure they rely less on their slides and more on fresh ways to communicate information

  4. Schedule a more informal set of café conversations: these participant-chosen and -led sessions allow you to focus simultaneously on a wide range of topics of greatest interest to your participants. Be sure each sub group appoints a leader who gives findings and ideas back to a central gatekeeper for mass reporting back to the entire group.

  5. Build in ROI by polling specific knowledge levels before and after an educational program, using an audience response system.

  6. Immediately follow an executive or “outside” keynote speaker with a 30-minute Q&A, led by the speaker and/or executives who take live questions from the audience. You’ll get a more authentic, relevant and participatory experience. If you encounter resistance to allowing live, unscreened questions, because leaders are concerned about a loss of control, you may wish to note that it can be best for such points to be made in public rather than when employees return to work and complain among selves, without a useful outlet.

  7. Supplement spoken content with a memorable, strategic illustrations of keynote and breakout content, drawn in real time by experts who specialize in graphic recording. A superb choice is Alchemy.

  8. Be sure keynote speakers offer audiences resources or take aways that can be sent to participants after the event, to reinforce spoken content and extend meeting education.

  9. Instead of using a stale digital pie chart, how can you create a visual and more visceral rendition of the same information, live, on stage? Showing conservation efforts amounting to 10 buckets vs. one glass of water year over year is more memorable than a bar graph of same, for example.

  10. In lieu of sharing customer service survey results as numbers, humanize the point by reading a real letter from a customer. Or bring someone on stage for a role play the successful use of a new customer service method.

Learn more about the author, Andrea Driessen.

Comment on this article

  • Energetic Speaking Coach for Entrepreneurs & NPOs 
Bellevue, Washington 
Pamela Ziemann
    Posted by Pamela Ziemann, Bellevue, Washington | Jun 20, 2008

    What fabulous resources Andrea. Thank you.

    The space is sooooo important for the people who don't usually speak up. They might reference Lee Glickstein's book "Be Heard Now"

    I've often found that the "observers" have revolutionary ideas when they feel safe enough to speak up. Just giving a few seconds of silence can be worth it.

  • That Wordsmith, Editing, Writing & Coaching Services 
Seattle, Washington 
Suzanne Griscom
    Posted by Suzanne Griscom, Seattle, Washington | Jun 23, 2008

    Wow, fantastic article, Andrea! This is an excellent question for event hosts, as well. Identifying your purpose and outcome before planning a meeting or event makes everything much sharper and effective. In my article, ( I discuss how questioning our purpose leads to greater clarity in our writing.

    Thanks again for great advice! (still working on the link)


  • Trainer and Coach 
Foxboro, Massachusetts 
Jen Vondenbrink
    Posted by Jen Vondenbrink, Foxboro, Massachusetts | Jun 24, 2008

    Hi Andrea. Great advice. During events like these we need to capitalize on the human interaction rather then the technical.

    I've sat through many a meeting that focused on the powerpoint and thought how could I do this better. It was all about engaging the group in real conversation. Once that happened, it was hard to stop the meeting!

    Thanks! Jen

  • Event Planning & Design 
Kent, Washington 
Janis Flagg
    Posted by Janis Flagg, Kent, Washington | Oct 01, 2008

    I really enjoyed your article. In any type of event, it seems to always come back to making the participants feel valued. People learn in a variety of ways so it seems natural to appeal to as many senses as possible, and your article demonstrated that. I've often found that humor can really make a difference in making points stick with a person for a longer period of time. Laughter will make even the most timid feel a little better about participating.

    Thank you!


  • Project Management Facilitator 
Loughborough, Leicestershire United Kingdom 
Penny Pullan
    Posted by Penny Pullan, Loughborough, Leicestershire United Kingdom | Aug 27, 2009

    Really useful - I agree wholeheartedly!

    If anyone is feeling brave and would like to begin to use graphics in their meetings (you don't need to be a highly skilled recorder, although even they had to start somehwere) try our graphics e-course for meetings at

    Thank you again for a great post. Penny