How to Lead Great, Giant Meetings

Richard Eaton

“There are only two types of speakers in the world: 1. The nervous and 2. Liars” 

Mark Twain 

Most normal people, when the prospect of public speaking looms on the horizon, experience a certain level of fear. There is even a medical term associated with this fear: glossophobia. Thanks largely to our evolutionary past this fear is entirely normal, and can even surpass our fear of death in its intensity. Even in small groups, public speaking can be terrifying as Warren Buffet, the world famous billionaire, admits. 

But what about public speaking in giant meetings, broadly defined as meetings or conferences with over 100 participants? How much harder would that be? 

We regularly support clients who, as part of their work, must engage with large groups of stakeholders for various reasons. This is unusually related to generating feedback and other kinds of input on concepts or ideas to drive improvements of one kind or another. 

The people attending these meetings are usually invited because they are knowledgeable, passionate professionals with great interest and expertise in the subject matter. In other words: a potentially ‘tough audience’. Our clients, those delivering the presentations, are usually subject matter experts within large organizations and would rarely describe themselves as professional speakers. In connection with a tough audience these people could also be known as: ‘potential road kill’. Many fail at these events, sadly, and most of our clients can recount various Giant Meetings in the past that have gone wrong and can still induce a PTSD like reaction at their recounting. 

We are fortunate to have been able to help many of our clients, the public speakers and organizers, be successful at delivering Giant Meetings focused on a wide variety of subjects; from implementing an LNG industry in BC to designing large scale IT systems. Recently, for example, we assisted the BC Ministry of Environment (MoE) to conduct a 2 day symposium for 300 people on a particularly touchy subject: spill response. 

In BC, at this point in time, it would be hard to pick a subject more contentious than spill response. I’m pretty sure that, without much trouble, you could spark a fist fight by bringing up this subject with any small group of Vancouverites. Imagine, then, bringing this subject to a group of 300 people. In Richmond. Yet our clients, the presentation team, were enormously and rightfully proud of their successful delivery of this symposium while earning a large number of compliments from participants, such as: 

  • I would like to acknowledge the hard work of MoE staff. This was a well-prepared session. I am glad to know we have such a Ministry with such passionate and dedicated staff. It takes courage, vision, perseverance and good will to take on such a monumental effort and, as a BC’er, I am appreciative of that 
  •  The presenters and facilitators were excellent 
  •  This was a well-organized event with a good mix of plenary and breakout sessions 
  •  I appreciate the advance work that went into preparing tight and consistent presentations 
  • Well done! It is not easy to work with such logistics and move around so many people in important discussions 
  •  The presentations were concise, consistent, informative and well delivered 

So what are the secrets of delivering great, Giant Meetings? 

Here are seven things we have learned over the past few years:

 1. Show Respect for your Audience 

 Hundreds of people have a lot of information to contribute, especially if you have invited them for that purpose, but they will feel shut down and marginalized if the presenters merely turn on the PowerPoint and drone on without acknowledging the audience’s expertise. From the get go, seek ways to spark discussion and input from the audience showing that you respect their knowledge and value their input. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways through simple, facilitated activities: within table groups using flipcharts and pens for example. The point is, show respect for the audience by engaging them soon, and often.    

2. Embrace Vulnerability 

 Unless you are a University Professor, or Moses reciting the Ten Commandments, try not to lecture a giant audience in an effort to prove that you know everything about a particular subject. You will likely lose their respect pretty quickly, or be shot down in flames one way or another when it comes time for questions. An easy and authentic way to engage your audience is to be clear what you don’t know as well as what you do know. In this way you will help build a stronger rapport with audience members who will, more often than not, identify with your range of understanding and eagerly step forward to help you fill knowledge gaps when called upon. Leveraging your vulnerability and this natural desire to help can go a long way towards building a strong rapport with even the largest of audiences. 

 3. Address Different Learning Styles 

 Some people like to learn by sitting and listening in a large group, some like to learn and engage within the context of smaller groups. Be aware of these different learning styles and meet their needs through including a variety of events such as large group plenary presentations mixed in with smaller format breakout work. In general, the more you can engage people within small teams, the more you can accomplish in a shorter period of time with higher levels of satisfaction. 

 4. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare 

 You should not be surprised to hear that planning Giant Meetings is a lot of work. 

Start planning at least four to six months in advance to address both logistical, and presentation preparation and rehearsal requirements. On the logistics side the most important thing is to book a room that is large enough. Rooms that are too small can spell disaster for an otherwise worthy effort. Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a fanatic about this subject.

Regarding presentation preparation, Todd Stocker said that “a speaker should approach his preparation not by what he wants to say, but by what he wants to learn.” Working back from what you want to learn about your subject, plan to facilitate engagement in a way that elicits the right kind of feedback to answer a variety of questions you have related to your topic. It can help to ‘prime the pump’ so to speak by planning to provide short presentations of subject matter specifics beforehand but, as soon as you can, move the discussion into the realm of facilitating feedback generated through small group work. Then, as advised by the experts at TED: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse to continually improve your subject mastery, presentation content and, most importantly, confidence levels. 

5. Use Simple Visual Aids, or Nothing 

You must remember that the audience is there to see the presenter, not an endless ream of PowerPoint slides. One of the best presentations I have ever attended was delivered by a passionate, dynamic, knowledgeable and engaging speaker who used an overhead projector and a felt pen. 

Even better: just tell a story  

6. Don’t go out there Alone 

 Human history is full of heroics performed by legendary individuals persevering, alone, in the face of unimaginable dangers. However, in my opinion, figures like Heracles had it comparatively easy because they never had to give a presentation, on his own, to a couple of hundred passionate IT professionals. 

Always go in with a team, and use your preparation time to build that team’s strengths and capabilities. For the example I mentioned earlier, the Spill Response symposium, the presentation team consisted of 6 separate sub-teams teams, each aligned with a specific topic area. Each team consisted of a speaker/ subject matter expert, a facilitator and a note capture person. On top of that, we had a Master of Ceremonies (me) with two of my staff who helped out with facilitation and coordination. The client also assigned a Cracker Jack events management group with an Executive Sponsor, a Project Manager and an administrative support person. That’s 24 people, plus a few others who jumped in to help out as required. A large proportion of our preparation time was spent building that team into a cohesive unit which held up very well under the pressures of that particular Giant Meeting. 

7. Meet Outside the Box 

Giant Meetings can be a lot of fun. Yes, really. 

You don’t have to sit people in rows in front of a big screen anymore. Using techniques like Open Space Technology and the World Café Method can provide a wonderfully creative, and fun, way to fully empower large groups within the context of addressing complex, urgent problems. 

In summary, Giant Meetings can help change the world for the better, fast. With all due respect to social media, there is no equivalent method to get large numbers of passionate, knowledgeable and caring people engaged faster and more effectively. Unfortunately, many organizations shy away from holding them mainly out of lack of experience with success leading to a real fear. But with the right preparation and teamwork, as with any large, worthy undertaking, we know that you can be successful. 

Be bold.  

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