An annual meeting is a unique marketing opportunity to cement the relationship between your investors, clients, prospects, vendors, and friends. It creates a stage so that your staff can shine. It is a once-in-a-year team-building exercise that will supercharge your whole company. And, it is a very honest way to do business. When your folks know that every year they’ll have to stand in front of this audience and acknowledge everything they did right as well as the mistakes made, it is a humbling but an important step in making your company even better.
Here are 12 tips a company can follow to assure that its annual meeting will engender pride, loyalty, and future business:
- Throw away the template. Most meetings start with last year’s agenda and script then update it. Instead, think what worked last year and what didn’t work. What information is most important to communicate and what is less important? Which speakers shine at these gatherings and who is uncomfortable? What is your overall goal? Any change from the template script of previous years will be a welcome to the audience and the presenters.
- Know thy audience. Many of the attendees at these annual meetings are professionals who attend lots of meetings throughout the year. How can you make it interesting and valuable without losing them on the first slide? One easy way is to ask them. Learn what they want from the meeting. What works for them and what do they hate? When the meeting is over, call them up and get their reactions.
- Involve everyone. If you want to demonstrate a strong bench or showcase the great team that will run the company some day, give them parts in the meeting. There’s nothing wrong with having a dozen speakers if they are interesting. Use two podiums so that the transition from one speaker to the next is smooth and quick.
- Keep it short. Start at a reasonable time and finish before you promised. Try to stay under 3-1/2 hours. I don’t know why people start losing focus precisely at that point in a presentation. Try to stage the meeting in the morning. It’s tough to be that alert for that long in the afternoon.
- Tell stories. Presenters are at their best when they tell stories. Stories are much more memorable as long as they play to the point that needs to be made. One trick you can use for your more nervous speakers is to ask them to start with a story. It will help calm them down.
- Avoid death by PowerPoint. Slides are what business uses in this setting, but you don’t have to make them onerous. Great slides support the speaker’s message, but they don’t repeat the actual words that are spoken. Great slides have fewer words and more visuals. Photos, graphs, and illustrations are welcomed on slides as long as they make the appropriate point and aren’t gratuitous. A good rule for all speakers is no more than 5 slides each, speak no more than 5 minutes, and make the font at least 30 points so everyone can read.
- Offer a takeaway. Each speaker should identify what the takeaway is of his or her section of the presentation. The takeaway is the one thing you want the audience to remember after you finish speaking. It should be a single point. Whatever that takeaway is should be the basis of the opening, then demonstrated in the middle and repeated in the conclusion.
- Acknowledge mistakes. “Companies that don’t make mistakes don’t make anything.” One of the strongest ways to connect with your audience and earn their trust is to fess up to bad judgment. Discuss what went wrong and the lesson you learned from it. Don’t bury the bad news. Say it up front. And never point fingers.
- Rehearse. People are generally awful at rehearsing. But if you are not going to rehearse, then don’t put all the time and money into the meeting because it will never be worthwhile. Each presenter must be rehearsed separately, one-on-one, with a speech coach to strengthen both technique and content issues. Most of the impression we get from a speaker is non-verbal. It is the posture, tone, eye contact and smile that the speaker presents. Is the content logical? Is the takeaway clear and is the speech built around the takeaway? Can the presentation be made shorter? Are the slides appropriate for the presentation? Each person should rehearse alone at least once with a coach and a second or third time if need be. Then, there should be a rehearsal of the ensemble in which the openings of each speaker are presented in the correct order and the hand over to the next speaker rehearsed. There’s no need to rehearse the entire meeting. It is very important that the presenters attend this rehearsal so that everyone feels part of it and knows what everyone else will say. Create a safe rehearsal system. People need to feel that in rehearsal they can try things out and not get yelled at by the boss. Create a supportive structure. Be gentle with people who get very nervous when speaking in public. Don’t load them with a million rules and tips. Focus on one or two things they have been having problems with and let the other things slide. Videotape. The best feedback we get is that combination of comments from people we trust and what we see with our own eyes. If you can video tape the whole meeting, you’ll learn vast quantities of information that will make everyone even better next year.
- Mix things up. Show videos, have guest speakers, bring in a yoga instructor half way through to show everyone how to stretch.
- Beware the guest speaker. If you don’t know exactly what the guest speaker is going to say, or how long he will speak, you’re playing with fire. And, just because he’s a guest speaker doesn’t mean you can’t have the conversation with him about his content — what the main message is, what slides he is using, etc. Speakers like to know the parameters and time restrictions. They want to understand the audience and what is important to them.
- Lock and load. Make very few changes to scripts as you get within 24 hours of the presentation. Last minute changes are difficult for some people to adjust to.
Imagine your joy when you put on an annual meeting and every attendee thinks how lucky they are to be associated with such a terrific company. Even when bad news is delivered, a well thought out, well presented annual meeting makes a powerful statement that the company is in good hands.
Jack E Rossin is a presentation skills trainer specializing in corporate communications in Boston, MA. He is the author of The Pawnshop Chronicles: Street Wisdom for the Business World.