As someone who has led event planning organizations for Fortune 200 companies for the last 20+ years, I often get questions such as, “What is the secret to really effective event planning and execution?” or, “What’s that magical skillset or piece of know-how that will give me the edge?”
Often those people looking into our world from the outside will assume it’s something like organizational skills, or attention to detail or project management savvy. And those who have dabbled in the events space may even think it’s relationship building and having killer networks across the industry to help ensure we always have a number to call and a “guy” or “girl” in every market to help us satisfy even the oddest or most extreme requests.
But those who know our space best, including those of us who have the privilege of calling it a career, know differently. All of those things, while important, are just table stakes for what we do. They’re important, but the truth is that we couldn’t do our jobs if we weren’t “people,” people who also happen to be pleasers, perfectionists and project management geeks.
So what’s my answer? Communication skills and transparency.
I heard it explained like this once, and it has stuck with me ever since:
Some people are great dancers. They know all of the steps, have great rhythm, appear graceful and never trip or twirl the wrong way. They spend their time focused on counting beats, thinking about their next step and executing flawlessly. They are supreme tacticians, and they are “in the dance.” It’s very important to have great dancers.
Still others are great observers. Think of them as spectators, seated up in the balcony. They can see all of the dancers on the stage and they can observe whether they’re in sync. They can see the audience and gauge its reaction to the dance. They can listen to the music, see the orchestra and, sometimes, they can even predict what comes next based on their broad view and understanding. They can see the big picture, they’re strategic, and they’re “on the balcony.” And we need great balcony people.
But the secret to being a great meetings professional is being able to both be “in the dance” and “on the balcony” at the same time. Years of practice, solid processes and excellent attention to detail make us great dancers. We hardly ever miss a step and we perform our tasks brilliantly. But we’re not always great balcony people, and when we have the ability to step back, see the big picture, observe our audience and predict what comes next, nothing can hold us back.
So how do we do that? For me, it’s a few easy steps:
- Take the time to understand what we’re trying to accomplish. What do we want our participants or guests to walk away with and what does success look like if we do this well? Often this requires sitting down with our stakeholders, asking lots of questions and listening. Really listening. Sometimes we think about communication as speaking well, but half the battle, and usually the tougher half, is listening and understanding.
- Once we understand the goals, it’s our job to communicate them simply and understandably to all of our key stakeholders. For me, that includes people like my vendors, venue managers, local suppliers, marketing colleagues, the broader event management team, our executive administrative assistants, and communication and creative colleagues. I make time early on in the process for them to ask questions. The goal is to make sure we all share a clear definition of success so we kick off every event focused on the same goal.
- Then there’s expectation management. You know how this goes. A client asks you to dock a cruise ship three hours earlier than you planned to be in port (not even kidding) or you spend the afternoon entertaining complaints about the temperature in the hotel ballroom (inevitably it’s both freezing and sweltering at the same time). This is where transparency, diplomacy and empathy come into play. While being honest and taking the time to educate can sometimes feel painful and tedious, my experience is that it’s always better to set realistic expectations rather than to commit to doing something that I know is next to impossible. Sometimes that means explaining to the client that getting a ship somewhere three hours sooner than planned may be physically impossible – they only go so fast. And for those who are temperature-sensitive, explaining the need to balance the comfort levels of all attendees might not make them happy, but it may stop them from filing the same complaint every time they attend a ballroom-hosted event.
In short, be curious, ask questions, understand the big picture, bring other critical stakeholders along, check in frequently, manage expectations realistically and don’t be afraid to be honest.
Those are all communication skills, and they all take practice. Doing them well can make a huge, positive difference in our effectiveness and our ability to be seen as leaders who are able to dance every dance,, while finding opportunities to look down from the balcony, see the big picture, anticipate the next moves and make sure that we take the right steps to ensure the audience always enjoys the show.
Meg D'Angelo, CIS
AVP, Events and Hospitality
Lincoln Financial Group