Twenty years ago, I landed an amazing job at Canada’s largest public school board. Reporting to a fabulous communications director, my role was to help our 200 schools better communicate with parents and the school community. Two weeks in, my boss asked me to meet with one of our elementary school principals to chat about public relations tactics. It was my first opportunity to actually counsel someone. I was nervous but I prepared copious notes and took comfort in the knowledge that an informal discussion would be a trial run for more structured presentations in the future.
When I arrived at the school and told the secretary I was from the communications department, she immediately picked up the microphone for the school’s PA system and announced “Will all staff please report to the lounge for the public relations presentation”.
My heart started to race when I heard the word ‘presentation’. I didn’t have a presentation. I didn't even have handouts. I wasn’t prepared to impress anyone. It was supposed to be just a chat, a CHAT! Panicked, I weighed the options available to me. I could race back to the parking lot, get in my car and flee. Sure, I’d probably get fired, but I wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of being unprepared for a presentation. I could pretend that I’d fallen ill and the meeting would have to be postponed to a later date. This wasn’t totally inconceivable given that I already felt sick to my stomach. In the end, I stayed, plastered a smile on my face, thanked everyone for giving up their lunch to listen to me and spoke with minimal authority from the notes I had written for what was supposed to be an informal chat between two people. It wasn’t my finest hour but I learned a valuable lesson that served me well for the rest of my career – always confirm what is expected of you in any business meeting.
Being clear about your expectations is a vital part of business etiquette. The purpose of etiquette is to enhance the comfort of the people around you and what’s more uncomfortable than arriving at a meeting, only to find that you’re in a pink sundress and everyone else is wearing a navy blue suit. If you’re hosting a meeting, whether it’s a conference, social gathering, new business presentation or staff BBQ, it’s your role to tell people what they can expect and what is expected of them. Here are some tips to help you:
Be crystal-clear about dress code – Let people know how you’ll be dressed or what is expected and refrain from using ambiguous terms like smart-casual or relaxed black-tie. Rather than fall back on confusing terminology, I usually try to spell it out in a way that leaves no room for interpretation (e.g. Our office has casual Fridays so we’ll be wearing golf shirts and khakis to the meeting and you can feel free to do the same).
Set them up for success – If someone will have a speaking role at the meeting, explain the parameters. Let them know that you’re looking forward to hearing their presentation, that you’ve allotted 20 minutes and that you will have an LCD display ready for them. Let them know who else will be in the meeting, who else is presenting and who, if anyone will introduce them.
Have an agenda – If possible, distribute the agenda by e-mail before the actual meeting but at the very least, distribute it at the start. That way, if someone has come unprepared, they’ll at least have a few minutes to collect themselves, and their thoughts.
Establish meeting rules – If the meeting starts at 4 p.m. and you have a hard stop at 5 p.m., let everyone know they should stick to their allotted time to ensure everyone has a chance to speak. If you are chairing the meeting (and every meeting needs a chair), keep everyone on track.
Manage technology – Most people are not so important that they can’t go one hour without responding to e-mails but I regularly see people tapping away while others are talking. If you’re the meeting host, let people know ahead of time what your expectations are regarding smart phones and IPads. If the meeting is two hours or longer, tell them you’ll have a 5-minute break during which, they can check e-mails but you’re looking forward to receiving their full attention when the meeting is in session. (Note: as a former agency person, I realize you can’t say this to clients who check their emails while you’re pitching your little heart out).
Share follow-up plans – If there are follow-up items, share the process with meeting attendees. Let them know when they can expect to hear back from you and, if a decision is to be made (as in the case of an RFP), tell them how much time you will need to make it.