Know Your Audience: Tips on How to Keep Meeting Guests Alert

When deep in the throws of a corporate sales meeting, I can usually be found standing discreetly at the yawning lionback of the room, clipboard in hand, watching all. From the speakers and guests to the audio-visual crew and assorted wait staff (please, no clinking of the silverware!), it's my job to make sure everything is happening seamlessly, on-cue and preferably silently, so as not to disrupt the speaker. From my perch, I can easily see when the crowd is engaged, when they're zoning out and when it's time for a break. And you know what? They're zoning out a lot more than you think.

As many studies suggest that attention and retention drops considerably after 20 minutes, I try to encourage my clients to look at their meetings from the other side of the dais, as in: what’s the attendee experience going to be like? Often the company chiefs get so fixated on jamming in so much, they forget their co-workers may be glazing over, unable to process the information as quickly as it’s coming at them. So, how to keep guests alert throughout the meeting? Fascinating material helps a lot, but here are a more few tips to help keep your guests from nodding off:
Break more than you may want to…
Try to break every hour, for just 5 -10 minutes, so guests can stand up and get the blood circulating again, grab another cup of coffee, make a quick call or hit the restroom. 
But don’t let loose the audience.
Keep coffee and snacks in the room at all times, so those who need a jolt don’t have to leave the room. Use mugs and wooden stirrers to cut down on the sound effects from spoons clanking against saucers. Have dried apricots, nuts or M & M’s on hand as quick, utensil-free pick-me-ups for shorter, top-of-the-hour breaks. Ask the venue to “pre-package” snacks in individual juice glasses to keep portions small, particularly if you’re having larger mid-morning or mid-afternoon breaks.
Send a subtle message.
For short or long breaks, try using classical music at a low volume to give guests the subtle auditory cue for the beginning of the break and cut the music to signal the end. It’s a less jarring, more pleasant way to stop and start.
Don’t hit the lights.
Recipe for a coma: the regional sales manager hits the lights off, turns the projector on and then starts reading his/her Power Point presentation aloud to his co-workers. Avoid this by keeping the lights on. Dim them if you must, but the brighter the room, the easier it is for everyone to maintain alertness. Another tip? Instead of reading the presentation, ask the regional sales manager to improv a bit – and edit himself down to no more than 10 to 15 slides – his co-workers will thank him for it.
Take a tip from Dave.
If you’ve ever watched Letterman, you know that Dave likes his studio cold to keep him and his audience on their toes. Now you don’t have to take it to Dave’s arctic extremes, but a cooler room will keep guests more alert than a warm one. Once everyone is seated, try dropping the temperature by just a degree or two.
Hey! Look at me!
While I’m standing at the back of the room with my clipboard in one hand, I’ve got a small bicycle light in the other that only the speaker and I can see. When it starts to flash, that’s their 2-minute warning that it’s time to wrap up. When it switches to a steady glow, they get the cue they’re running long and need to wrap it up. Do speakers like it? Some do, some don’t, but it really helps keep meetings running on time without me having to approach the podium.
Sugar and caffeine is the secret weapon.
While many of us are on a diet seemingly all the time, at meetings, I often see even the pickiest eaters lunging for the brownies. Sugar and caffeine, used sparingly and strategically, can go a long way to keeping your gang alert, particularly in the afternoons when energy levels begin to tank. For mid-morning breaks I usually arrange for a small spread of healthy, late breakfast items plus a treat or two, such as fruit, small yogurts, hard-boiled eggs and cookies. At the mid-afternoon breaks, we break out the heavy artillery: brownies, mini cupcakes, mini whoopee pies plus healthy offerings to fuel guests for the rest of the afternoon.
Know when to start and when to stop.
Your client wants to squeeze every last moment out of their meeting time, and who can blame them – after all, they are plunking down a lot of cash to make their meeting happen. However, there are times when planners have to push back – namely when a client wants to start too early or go too late. Gently remind them that meetings that start much before 8 AM or run later than 6 PM are tough on parents, night owls, early birds or anyone who has had to cross time zones to attend, so make every effort to keep actual meetings within the confines of the traditional 9 AM – 5 PM workday.
How do you keep your meeting guests alert all day long?
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