Five questions to ask before every meeting

By Greg Dardis / Guest Editorial

It usually takes a magazine five years to turn a profit. O, the Oprah Winfrey Magazine did it in its first month.

It may have seemed like a no-brainer for the media mogul to spread her brand to a magazine, but, as former Hearst Magazines president Cathie Black tells it, Oprah was far from persuaded the day Ms. Black and a colleague pitched her their vision. During the meeting, however, they watched Oprah’s demeanor shift from dubious to dazzled.

Oprah didn’t make her final decision that day, but 15 months later O hit newsstands, an immediate success.

What flipped the switch? Ms. Black points to that single presentation – and the preparation that went into it.

“We did meticulous research to lay the groundwork for our presentation to shine,” Ms. Black later wrote. “It’s like building a spectacular new home – no matter how beautiful or stylish the architecture may be, a house is worth nothing if it lacks the plain old unglamorous foundation that takes so much spadework to create.”

Anyone serious about her career is eager to do that kind of spadework. Even for small audiences, good preparation takes time and foresight. Each and every meeting offers an opportunity to perfect your approach, impress your stakeholders and build your career – even the meetings you may consider routine or mundane.

Your strongest ally is your attention to detail – from visual aids to Vitaminwater, if that’s what your client drinks. When Ms. Black secured the opportunity to pitch to Oprah, her team researched for weeks. They asked themselves who Oprah is, what motivates her and how they could tap into her drive. Knowing she would respond to something she could see and feel, they crafted a mock magazine and created a video – Oprah’s medium of choice – to open their presentation, featuring the kind of women it was Oprah’s mission to inspire.

It may not take weeks – or even hours – to prepare for some meetings, but the work is always key. Done right, it spans quite the spectrum of considerations, from climate control to seating arrangements – and that’s on top of your well-polished, and well-practiced, presentation. Our seminars cover all these finer points, right down to where you should sit.

Take another cue from the publishing industry and begin your preparation by answering the five questions that drive any news story: who, what, where, when and why. These w’s will ensure you consider every aspect of your meeting, building a foundation for success.

For our purposes, it’s best to answer that last “w” first.

Why? Everything hinges on this question. You need to determine your objective and the specific action you want your audience to take. Do you intend to inform, persuade or motivate? Having a clear purpose will help you tailor your message and hone in on the details your planning should address. If you’re not leading the meeting, know why you’re attending and how to make your contribution clear with articulate and timely comments and questions.

Who? Consider whether your meeting should involve an entire business team, a whole company or just a few insiders. What would make your audience members comfortable? Should you serve refreshments or food? Don’t be afraid to call your client’s office to learn his preferences in advance.

What? Determine what materials you need to convey your message and impress your audience. Research your clients to understand what is likely to persuade them. If you’re providing handouts, consider your paper and printing quality. Using technology? Make sure the meeting room is adapted. Do you need sample products, spreadsheets or reports? Bring extra and know how you plan to weave them with your words.

Where? Choose the optimal site for your meeting. Don’t cram people into an office or huddle a small team at the end of an otherwise empty conference table. Does your client appreciate the convenience of meeting at her headquarters or prefer to visit your business? Should the atmosphere feel formal or casual? Is a café for coffee or restaurant for dinner appropriate?

When? At what time of day are you in top shape? Ask the same question of your audience members. On a larger scale, consider at what points in a project’s timeline you should update shareholders, expand buy-in or share a new idea.

The answers to these questions provide only the basic framework for thorough preparation. No two meetings are the same. It takes time and practice, but a well-planned meeting earns you respect – and the best opportunity for a new or continued partnership.



Greg Dardis is the CEO of Dardis Inc., located at 2403 Muddy Creek Lane in Coralville. For more information, visit