How to Create Sales Meeting Magic

By elaine h. evans

After 25 years of producing every imaginable kind of sales meeting – from upbeat new product introductions, anniversary celebrations and politically-sensitive corporate reorganizations to new marketing strategies, John K. Mackenzie, president of Multi-MediaWare, Inc. in New York City, claims, “Sales meetings are more important for those who give them than to those who attend them.” Mackenzie, whose clients have included AT&T, Coca-Cola, Merck, IBM, Smith Kline, Pfizer, DuPont, GTE, U.S. Plywood, Roche and General Foods, is obviously bullish on meetings, no matter why you hold them.

Although Mackenzie is the first to admit there is no way to guarantee a good sales meeting, in this article he shares some practical steps to avoid common mistakes and pitfalls that can mean death to your sales meeting.

When & Why

Sales meetings provide a sort of unifying, corporate continuity experience for those sales reps who spend most of their time working alone in their territories. A national sales meeting can promote psychic bonding – “I am not alone” – and a chance to feel the value of the revenues their sales are producing.

According to Mackenzie, sales meetings also provide middle managers with a great way to reinforce their visibility, reputation and image with both salespeople and management. It’s what Mackenzie calls “a career acceleration casting call.”

The trickiest meetings to pull off are those held when there’s nothing new to say – no new product to introduce, no special sales problems to solve, no major accounts to review, no new strategies to issue. Even if you have nothing new to say, it’s still essential that you hold at least one national sales meeting a year if for no other reason than to reward and recognize your salespeople. This is the “Thanks for a great year” factor. “A good sales meeting (with lots of awards!) is a great way to secure sales force loyalty, and reduce the escalating recruiting costs precipitated by the shortage of a young, well-educated work force,” Mackenzie says.

The most important reason to have a sales meeting is to find out what your sales force is thinking – which can be very different from what you think they are thinking. To do that, be an active participant!* Mackenzie offers these ideas to compensate for “there’s nothing new to report.”

Expand the awards/recognition section of the meeting. This will shift attention from what should be done to what has been done. Salespeople go to meetings to be recognized for what they’ve achieved in the past and what rewards they can look forward to in the future.

Consider using case histories. Every company can find at least one sales representative who has done something really outstanding during the year. A well-executed “This Is Your Life” presentation can be very effective – and give the rest of the sales force something to shoot for in the coming year.

Show your sales force how the money they make is being spent, instead of just urging them to go out and make more of it. This strategy can help close the gap between salespeople and management and rack up career bonus points for the meeting planner. Mackenzie believes that, too often, salespeople are treated like kids.


Before you pick a theme, decide what you want to say to your sales force. This may sound obvious, but often a theme is picked that has nothing to do with the content of the meeting. For instance, a theme that sounds clever or cute on paper but has no relevance to the company, its products, its problems or its sales force is likely to bomb.

On the other hand, if “best” is the buzz word on everyone’s mind – best training, best research, best marketing, best sales force, etc. – the theme for your meeting could be “Building on the Best”.

Mackenzie’s least favorite meeting theme, “Go For the Gold,” is resuscitated every four years when Olympic hype peaks. “Asking salespeople to emulate the qualities of these self-sacrificing insular mavericks is not realistic,” says Mackenzie.

If you are going to use an Olympic theme, draw a comparison they can relate to – and achieve. For example, you might point out that the Olympic decathlon champion must meet 10 goals – but you’re only asking for one, i.e., land 3 new accounts in the next 8 weeks.

Form Vs. Substance

The composition of sales forces has changed dramatically in the last 25 years, according to Mackenzie. Salespeople are sharper and more perceptive than ever before. They know when their time is being wasted at a sales meeting, so plan every detail. Here is a sample meeting checklist with his comments.

Prepare a statement of meeting goals and objectives. “The companies that waste the least amount of time at meetings have a very clear idea of what the meeting as a whole is supposed to achieve.”

Take each element on your meeting agenda and write it down on an index card. “Then play a little presentation chess. Move each element around. You’ll be amazed at how much you can improve your agenda, your meeting and your reputation.”

Take steps to eliminate redundancies. “As many as 15 to 20 different executive and management presentations may be given at a sales meeting. A full-time field-meeting coordinator can review the outline of every single presentation to make sure the same points are not going to be made over and over (yawn) again.

Decide if you need an independent sales meeting producer. “So much depends on meeting size, budget and your own experience. If you do decide to use an outside meeting producer, be sure you’ve identified at least one more who could handle your job in an emergency.”

Select your producer carefully. “If you’re making the rounds among audio-visual firms, here are some screening points to keep in mind: capability demo, office location and staff size, reference checking, length of time in business, staff longevity, repeat business.”

Get the best from your producer and writer. “Review each step of the production process. Waiting until they’re written and designed (or produced) gets expensive if you don’t like the results.”

Rehearse. “Have a run-through of major segments, including your own presentation, before you leave town for the meeting. Eleventh-hour surprises are something you don’t need.”

Anticipate The Worst. “Computer operated multi-image shows always work during rehearsals. It’s only when your meeting starts that they act up. Ask your producer to provide a manually operated `Murphy’s Law’ standby projector. Load it up with some gag slides.”

The Unusual

So, you’ve decided to do something “different” at your next sales meeting. You want something that is out of the ordinary that will motivate and inspire your salespeople.

Great! But don’t confuse being creative with being contrived! Make sure your message/theme fits the meeting as opposed to making the meeting fit your “creative, unusual, eye-popping” theme.

Here are some successes – and failures – from Mackenzie’s 25-year career annals.

Success Can Be Your Enemy.

One client’s sales force had far exceeded the company’s sales goals. Mackenzie’s challenge was to come up with a motivational presentation that would remind the sales staff that success is not a loafing license. Mackenzie was reading the diary of the artist Eugene Delacroix, who had written of his own fears that success would spoil his creativity and willingness to take risks. Inspired by Delacroix, Mackenzie created a presentation where actual diary passages were read while slides of the artist’s paintings were shown. The meeting, he says, was a tremendous success because the salespeople could relate to the message.

Parallels Don’t Always Work

One client spent nearly $250,000 on an eight-minute 35mm film drawing comparisons between its sales staff and the craftsmanship of a master cello maker. The piece included original music and narration by Orson Wells. It was, in Mackenzie’s words, “a gorgeous piece that went on to win all kinds of film festival awards.” But the meeting was a failure. The film had no relationship whatsoever to anything the sales force did or could hope to do.

Experts Can Be Wrong

Mackenzie remembers being horrified when he was asked to produce a meeting where the logo and theme had already been developed and was, in his opinion, terribly contrived. The logo depicted a shark’s fin cutting through the water. The theme was “The Future Is Now!” Get it? F-I-N. The meeting was a tremendous success, to Mackenzie’s amazement.

In the end, to get the most out of a sales meeting, give it a chance to succeed. Plan it thoroughly and be careful about advance publicity. Finally, advises Mackenzie, “Don’t start taking credit for a great meeting until you’ve had one.”

*See PSP May/June, 1990, Meeting Participation Sparks Sales