12 Oct

Preparing Project Teams to Perform Using Science

I literally mean perform, as in on-stage in front of an audience, because this is what happens when a project team meets with clients.

Client meetings are what social psychologists call high-stakes social evaluations. Specifically:

“High-stakes social evaluations are characterized by a power asymmetry in the sense that the evaluator has control over the future of the individual being evaluated.”
Source: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:9547823

Clients always have control over their future with your business. If you’ve ever been in a meeting like one of these, you know how high-stakes they can be:

The sales demo in front of the whole client team, including that one angry exec who hates what you’re selling.

  • The proposal review where you’re grilled by finance, IT and security.
  • The project kickoff. Always.
  • The project update meeting where you have to report a major delay.
  • The emergency meeting, where you need to rescue a project gone off the rails.
  • The meeting to review the client’s contract and increase fees.

In this article, we’ll look at two very different research studies that, together, spell out exactly what a project team can do to increase the success of these high-stakes client meetings.

How You Present Yourself Matters Most

Amy Cuddy and her team at Harvard designed a series of experiments to understand how to use body language when preparing for a high-stakes social evaluation. They built their research off of studies showing how a person’s presentation quality determined the outcome of job interviews and pitches to Venture Capitalists, some of the most stressful and high-stakes meetings one can attend.  In this context, “presentation quality” means presence, composure, tone of voice, etc – nothing to do with making pretty slides.

The most successful candidates showed exceptional composure, enthusiasm, and confidence. How a reviewer rated a candidate’s presence mattered more – a lot more – than the quality of the information they were sharing.

Project teams can increase the odds that they’ll demonstrate excellent presence when meeting with clients in several ways.

1. Design your client meetings.

People who walk into a VC pitch and wing it rarely have the composure required to make an excellent impression. Similarly, those who walk in with a compelling slide deck full of facts, but aren’t themselves compelling presenters, also fare poorly.

Not all meetings include presentations, so they can’t be scripted in the same way as a VC pitch. But the general process used for the different kinds of client conversations your team runs can and should be designed.

Meetings are a key touchpoint in your client’s experience, requiring the same level of design attention you’d give to a project dashboard, a pricing sheet, or any of a hundred other client communication tools your company slaved over. These meetings need to both engage the client on an interpersonal level and demonstrate competence with the project details.

2. Practice.

Before they appear in front of an audience, TED speakers practice their presentations. Sports teams take key elements of their game and drill. Practice is essential to developing high-quality presentation skills.

When you design your client meetings, you’ll discover a common structure underlies them all – usually something like Introduction, Discussion, Decision, Close. How to lead an effective and compelling meeting introduction, for example, is a skill project leaders can learn and practice during internal meetings, which will translate to a more polished and professional start to your client calls.


3. Hack your hormones.

Even if you don’t have a plan and haven’t had time to practice, you can use the Harvard team’s key innovation to improve your chance of succeeding in client meetings. They found that simply striking a “power pose” for two minutes before the meeting changed a person’s hormonal mix in a way that dramatically improved their presentation quality.

See Amy Cuddy’s famous TED talk on the subject here:

And read about the research behind it here:

Setting and Exceeding Expectations

The Harvard research deals with high-stakes social evaluations in general. Our next study focused specifically on how to design business meetings.

In 2011, Melissa Cohen, Steven Rogelberg and team examined how variations in meeting practices made people feel about their meetings. Study participants rated various aspects of meetings, ultimately arriving at a quantifiable measure called Perceived Meeting Quality (PMQ). They found strong and consistent indicators of PMQ that project teams can use to increase the success of client meetings.

The most important lesson from the study is this:  when someone feels that they participated in a high-quality meeting, he or she feels that the meeting time was well spent. The better the meeting, the happier the participants. And happy meeting participants make for happy clients.

Of all the meeting-design characteristics discussed in the study, some stood out as key to success.

 1. Starting and ending meetings on time.

Regardless of whether all attendees are present, a meeting rates substantially higher if it starts and ends on schedule.

2. Creating an agenda and sending it out beforehand.

If a meeting has an agenda, but that agenda is not shared before the meeting, the agenda is effectively worthless.

A meeting like this ranks the same as those with no agenda at all. This speaks to the importance of setting expectations in advance and following through with them. An agenda isn’t simply a schedule — it’s a roadmap. Share it with clients in advance so they can prepare for the journey.

3. Invite fewer people.

In general, the more people present in a meeting, the less each person participates (or at least, the less each person feels he or she participates), and the harder it is to keep everyone coordinated. It’s easy for a person to feel that he or she is not needed (or, worse, is wasting time) when the number of attendees is very large.

4. Choose the right meeting place.

This study shows that meetings held in person have very specific requirements in order to deliver good quality. You need a space to meet where people can be comfortable and focus on the topic at hand.

For online meetings, this means preparing in advance to avoid any technical hassles. You need to select the right meeting platform for the conversation, and practice using it.

See the full study here: http://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1098&context=psychfacpub


Client meetings are high-stakes situations, providing a critical opportunity to impress the client or lose the business. We now have clear research that shows what we can do to best ensure those meetings work well.

To succeed, companies need to design a process for client meetings and practice running them to ensure they can stay on time and present with confidence.

And when the stakes are particularly high, take two minutes to stand like Superman.

Elise Keith, co-founder of Lucid Meetings (http://lucidmeetings.com), an online platform designed to help everyone run excellent meetings in the digital workplace.

Blog: http://blog.lucidmeetings.com/
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/elisekeith
Twitter: https://twitter.com/EliseID8