You've just been given a really big challenge: Your boss (or, even worse, the CEO) has tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to organize a large-scale meeting. Maybe it's an all-employee town hall. Or the annual sales meeting. Or a conference for top leaders in the company.

No matter what the topic is or who you're inviting, these assignments are fraught with danger. Big meetings have a lot of moving parts. They're very visible. And there are always a lot of cooks in the kitchen, tripping over each other in their zeal to stir the pot.

Despite the difficulties, you can achieve success as long as you begin with these 5 steps:

  1. Set strong, focused objectives. In the adrenalin rush of trying to make progress, many meeting organizers plunge ahead with planning instead of taking the most important first step: Decide on the outcomes your meeting will be designed to accomplish. The second step is just as important: Gain agreement from key stakeholders about those outcomes. Without objectives, you're on a journey without a destination or a map. With focused objectives, you've created guardrails that will prevent you from running off the road.
  2. Be clear about roles and accountability. Big meetings tend to require a big team. But if members don't understand who's managing what and who makes the decisions, chaos ensues. Make sure you're very explicit about roles and responsibilities, and that your sponsor has your back.
  3. Emphasize the experience instead of data/information. I'm sure you've been in a planning session where the conversation goes like this: "We need to make sure we have a session about the strategy." "Yes, and the CFO definitely needs to share last quarter's results." "Oh, and don't forget about a roundup of regional activity." "We should talk about our cool new advertising campaign." "What about . . .? What you're creating is a hash (a collection of disparate information), not an engaging experience. Information should not drive the bus; it has to sit in the passenger seats.
  4. Make participation a priority (not presentations). Remember that you're spending a lot of time and money to bring people together. So you want them to interact, to connect, not to sit there passively watching PowerPoint slides. If participants aren't spending at least 30%--and preferably more--of the time participating, your meeting is not living up to its potential.
  5. Learn from (other people's) experience. Who organized this meeting or a similar session last time? You should hunt them down, buy them coffee (or a martini) and pick their brains. There are plenty of fresh mistakes you can make; no reason to repeat old errors.

That's it! You're now ready to put together what is sure to be the most memorable meeting ever.