The Debrief From Hell
You’re sitting across the table from your client, pleasantly chatting about the event you produced for them two weeks ago. You’ve got lots of ideas on how to make it even better next year, and are even thinking about whether you should raise your fee next time, when your lead client contact drops the bomb on you.
“We need to talk about the sound. It was unacceptable.”
By the look on her face you know it’s bad, and in your head you can hear the sound effect of a prison cell door clanging shut with authority. They’re really not happy. All four of them. That’s right, the debrief is that rare planning meeting that seems to draw the attendance of every person at the client’s organization remotely involved in the event. There are only two other times you see this many people in the planning process: the initial meeting when they’re interviewing you, and the tasting. So lucky you, you have a full house to watch you squirm. It’s hide-under-the-table time.
This scene should never happen to you. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll have pissed off clients for as long as you run events; that’s the nature of the beast. But you should never be blind-sided like this.
The post-event debrief is a very useful planning tool. It allows you to discuss, and record, what worked well and what can be improved. In addition to generating ideas for a better event next time around, it becomes a detailed road-map you can bequeath to the next round of planners and clients, as invariably the players frequently change.
Unfortunately, too often we phone it in. We show up with our own lists and the client shows up with theirs, each of us seeing the other’s comments for the first time at the meeting. Nobody is prepared to respond to anything. Worse still, rarely are things properly stratified, and we can spend as much time dissecting a gift bag as we do whether the event’s goals were achieved. But there is a better way.
- Exchange Notes Beforehand. Long ago, personnel reviews involved a boss giving feedback to his subordinate, without him/her having any idea what was coming. HR departments have long since adopted the practice of employees being given their written reviews in advance of the review meeting, allowing them time to absorb the feedback, and prepare constructive responses.
And so it should be with your debriefs. You absolutely should ask your client for their list of topics they’d like to cover, in advance. If they’ve got a problem with the sound, this gives you the time to do some research and find out what happened, so you can have a effective. meeting. Likewise you should send the client your review ahead of time as well, so they can be prepared. Look, whatever each side is going to say, they’re going to say. Asking in advance is just going to make the process more civil and productive.
- 2. Prioritize Your Debrief Agenda. Not all issues are created equal. It’s your job to properly frame how the event should be evaluated to your client. When I ran Paint The Town Red, we broke our debriefing documents into two sections: “Big Picture” and “Production Details”. Yes, that’s what we called them. We wanted to remind the client to keep their eye on the ball. The Big Picture section should address the event’s goals and to what extent they were achieved. Everything else goes below.
- 3. Itemize Everything, Especially Things That Went Right. As planners we’re in charge of lots of details and vendors for each event, yet typically only the glitches wind up on the debrief. Why sell yourself short. If the catering went well, put it down. Same thing with a/v, lighting, décor, entertainment, registration, transportation, etc. The more things you oversaw that went right, the less dramatic of an impact the errors will have. Again, this helps put your work for the client into proper perspective.
- 4. Don’t Sugar-Coat. If the debrief is total fluff, the client will see right through it and it’ll be useless. For it to really have teeth, you’ve got to be honest, and that includes acknowledging mistakes.
Simple enough, right? It only takes a little advance preparation to insure a productive post-event debrief, and avoid getting blind-sided.