Abe Lincoln once said, "If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four sharpening the axe." Whether or not you agree with his proportion of time spent preparing, it's hard to argue against the idea that doing your homework will serve you well. How do you prepare for big meetings or presentations? Has that changed over time, or do you have certain routines you always follow? In speaking with many CEOs and business owners, there are a number of steps most agree help you put your best foot forward.
Know your audience. Who are you meeting with or interviewing? Have you done a Google search on them? Do you know who set the agenda if it wasn't you? It's always best not to be surprised or blindsided at a meeting. The more you know about the people you meet, including their backgrounds, needs and how they define success, the more productive your discussions will be.
Eat, sleep and be merry. Nothing beats a good night's rest and a full stomach when it comes to meeting with someone. A warm smile and friendly conversation go a long way in building rapport and ultimately a solid relationship, which is the foundation for everything that follows. If you're in a pinch, grab some coffee and an energy bar before you start. It beats hearing your stomach growl and fighting yawns during a meeting.
Practice makes (almost) perfect. Rehearsals aren't just for plays. Whether you think of a meeting as a performance or not, it's your job to both inform and entertain so your audience remembers your key points. Nobody's perfect, but you should be comfortable enough with your material that it flows naturally and you're not relying on notes during the meeting. Being able to have a direct conversation while making eye contact is your goal here, not reading from a script.
Follow up and follow through. If you tell the people you meet you'll get back to them on a particular issue, make sure you actually do it. Keeping promises goes a long way and reinforces the quality image and brand you want to project. Personally, I find if I write things down, they get done. Find a system that works for you to make sure you always close the loop in the end.
These steps may seem simple, but you'd be amazed how many people don't invest the time to get into the heads and hearts of their target audience or leave a lasting impression as a consummate professional. You should never let a meeting go to waste--especially when it can be a challenge to set one up in the first place.
So take the time you need to be prepared, because even meetings you don't initially think are important may end up putting you in front of people who can help you in the future. Though they might not hire you or buy your product this time, if you make a great impression they will remember you. So keep sharpening that axe; you never know when you'll need it.
Paige Arnof-Fenn is the founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a strategic-marketing consulting firm whose clients include Fortune 500 companies as well as early stage and emerging businesses.