06 April 2018 by Jo Randle
Creating a productive AGM is all about planning ahead and rehearsal
For the past two decades, we have helped manage up to 20 annual general meetings a year for different clients across the sectors. As one of the core stakeholder-engagement activities for the company, the AGM can be a complex and stressful experience for those who run it.
However, there are several things you can do to remove some of the risk around the event, avoid the unexpected and ensure the smooth running of the meeting.
Speaking in public is difficult for most people no matter their seniority. This becomes amplified in the context of the AGM, under the scrutiny of the board and press, dealing with contentious shareholder issues and a script that has to be rigorously controlled in an unfamiliar environment.
All these elements put pressure on the chairman, CEO and anyone else that needs to address the meeting. The best way to lower the stress of the situation is to run full rehearsals on-site prior to the meeting, preferably the night before so that any staging, lighting or sound issues can be resolved.
This may sound obvious, but many senior executives choose not to rehearse, perhaps because of their schedule, because they feel it is unnecessary – after all, they present to different audiences all the time – or because they may be criticised or have to change something in front of the chairman.
Frequently our role is to persuade reluctant executives and chairmen to run through scripts under the pretext of a sound or lighting level check.
This can run into testing the microphones for the Q&A when some technical questions can be asked, and followed through to the voting process, which if keypads are used requires a particular procedure to be successful.
“Often we persuade reluctant executives and chairs to run scripts under the pretext of a soundcheck”
All the elements of the meeting can be discussed at this stage, particularly the arcane aspects that likely will not have been discussed back at head office. These include how the board get on stage in the first place. Does the chairman walk on first, last or in order with the other members of the board?
The chairman’s cue to start the meeting and who gives it can also be resolved at this stage, alongside matters such as whether teleprompt glasses stay up or drop down during the Q&A.
There are a myriad of details that if not explained beforehand can be disorientating or unnerving during the meeting.
Just the act of reading the script aloud can identify unintended alliteration, phonetically awkward words, or opportunities for pause or emphasis, which simply do not arise when the script is rehearsed in one’s head.
We always make a point of offering to give the board a short briefing before the meeting, typically when we are putting tie clip microphones on the presenters.
This will cover the logistics of mobile phones and tablets, stage entrance and exits, how they get to mingle with shareholders after the meeting, what the attendance numbers are like, whether they will be on camera for the webcast, what happens in the event of an emergency and so on.
This is often really for the AGM organisers, partly because they do not want to address the board themselves on these issues, but more importantly because it helps to set expectations and gives everyone the opportunity to ask questions.
Making sure shareholders have a simple and straightforward journey to the meeting from registration through security, cloakroom and foyer areas into the main auditorium is essential.
It is important to try to make it as easy as possible for shareholders and organisers to keep people authorised to attend the meeting segregated from other members of the public.
Having to re-admit shareholders is inconvenient and time consuming – so, for example, something as basic as making sure the toilets are on the far side of the registration desks is important.
The easier and more logical the registration process and access to the pre-meeting facilities, the more relaxed and better organised the meeting feels. In ensuring this, organisers should also consider access requirements for less-abled attendees.
We are frequently called upon to look creatively at the venue to ensure access and exit requirements are optimised.
This can include using separate entrances for the board and shareholders, having dedicated staff for less mobile or disabled shareholders, building temporary corridors to ensure shareholder segregation from public areas once admitted and even building temporary entrances when the venue’s existing entrance is inappropriate.
It is also important to consider the need for a back-up venue. Sometimes this means having an alternative venue that is available and suitable on the day of the AGM, should there be a problem accessing the main venue due to force majeure or an incident.
On other occasions, it is more appropriate to have a contingency venue in place within a few days of the AGM, should the meeting not be able to conclude satisfactorily.
The latter approach is generally more agreeable owing to the logistics of getting the attendees to the contingency venue in the event of a forced evacuation or security alert, particularly if a security alert would affect public transport and the road network.
Apart from voting, the Q&A is often the most important part of the meeting for shareholders.
This unscripted and potentially contentious part can have unplanned and unwelcome consequences, which is why it is important to focus on it carefully. The chairman and secretariat team need to work with the organisers to identify the best strategy for the Q&A process.
This starts with understanding how you want shareholders to ask questions. From fixed question points and roving microphones, to queuing systems and phone-in and webcam services, there are many scenarios to consider.
Sometimes there is a topic so vexatious it just will not go away and it feels like the meeting cannot progress. In this instance, grouping by topic is a good strategy.
“The Q&A can have unplanned and unwelcome consequences, which is why it is important to focus on it carefully”
It is also important to understand how the chairman intends to field questions to the board and which board member is likely to contribute on which topic, so that the right microphones are live and no-one misses a word.
In past meetings, we have had a shareholder ask a question in sign language, which is why we provide the sign language interpreter with a microphone, so they are able to share the question with the rest of the audience.
We have also had questions from shareholders who refuse to, or cannot, get to the question points, so a roving mic is also essential.
One common occurrence is a shareholder who asks a question of a personal nature that is outside the scope of the meeting, so we frequently suggest there is someone available that the chairman can refer to during the Q&A to get the shareholder’s details for a follow up discussion after the meeting.
Ensuring the chairman, board members, secretariat team and the shareholders have a productive, informative and pleasant experience is essential to a successful AGM.
As one of the key shareholder-engagement activities for a company, planning ahead, ensuring you have the right experience and understanding of the particular needs of your meeting, and rehearsing with the board will be the making of a successful AGM.