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Why You Need to Stage Meanings -- Not Just Meetings

Why You Need to Stage Meanings -- Not Just Meetings

At the height of the COVID outbreak, I made a slip of the tongue. Someone asked what I do for a living. And I began with, “I’m in the meanings industry…”

Of course, I had meant to say meetings.

But…did I?

[Related: How the Post-COVID Work Revolution is Changing Office Safety]

Meetings vs. Meanings.

After months of isolation, masking, and social distancing, I realized this wasn’t a slip.

A meaning is an ideal expression of what meetings and events can — and dare I say must — become.

As we move forward beyond the COVID pandemic (and likely face future outbreaks), I believe that there are times for meetings. And there are times for meanings.

This simple, memorable, two-letter shift to meanings adds even more legitimacy, power, significance, and relevance to how we gather. It also ties our logistical prowess to the increasing need for strategic, outcome-based messaging that people will remember and act upon. A meaning can’t just be sent in an email. Or expressed on a slide. It must be felt. Experienced.

Meanings also highlight the point of inflection at which we find ourselves.

The core problem.

When people intentionally gather, the experience often falls short of what’s possible.

And as COVID has (hopefully) taught us, we must:

  • Make every (meeting) moment count, especially online, where agendas are drastically shorter.
  • Communicate messages that are strategically tied to what each participant is to think, feel, do, and believe differently as a result of gathering together.
  • Engage and honor distracted attendees who may have suffered deep losses, homeschooling obligations, and/or enormous economic stress.
  • Contend with and recover from lackluster event revenues — while also likely finding enough in the budget to support both in-person and virtual components.

A way forward with a new vernacular.

I’ve come to define a “meaning” — in lieu of or in addition to a meeting — as a purposeful gathering of significance. A coming together that fuels our human need for deeper connection and belonging. For forging greater purpose from what we do and who we are. For making real impacts, not just making a living, especially in an era of untold global loss.

Consider, for example, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs alongside a hierarchy of meaning (in the separate graphic):

At the bottom, basic essentials: food, shelter, sleep. As we progress upward, we move into desires around connection, belonging, respect, recognition, freedom, and legacy. Moving higher, we see — and sustain — our best selves.

[Related: Dismantling the Walls of Self Protection]

Zooming out from Maslow, and back to meetings/meanings.

Meetings answer who, what, where, and what.

Meanings answer why, how, and to what end.

Meanings advance and nourish our deeper desires of self-actualization.

Integrating meaningful adjustments in an evolution from meetings to meanings can be straightforward and incremental. Our efforts needn’t be all or nothing. And they needn’t be either/or.

In this new vernacular, our agendas can be both-and: A purposeful meaning segment can be incorporated into the overall meeting.

You may already be holding meanings. And just not yet calling them that.

But I wholeheartedly believe we must begin to make these efforts more explicit. More visible, sustainable, intentional, and repeatable.

What does this actually sound like?

Whether we gather virtually, face to face, or in hybrid, COVID shows us we can’t take any meeting, or meaning, for granted.

So, how can — how will — we move from producing a meeting to advancing (a) meaning?

I see a near future of leaders who — strategy hats firmly in place — ask and answer:

  • Where in the course of this gathering will the meeting become a meaning?
  • How will we design for significance?
  • Why are we coming together, what messages need we deliberately impart, and what will change as a result?

Tell attendees that this morning’s program is a meeting. And this afternoon? Well, it’s going to be a meaning. Share why and how this change matters. Explain the distinction in these two segments, so attendees become participants who foster positive change. Bake in targeted action steps that don’t stop when the meaning ends.

Meanings in real life.

So, let’s get real. Three examples:

  • Meeting = Discuss sales objectives. Meaning = Discuss why you sell your offerings and invite a customer to share a story of your product’s impact.
  • Meeting = Bring your group together for 360-degree reviews. Meaning = Bring your group together to write each other what I refer to in my TED Talk as Gracenotes (“eulogies for the living”).
  • Meeting = Town hall in which a leader shares company re-org details amidst a c-suite change. Meaning = All-hands human conversation to air hopes and fears about the future, support wellness, and boost belonging

Full circle.

The pandemic has changed us. Now, humbled and ready to produce meetings of deeper meaning, we can make exponential, positive differences in ways that would have been impossible in the “before time.”

Looking back to my initial “slip” in saying “meanings” vs. meetings, I realize that meanings is an ideal word to communicate what my subconscious was craving.

Planning meanings and meetings is a way to foster more significance. Meanings allow us to become our best selves — and help those we lead to do the same.

Will you lead with me to become a maker of meanings?


  • A meaning is a strategic, outcome-based meeting that adds legitimacy, impact, and relevance to gatherings.
  • Meanings advance and nourish our deeper desires of self-actualization, and answer why, how, and to what end.
  • By staging significant, meaning-rich experiences, we generate positive change and help participants become their best selves.

[Related: Align Your Investments With Your Personal Values]


Andrea Driessen helps smart people monetize their best ideas. She works with entrepreneurs to generate more revenue via their words on websites, video scripts, TEDx applications, sales sheets, speaking assets, and book proposals. She’s the 3x award-winning author of The Non-Obvious Guide to Event Planning, from which this article is excerpted. Andrea's TED Talk on eulogies for the living went viral.

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