Effective Meetings

Business and professional meetings are a part of the communication climate of any business. Some view meetings as boring, pointless, and futile exercises. Statistics in a Harvard Business Review article indicate that meetings “have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years,” while a survey of 182 senior managers resulted in the following: “65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work. 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.” [1] You may have had the same reaction to badly-run meetings.

However, meetings can be opportunities to exchange information and produce results. A combination of preparation and execution makes all the difference, for both in-person and virtual meetings. Apply the tips discussed below to help make meetings more effective.

Before the Meeting

Identify the Purpose

A meeting needs a clear purpose.  Do you want to brainstorm how to institute a new procedure?  Solve a problem?  Get feedback on the effectiveness of a new policy?  Clarifying a meeting’s purpose is the first step in having a meeting. Note that if your purpose is simply to provide information or updates, you might decide not to have a meeting and to disseminate that information in a different way, via email or a post on an internal, online site.

Identify Participants

Decide who should attend the meeting.  If your purpose is to make a decision about an issue or a process, you will need to have decision-makers present, as well as stakeholders and representatives of groups who will be affected by that decision.  If your purpose is to get feedback about a proposed change, you’ll need to invite people who are knowledgeable about the subject of the change. If the overall number of stakeholders is very large, realize that it’s fine to invite representatives of various groups, as long as you clarify that their roles will be to take information back to their group and perhaps facilitate smaller meetings whose feedback will then be reported back to your initial group.

Create and Disseminate an Agenda

Create an agenda – your purpose and list of topics to be discussed – well before the meeting, so that you can send it to participants in time for them to prepare their thoughts and thus actively participate during the meeting. You may need to solicit information from members to formulate an agenda, and this pre-meeting contact can serve to encourage active participation as well. The agenda should have the meeting date,  time, place, and method of interaction, as well as a list of participants. Remember to include the purpose prominently, along with your topics and the time allotted for each.  You may opt to include a brief summary of relevant information that relates to each topic. Note that many agendas also plan a certain amount of time for questions and/or additional announcements or sharing at the end.

Assign Roles

There are different, standard roles that need to be fulfilled in any meeting: leader/facilitator, timekeeper, recorder, minute-taker.  The recorder and minute-taker may be combined into one role, but may be separate, especially if you plan on brainstorming or discussing key issues and need a person to capture particular information on a flip chart or in the chat sidebar of a virtual meeting. Don’t assume that, as facilitator, you need to perform all of these roles.  You may want to ask certain participants before the meeting if they will fulfill certain roles.  Note, though, that if your group meets consistently, you should alternate roles so that one person is not consistently performing one role.

There may be other roles that are appropriate for a meeting.  One is “devil’s advocate,” or a different person assigned in each meeting to challenge discussion points and assumptions. This may be an important role when there are divergent attitudes about agenda items, or when there is planned discussion of “charged” topics.  Having a devil’s advocate role assigned will 1) help the group consider all aspects of the topic under discussion, and 2) remove some negativity from the discussion, as participants understand that the person acting as devil’s advocate is not being personally negative, but is performing an important analytical function.  It also helps cut down on the impact of any “real” devil’s advocates – the people who consistently have negative reactions toward proposed ideas.  Another role is “subject matter expert.”  There may be some participants who are well-versed in the topics being discussed; these participants should be acknowledged and noted.

Gather all Information & Items Needed / Test Equipment

If you will be brainstorming, make sure that you have flip charts, sticky notes, pens to write on a whiteboard, pads of paper, or whatever items you choose to use to facilitate a brainstorming process.  If others will be making reports, ask for key points of those reports for a summary handout to be distributed at the meeting.  Always test any technical equipment ahead of time (and have a backup plan, since technical glitches do occur).  Finally, make sure you have copies of, or prominently post, the meeting agenda and timing, so everyone attending has the agenda for immediate reference during the meeting.

The following video discusses strategies to apply before and during a meeting to foster productive meetings.

The video below identifies major complaints about meetings and offers strategies to use before, during, and after a meeting to address those complaints.  This video also talks about assigning roles to participants.

For a more detailed discussion of meeting roles, view the following video.

During the Meeting – Facilitator

Introductions, Purpose, Procedures

Do introductions only if participants do not know one another.  Set expectations for introductions by saying “short,” or asking simply for name and department, and model those expectations in your own introduction.  Do not let introductions get lengthy – it’s best to get participants focused quickly on the business of the meeting.

At the start of the meeting, reiterate the meeting’s purpose. Also mention important rules of procedure.  For example, do you need to remind everyone that you will go around the table for each key question so that everyone’s voice will be heard?  Will each presenter talk and then take questions at the end?  If meetings tend to get heated, do people need to be reminded that only one person may speak at a time?  Having a few key ground rules that everyone agrees to, and that are easily available, will help the meeting run more smoothly.

Topic Discussions

Here are a few important tips to help ensure fruitful discussion during a meeting:

  • Start and end on time. If people arrive late, don’t review previous information, as it’s boring to the people who arrived on time and it rewards late arrivals.
  • If discussion strays from the topic, use a “parking lot” approach. The “parking lot” is a separate place to record information that is not directly related to a discussion topic.  It’s important not to dismiss people’s contributions, and by using a parking lot approach, you acknowledge the person’s contribution and information and retain it for future discussion.  Often, the person acting as the recorder also maintains the parking lot.
  • If discussion gets too lengthy, don’t hesitate to step in and remind others of how much time is left for the agenda item.  Sometimes, though, it’s important to continue discussion.  You may then edit the agenda during the meeting, if participants agree.
  • Transitions are often the hardest part of any meeting. Facilitating the transition from one topic to the next may require you to create links between each point. If links are not obvious or just non-existent, then just note the next point on the agenda and verbally introduce the next speaker or person responsible for the content area.
  • Re-state key ideas and information at certain points, to ensure that everyone recognizes and understands.  Also summarize as you go along to keep discussion focused.
  • Use different strategies to engage participants.  Ask questions.  Ask if those who have been silent so far have any thoughts, or go “around the table” so that everyone has a chance to offer ideas and information. Sometimes understanding the structure of a conversation will encourage participation, so if you have a person functioning as devil’s advocate, structure the conversation so that each topic is discussed in terms of pros and cons, analysis, and recommendations (any structure that makes sense).
  • Don’t hesitate to step in and redirect the conversation if a participant is dominating that conversation. Politely state that given the timing, it’s time to move on, and/or institute any of the engagement strategies listed in the previous point so that the person dominating does not have a chance to make the first statement for every discussion item.
  • As discussion items close, summarize and identify any actions agreed upon, and state them clearly.  Also review who is responsible for each action item, and what the timeline is for completing each action item. Note whether there is a follow-up meeting and, if so, mention the day, time, and location.

For a useful video on dealing with difficult meeting participants, view Facilitation Skills Training: Managing Difficult Meeting Personalities, by Dana Brownlee. (Note that you can stop the video before the end, as the end is an ad for services.)

During the Meeting – Participants

Mary Ellen Guffey provides a useful participant checklist:

  • Arrive on time and stay until the meeting adjourns (unless there are prior arrangements)
  • Be prepared by having read and thought about the meeting agenda; have everything you need on hand
  • Turn off cell phones; use laptops or tablets only if taking notes and not for personal use during the meeting
  • Follow the established protocol for turn taking
  • Respect time limits
  • Demonstrate professionalism in your verbal and nonverbal interactions
  • Communicate interest and stay engaged in the discussion
  • Avoid tangents and side discussions

Although the following video was created as a New York State Civil Service Employee Association training video for labor-management meetings, it offers good information and a meeting scenario to see how effective meeting strategies can be applied.  The video shows a standard “roadmap” that the union uses, which functions both as an agenda and a way to record action items.

After the Meeting

Review notes, and distribute them as soon as possible.  Notes should include any action items, the person responsible, and the timeline for completion. Ask for participants’ feedback on the notes, by a certain deadline, to ensure their accuracy before they become part of the organization’s archives. Also, after the meeting, follow up one-to-one or in small groups with any important points or key conversations as needed.

Depending on your sense of humor, you may enjoy the following video, which shows common meeting glitches that can be avoided by applying effective meeting strategies.

[1] Perlow, E., Hadley, C.,and Eun, E. “Stop the Meeting Madness.” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2017. https://hbr.org/2017/07/stop-the-meeting-madness