Better meetings in just 10 simple steps

I love meetings – they give me an excuse to interrupt my work and relax.
I hate meetings – they are a waste of time while I have more important things to do.

Believe it or not, within some organisations those two statements exactly describe the attitude towards meetings. In fact, this mindset is more common in professional environments than many may think or are willing to admit. Maybe even you yourself secretly adopted this destructive way of thinking?

But why this disastrous attitude? Should meetings not be an excellent opportunity for a team to work together on a common problem? Or to spread information? Or to motivate and create a sense of common ground?

Well, yes, in fact meetings can and should do all of that. But too often they simply do not!
If people experience unproductive and inefficient meetings too often, they will accept this frustrating experience as normality and to be unchangeable.
But it is not! You yourself can and must do all you can to boost your meetings to success. Make it your personal goal to organise meetings where people like to attend – because they feel that these meetings are time well invested. Productivity time.

You are asking yourself how to do that? Read on, we have prepared a list of 10 simple tricks that will help you host efficient meetings where people actually like to attend.

1 Ask yourself: What is the real benefit of having this meeting?

This is a really important one. You should always remember that one hour meeting time actually means five working hours if five people participate.
Therefore, before inviting people, ask yourself:

  • Do you really need this meeting?
  • Can you do with less time?
  • Are there other ways that would satisfy the purpose of the meeting?

2 Motivate

Make it really clear to everyone what the meeting is about. You can do that during the opening of the meeting, or more ideally, already in the invitation to the meeting. Also think about what benefits the participants can be. Will they get new information? Will their voice and opinion on future decisions be heard? Tell them why it is in their own interest to participate!

Sometimes the wording can be crucial. A subject line “Strategy planning 2017” is so much less inspiring than “What can we achieve in 2017?”. Of course this would not fit all kinds of organisations equally well, but be creative.

3 Chose the right size of meeting

Nothing is more frustrating that to be stuck in a meeting room with many people and be really bored. Sometimes a participant was only invited because he will give a 2 minutes report at some point but the rest of the meeting is of no interest to him whatsoever. Forcing these people into a full hour meeting is bad style. Once too many people start asking themselves why the heck they are in the room, then your meeting is already down the drain.

It is a good idea to ask yourself before inviting people:

  • What can he or she contribute to the meeting?
  • Is that person really needed full time or would it be sufficient if you collect his opinion on a certain aspect beforehand?
  • Which participants are really crucial for the meeting because their expertise or decision is needed or because they need to be informed about the whole process?

Always remember that larger discussion rounds are often harder to lead and less efficient.

4 Explain the goal of the meeting

Not just that sometime participants no not know the defined goal of a meeting, sometimes even the organiser of the meeting is not consciously aware of the goals. In the worst case there even might not be any goal. I certainly do not need to explain that a meeting without goals is a meeting best not to be held.

Let us get back to the example of “Strategy planning 2017”. This headline does give a topic, but does not communicate the goal. There are quite many different possibilities indeed, e.g. :

  • Collecting first ideas for the strategy.
  • Inform about the strategy of the board.
  • To work out a new strategy together.

At the opening of the meeting stating a clear goal is crucial: Every participant needs to understand what should be achieved by the end of the meeting.

5 Have an agenda, and explain it to people

You do have a meeting agenda, don’t you? Well, I hope you do as I guess you have at least a minimum of organisational skills as a project manager. 😉
But not just you yourself need to be aware of the agenda; also all participants need to see it right from the beginning.

If people do not complain about the agenda presented to them right from the start, this in a way can be seen as silent approval. From then on everyone should at least be roughly committed to follow the agenda and stick to the schedule. Steering the meeting becomes much easier if every participant knows the schedule.

The agenda also helps giving people a feeling for the time available for each item on the list. Will it be a kind of rush-through as there are so many items? Or will it be more an in-depth discussion on few very important topics?

6 Create atmosphere

Some meetings are just awkward or plain horrible. Sometimes you can feel it “in the air” every participant wants to be elsewhere but not in the meeting room.
As the organiser it is your job find the right tone, to motivate and to make it an efficient meeting.

Having some biscuits on the table might help, but is not the core issue here.

If the topic is very dry or simply unliked by everyone, find ways to cheer people up. No need to pretend an overly positive mood, but why not start the meeting with words such as “I know we all do not like this topic, but we really need to solve this problem. Let’s make the best out of it.”.
This at least creates some common ground and shows your understanding of your participants’ feelings.

7 Stay on course

Certainly one of the biggest challenges in meetings:

  • Participants may wander off from the topic.
  • Some will start monologues … really long monologues.
  • Just ten minutes left and you are still discussing item two of ten on the agenda.
  • People dig very deep into the less important details

Everyone who has organised more than one meeting in his life will know these problems all too well. This is natural. And it is your job to steer the big ship into the harbour in time:

  • During the course of the meeting you will certainly stumble across new problems. However solving these on the fly is always helping the purpose of the meeting. Stick to the goal.
  • Some problems popping up will only be of interest to a sub-group of the participants. Often it is better to delegate a follow-up meeting of the respective smaller group of participants to solve that particular problem.
  • Display the schedule more than once during the course of the meeting. People need to get a feeling for the time and items remaining.
  • Do not be afraid to be strict! I have not experienced many successful meetings without one or two hard cuts: “This is off the Agenda / will lead too far now, so we will discuss this new problem in depth on a later occasion.”

8 Be flexible

But this contradicts #7, right? How the heck can I stick to the agenda and at the same time be flexible?

OK, to be frank, you cannot be flexible and strict at the same time. This is more referring to the exception: Sometimes straying from the agenda makes sense and is even crucial. If you realise you cannot achieve the goal of the meeting as new information pops up, if you really hit a killer problem, then you need to adjust the schedule on the fly. This could mean: A) Try to solve the killer problem still during the meeting. You most likely need to drop some of the other agenda items then. B) End the meeting right in the middle and schedule it anew once the problem is solved. C) Continue the meeting with a sub-group to solve that nasty problem and reschedule the original meeting later.

But be careful! Make sure that:

  • It is not always the same agenda items that are dropped in the end.
  • It is not always the same participants, which have not been heard in the end.
  • Items dropped from the agenda are not forgotten altogether later.

9 Use a parking lot for new sub-topics

During the course of a meeting there will always be new ideas, side-topics gaining interest of some participants or even conflicts emerging. The meeting needs to stay on schedule, however some of these sub-topics may well be of importance!

In this case it is a good idea to have some sort of storage prepared, where those new items can be parked: This could be a whiteboard or small notes to be pinned to the wall so they can be seen by everyone. There are many possibilities.
Once a topic has been parked in that way, everyone knows it will not be forgotten. This makes it much easier for everyone to leave it aside and continue with the original schedule.
It also ensures that, in fact, it will not be forgotten! In the end of the meeting you should review the new items, drop those which have lost importance and turn the others into To-dos for the future.

10 Do not haste the closure of the meeting

Time is up, goals achieved (or not) and everyone rushes out of the meeting room. We all know that situation.
However at the end it is a good idea to briefly summarise the outcome for everyone:

  • What was achieved in the meeting?
  • What will be the next steps?
  • To whom are those steps assigned?
  • What are the deadlines for those new tasks?

Just do this briefly. You can go into more details when you send out the meeting protocol later.

Do you also have some tricks and ideas for successful meetings? Feel free to share your personal experience with us 🙂

Alexander Blumenau (*1972) is a portfolio and project manager. With over a decade of international project experience he has been in charge as head of R&D in high-tech industries.
Originally Alexander started his career as a scientist and holds a doctoral degree in Physics. Besides his interests in project management, company processes and structures, he works as a free author and arts photographer.