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Meetings 101: tips for more productive meetings

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2008. Meetings 101: tips for more productive meetings. Intercom February 2008:26–29.

There's a famous saying that meetings are "places where minutes are saved and hours wasted", something that anyone who's survived an endless series of workplace meetings can attest to. Indeed, most workers eventually come to dread the prospect of yet another meeting. In my experience as the victim of endless meetings and as an avid observer of the travails of a great many technical communicators, it's become painfully clear to me how few people ever learn to organize and run an effective meeting. In this article, I'll provide some of the key points required to run a successful meeting. This is a broad subject that could easily become a book, particularly if you dive into the human aspects of how meetings work. In the short space available to me, I'll focus on some things that are easily done and that have offered obvious and dramatic paybacks in my own experience as organizer of meetings.

Before you begin, of course, ask yourself whether a meeting is truly necessary. Meetings are human gatherings, and like any other form of gathering, offer possibilities for interaction that can't yet be accomplished in any other way. Modern teleconferencing, whether using dedicated facilities, a Webcam, or an instant messaging forum (a "chat room") come close, but don't yet offer the flexibility of a true in-person meeting. Such meetings offer something you simply can't find elsewhere: face-to-face, real-time discussion and interaction until you achieve consensus. Where consensus can be reached by a simple vote, without requiring much in the way of discussion, send out an e-mail poll or use a service such as Survey Monkey (http://surveymonkey.com/). Where the goal is nothing more than a status update, offer to collect and synthesize reports from all stakeholders, then distribute that summary. If the interaction can occur aynchronously over a period of days or weeks, hold the discussion in e-mail or (better still) use a wiki. Don't waste everyone's time holding a meeting.

But if real-time discussion, interaction, and consensus are truly necessary, only a meeting will do. Here's how to make it reasonably painless and effective.

Get buy-in and support

Most of your workplace colleagues have been scarred by years of tedious, ineffective meetings, and will go to great lengths to escape them. (I've even heard of people who would arrange to be paged so they had plausible excuse to leave a few minutes into the meeting, and have worked with colleagues I suspected of this practice.) But if a meeting is important, everyone needs to take it seriously. To do so, the relevant managers must make it clear to their staff that participation isn't optional. If the managers don't believe this to be the case, neither will their staff, and you can pretty much forget about trying to force them to attend. You may still be able to talk some into attending, but you'll need to be substantially more persuasive than if you have management support.

Persuasion becomes substantially easier if you establish a reputation for running effective, relatively painless meetings—perhaps because you've followed the advice in this article. But until you have that reputation, you'll need to convince people to trust you. Start by finding a way to make the meeting relevant to everyone who must attend. Too many meeting organizers invite everyone who might conceivably have an interest in the subject instead of focusing on the key players. Instead, keep the meeting short and focused—which is far easier to do if you invite only those who must be present. (As a rule of thumb, the effectiveness of a meeting decreases exponentially as you add more than a handful of participants.) Ensuring that all voices are heard and that everyone has a say in the decisions is important, but often it's more efficient to hold a smaller meeting that lets the true experts create something the rest of the stakeholders can review.

Making the meeting relevant and efficient represents "the carrot", but sometimes you also have to wield a stick. I've belonged to groups where anyone who didn't attend a key meeting was automatically nominated for some unpleasant task that might otherwise have been assigned at the meeting to someone more deserving. Sometimes a little note to a recalcitrant colleague's manager can provide the necessary pressure through the implied threat of an appropriate reward for their unwillingness to cooperate come appraisal time. Avoid this kind of power play wherever possible, but don't completely eliminate it from your toolkit.

Pick a suitable date and time

Unsuitable choice of a date and time is a major cause of poor attendance and a lack of participation. Most of us are far busier than we like, with new commitments arising at a dismaying rate. If you pick an arbitrary time and announce the meeting only a few days beforehand, odds are good that most people will already have other commitments and won't be able to change them. In a real emergency, you may indeed be able to convince everyone to change their existing plans, particularly if you've got strong management support (or if management created the emergency), but such emergencies are usually rare.

Instead, inform the key people of the need for a meeting as far as possible in advance. For regularly scheduled meetings, the interval between meetings is clear, and you can start out by asking all participants when they're unavailable. (For example, when I was president of STC's Montreal community, we asked all members of the executive which days of the week they were available, thereby allowing us to avoid evenings when members were attending university courses or taking their children to weekly activities.) Once you've avoided the obvious periods when people won't be available, try to arrange the next meeting during the current meeting, while everyone is present and able to discuss alternatives: that way, monthly meetings can be arranged 1 month in advance and weekly meetings 1 week in advance. This also offers participants a chance to warn you of commitments such as vacation that will prevent their attendance and for them to ask others for a compromise.

For ad hoc or unexpected meetings, provide as much warning as possible. When you announce the meeting, offer a range of dates and times that are best for you, and ask people to confirm their preferences. (Most office software, including the Microsoft Exchange–Outlook combination, offers a group scheduling feature that makes this easy; it examines the personal calendars of everyone you want to invite and helps you eliminate obvious scheduling conflicts.) Pick a date when most participants (or all of the most important ones) will be available. Some negotiation may be necessary, or you may simply have to pick a date that will allow the most important people to attend, then find a way to obtain input from anyone who can't attend on that date.

Well before the meeting, send out a reminder and an agenda. For a regularly scheduled meeting, try sending the reminder around half to two-thirds of the way to the next meeting. For example, reminders for a monthly meeting could go out 1 to 2 weeks before the meeting. For an ad hoc meeting, try to give at least 1 day's notice. Ask whether anyone's plans have changed (often through no fault of their own), and if so, ask them to provide their inputs in writing or in person (talk to them at lunch, for instance) before the meeting. If you're in an uncommonly busy workplace where chaos reigns, or if you're dealing with unusually recalcitrant colleagues, consider sending out another reminder the day before the meeting. Not everyone is diligent about adding such appointments to their calendar software and setting the reminders function, and over time you'll come to know who needs more help remembering. Add a note on your own calendar to provide that help instead of bothering everyone on the list with unnecessary reminders.

There are never any guarantees, but letting participants exclude times when they know they won't be available, and giving them alternative ways to participate if they can't attend, greatly increases participation.

Provide support materials and an agenda

To help maintain focus, ensure that everyone receives the supporting information they'll need to participate effectively well in advance of the meeting. This material might be a budget report, a link to a Web site, or the latest build of the software that you're documenting, and your goal is for everyone to come to the meeting already well-informed about the subject. Nothing is more frustrating and inefficient than having to provide all this information at the meeting and ask people to reach decisions without having time to digest the information. Except in emergencies, it's rarely necessary to extensively discuss support materials at the meeting; it's more effective for everyone to read them beforehand, at their convenience, and form opinions before they come to the meeting. Provide necessary incentives to ensure that participants actually do their homework. If someone can't be bothered to inform themselves before the meeting, don't waste time providing a detailed recap of that information. Offer a brief summary, and if they demonstrate serious ignorance of the subject, ask them not to participate in voting or waste everyone else's time with ill-informed speculation.

Create an agenda, and distribute it before the meeting so everyone has time to think about the points that will be discussed and do any necessary research. Stick to your agenda rigorously unless something truly special arises after you've distributed the agenda. If something must be added to the agenda at the last possible instant, think hard about whether you can productively discuss this new issue at the meeting or whether everyone needs a day or a few hours to think about it first. It's generally more effective to briefly introduce the topic, ask everyone to think about it, and arrange a separate meeting to discuss it. If a point is sufficiently minor that it doesn't require much thought or research, add it to the list of additional topics that will be discussed at the end of the meeting—and discuss it then only if time permits. Try to end the meeting on time, because most participants have other tasks they must begin as soon as the meeting ends and will have already added those tasks to their schedule.

Most meetings will have a defined time slot, and you won't have the luxury of prolonging the meeting beyond that time. To complete such meetings on time, you'll need to create a time budget. If all topics are equally important, simply divide the available time equally among the topics; if some topics are more important than others, given them proportionally more time. Then keep an eye on your watch to ensure that the discussion ends within the allotted time. A few minutes before the time runs out, try to gently direct the discussion to a conclusion, and spend those last few minutes achieving consensus on that conclusion. If the issue proves far more contentious than you expected, and clearly can't be resolved in the remaining time, decide whether the topic is sufficiently important to use up the remaining time (thereby forcing another meeting for the remaining topics), or whether the discussion should be stopped and continued at another meeting.

I've chaired a great many meetings over the years, with up to 20 people attending, and some of them have been Very Important Persons. With VIPs in attendance, keeping a meeting on track can become quite difficult—particularly with the kind of folksy manager who takes a great deal of pride in having the common touch and wanting to chat with everyone. As chair, it's your job to manage the discussion, and some VIPs aren't accustomed to being managed by their juniors. A few times, I've been forced to "pull rank" and tell someone that we really didn't have time to discuss their point, interesting though it may be, and that it will have to be deferred to the end of the meeting or form the topic for another meeting. This takes considerable diplomacy, but I've managed to persuade managers as high as vice-presidents and Executive Directors to stick to the topic. These people really aren't accustomed to being interrupted in this way, and some will greatly resent it, so don't even think of trying this if you don't know the person well enough to predict their reaction and don't have enough credibility to make them listen.

The purpose of a meeting is to reach one or more decision, so design the meeting agenda specifically to lead towards those decisions. Other agenda items can be handled if time permits, but if not, ruthlessly exclude them from the agenda. Then ensure that the necessary decisions get made before anyone leaves.

Summarize the consensus

Particularly for contentious or difficult topics, it can be tough to remember everything that has been said and what has been decided. To ensure that everyone is on the same wavelength, pay attention to the flow of the discussion, and when nothing new seems to be added, gently interrupt and summarize what you feel to be the consensus opinion. Ask for confirmation that you've gotten it right, and provide one more chance for correction or addition to that consensus. Unresolved issues may not be resolvable in the time remaining to you, but should be recorded to serve as the basis for future discussion. Then write down the consensus and summarize what remains to be done.

If actions must be taken, determine who is best suited to perform the actions, and assign them responsibility for completing those actions. Then negotiate a fair deadline. If the criteria for successful completion of an activity are not obvious, state them and make sure that they're clear. Then write down that information too. If a follow-up meeting is necessary, try to arrange it now, while everyone is available. Some follow-up meetings will require the full group; others will only require a subset of the group. Find out which is correct, propose that to the assembled participants, and once you've received their approval, make the necessary arrangements for that sub-group.

Whether you take notes ("the minutes") yourself or have an elected secretary who takes notes for you, summarize one more time before you close the meeting, just to be sure that nothing has been missed or misunderstood. Then be sure to send out a copy of the minutes, with action items highlighted, within a day of the meeting, while memories of the meeting are still reasonably fresh and before anyone gets too busy with new responsibilities.

Consider chairing the meeting

Thus far, I've assumed that you're the person who arranged the meeting. More often, someone else will have done this, and they're probably not someone who's read this article. If the meeting is important to you, it may be worth your while offering to chair the meeting and make the necessary arrangements. I've done that a few times in the past. Few people enjoy chairing meetings, and oddballs like me who do enjoy the challenge are always appreciated when we offer to relieve someone of this unwanted responsibility. It's a great opportunity to earn a bit of gratitude you can rely on in the future, and an even better opportunity to demonstrate your management and people skills to managers.

If the person declines your offer but clearly doesn't know the first thing about running a meeting, you can choose to suffer in silence, or you can risk trying to act on some of the abovementioned tips in your role as a meeting participant. Again, you have to know your audience. Some chairs will appreciate this, but others will take it as an assault on their authority. If you don't know the chair well, try speaking up and watching their reaction. For example, when one chair seemed unwilling or unable to step in to stop a discussion that was going around in circles, I spoke up: "It seems like we've got consensus on this issue. Does everyone agree that ...?" The look of gratitude told me I'd guessed right. In another meeting, the cold look I received from the chair when I tried this told me I'd be wise to sit back and suffer in silence.

Obvious? Not!

You'd think that all this is obvious, but in nearly 20 years of workplace experience, I've come to the realization that perhaps it's so obvious that everyone misses what lies right in front of their collective nose. There's a lot more you can learn about making meetings effective, particularly with respect to the human dynamics: stopping VIPs from dominating the meeting to the point that nobody else gets a chance to speak, encouraging shy participants to provide input, and so on. There are also a range of formal rules for running meetings, including Robert's rules of order (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert%27s_rules_of_order). Most times, these more formal guidelines only codify some of what I've already said and provide support that lends authority to your role those times when you need a little support. Ideally, you should be able to run a meeting without relying heavily on "rules". I started this article with the proposition that meetings are about interaction and consensus, and if you can create that kind of atmosphere, then you won't have to worry about wielding the rules.

Of course, all of this advice has to be practiced if you're going to be any good at running a meeting. If you've been asked to chair a meeting, make a list of the key points in this article and think about how to implement each one before the meeting. If you've never been asked to chair a meeting, look for ways to add this experience to your portfolio. For those of us who work with subject-matter experts, one good tactic is to offer to serve as secretary at someone else's meeting. This lets you do simple things such as calling for consensus ("I'd like to write down a correct interpretation. Do we all agree that...?") and scheduling the next meeting. If you're seen as someone who adds value to the meeting, you'll be invited back, and over time, may be assigned other influential duties. That's not just theory; many years back, I served as the secretary for a government health and safety committee, and within a year, found myself chairing that committee.


©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved