Picture this: you’ve been sitting in a meeting room with eight other people for an hour, talking in circles about an issue that was supposed to be solved 45 minutes ago. Two of the people in the meeting are looking at Twitter because this conversation has nothing to do with them, but they have other topics that need to be discussed. No one can move forward because this decision needs to be made, but the person who can really make a decision had a conflict and left 20 minutes ago.
Sounds kinda awful, right? This isn’t a great way to get things done yet it seems a lot of meetings end up this way. Where do things go wrong? How can they be better? I’ve been told that I run pretty okay meetings (a point of pride, to be honest!) so I decided to share what works for me.
Here are 3 things I do to keep my meetings short, sweet, and effective:
Set clear goals
Meetings come in a lot of different flavors. My personal favs are exploratory meetings, full of white boarding and collaborating and problem-solving. There are also knowledge sharing meetings, like when you kick-off a new project, or bring a new team member on board. Sometimes it’s a planning meeting, making sure that everyone has a clear path forward and knows what all the next steps are.
No matter what type of meeting you’re having, make sure you know what you want each participant to get out the session. This doesn’t have to be complicated! Some good meeting goals are things like “this new team member should know who to ask for help” or “everyone can move forward on their tasks” or “the project stakeholders will understand the status of this project.” Meeting invitations are a great place to share this goal, to help make sure everyone knows why you’re meeting and to make it clear that your meeting does have a goal.
For longer, more complicated meetings is might be worthwhile to put together an agenda that has the goal and a rough outline of what needs to happen to get there.
Do as much pre-work as possible
Prepping for meetings is something that can really help move things along, but is often one of the first things in a busy day to drop off the todo list, at least for me. Pre-work in my day-to-day usually looks like opening any documents that I might need to reference, re-reading the meeting invite to make sure I understand the goal, and checking over the attendee list for any new or surprising faces. If I’m presenting something I always flip through whatever I’m speaking about to re-familiarize myself with it, especially if the presentation includes other people’s work. For bigger meetings, like workshops, pre-work should include gathering your supplies, optimizing the agenda, and reviewing any slides or whatever you’re using to guide things along.
The other side of pre-work is making sure that the other meeting participants are prepared. I have watched so many meetings fall apart because not all the right pieces are lined up to have the conversation that was the goal of the meeting. Having two people derail into a side conversation to figure something out is frustrating for everyone; the decision makers end up feeling put on the spot and everyone else feels like their time was wasted. Whatever decisions do get made end up being short-sighted and rushed. My general rule of thumb is that it’s better to have several 10-minute meetings with 1 or 2 people before a short meeting with a group of people than to have a long meeting with a group of people who get derailed and rushed. If you can, split one long meeting into a few short meetings and follow-up with the whole team through whatever tool you use to track notes.
Even small meetings need a little facilitation
How you facilitate your meeting greatly depends on the type of group you are meeting with. Sometimes meeting participants are on it and can fly through discussion topics with ease. Some groups, though… some groups just don’t mesh. It happens, the world is full of many different types of people! If meeting participants aren’t seeing eye-to-eye there are a few things I like to try.
If there’s a whiteboard available often writing notes for the group can help rein in unruly conversation. Bonus points for notes that are well structured and numbered so they are easier to reference during the discussion. Being able to say “if we go back to point two…” in the middle of a thought can really help keep everyone on the same page.
Another tactic I use a ton is echoing. This works especially well if you can identify that some meeting participants are viewing an issue from a completely different direction than other participants. Echoing back what someone says in a slightly different way is great for two reasons: it lets you know that you understand and it’s a way to help other people understand. Win-win!
There are also some more advanced meeting management techniques that I personally don’t pull out often, but they are good to have around. For instance, “taking stack” is helpful if someone is grandstanding or if some participants aren’t being heard for whatever reasons. You take stack by more formally moderating whose turn it is to speak and diligently cutting people off when they have stated their point. Depending on the group and the meeting type there are a few ways to handle questions during a meeting. For large groups (or if you’re in a room where not everyone can see everyone else) instituting a hand raising policy can help make sure everyone gets heard. More informal teams can probably do with less formal question taking systems, but keep on eye on anyone who is overly quiet. They might have something to say but don’t want to butt into someone else’s thought. I always try to explicitly ask for questions or concerns periodically during meetings to make sure there is space for quieter members of the team to chime in.
Bottom line: be respectful
If I had to boil all of this down, running a good meeting is about respect. Respect your team’s time, energy, and knowledge. Remember that different people work in different ways—which is a good thing! As a meeting facilitator, it’s your job to help people see things from each other’s perspectives and to keep the discussion on track. Setting goals, taking the time to check in with your team before and after, and practicing my facilitation skills are the best ways I’ve found to make meetings helpful and (best of all) not a waste of time!