Meetings are an important yet unfortunate part of doing business. Very few people enjoy them because, frankly, they are often a colossal waste of time. In fact, in their book REWORK, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (founders of 37Signals) have a whole little sub-chapter titled “Meetings Are Toxic”. They describe meetings as the worst type of interruption because “They’re usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things” and “They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute”.
However, that doesn’t always have to be the case. If you are at a point in your career where you are hosting your own meetings, or if you just want to be ready to step in when your boss needs help, the information below can help you have meetings that are more successful, take less time, and contain considerably less suck.
In my adult work life, I have participated in around 3,000 meetings. And that number is steadily going up. Of those 3,000 meetings, I have been involved in the development or facilitation of around 1,200. Now that I type those numbers out, I feel a little sad that I didn’t do something about how much of my time was being wasted. Not to mention, how much of other peoples time I was actually wasting by following the same meeting format I hated so much.
Prepping for the meeting
Meetings cost two things: Money and Time. Depending on the person, one of those is more valuable than the other, but they both matter in the end. The first thing you should do before setting up a meeting is decide if you really even need to have one at all. Ask yourself “Does a decision need to be made, or am I just relaying information?” If you’re just giving updates, and there isn’t a requirement from higher-ups that it be done in a meeting, then perhaps you can just give your updates via email. If a decision does need to be made, does it require discussion? If no discussion or convincing is really required then, again, try to do it over email.
Now, if you have reached the point where you still need to have a meeting, that’s perfectly ok. The following points will help you keep your meeting efficient and effective.
Invite the right people
Keep the guest list small. Only invite the people who really need to be a part of the decision making process, or have a stake in the discussion because they will be affected by it.
Only make it as long as you need it to be
Every meeting I’ve ever been to has been scheduled in 30 minute increments. WHY?!? We all know that a standard 30 minute meeting contains ten minutes of banter, ten minutes waiting for people to show up and get settled, and ten minutes of actual discussion. If you only need ten minutes, make the meeting ten minutes. A short meeting creates sense of urgency and helps people stay on point. This short timeline will be tough for people to adapt to at first, but once they see how it frees up their day, they’ll thank you.
Sometimes there is a need for multi-hour meetings, but not often. Any meeting that truly has a need to be longer than 45 minutes, an hour tops, also needs to have some kind of break built in to help everyone stay fresh.
Time of day makes all the difference
Avoid scheduling your meeting within the first 30 minutes or the last hour of the day. If you start the meeting too early, people won’t really be in work mode yet. They’ll still have about a quarter tank of chitchat in them, and it’ll take that much longer for your meeting to get started. Heck, I’ve been in meetings that were supposed to start at 8am and half of the group that scheduled the meeting weren’t even walking in the front door until 7:59!
The same holds true for the last hour of the day. If the work day ends at 5pm, people will start mentally checking out around 4:15 to 4:30. They’re thinking of last minute things they need to do before they leave, or things they need to do after work. I like to call these parts of the day “Tangent Time”. Meetings are highly conducive to the creation of tangents at any point during the day, but these blocks of time seem to be especially fertile.
Create an effective agenda
If you’ve ever walked into a meeting and discovered that it was about something completely different than you thought it was, then you have been the victim of a poor agenda. A good agenda will list the topics to be discussed, a one or two sentence overview of each topic, and the amount of time set aside for each one. Having a descriptive overview allows the attendees to actually prepare, so that you can have a discussion that facilitates real results. It also allows them to know ahead of time if they should invite along someone with more expertise in that specific area.
Have clear expectations
The easiest way to get the results you want is to make everyone aware of what those results are. When you send out your agenda, include an expectations statement in the invite. An expectations statement is exactly what it sounds like. It clearly conveys your expectations for the meeting to the attendees. This can be as informal as “We will be discussing the recent customer complaints regarding the order form, determining a solution, and planning an implementation schedule”. This lets everyone know how to prepare for the meeting.
Now that you have the meeting planned, it’s time to make sure you are prepared for your role in it. If you are going to be presenting, practice your presentation. Please. If you’ve ever been in a meeting where the presenter wasn’t prepared, you know it can be painful to watch. I’m not going to provide a whole public speaking lesson here. Just remember that the audience wants you to be successful, don’t let your nerves get the better of you.
Maintaining Control – One of the major differences between a good and bad meeting is how well it stays on topic. Maintaining control doesn’t mean ruling with an iron fist, but it does require a certain level of confidence and assertiveness. As I said earlier, meetings are a breeding ground for tangents and you don’t want yours becoming overrun. Having a good agenda is one way to avoid tangents, and keeping a tight/short schedule creates a sense of urgency so, hopefully, your attendees will stay on track.
There are a few more techniques you can use as well.
Please Hold All Questions Until the End
If you’re making a presentation, and you make this statement, please stick to it. Personally, I like it. I think it works, but only if you stick to your guns. Let one or two questions in, and the next thing you know their storming the gates.
Keep Attendees Engaged
If a purpose of the meeting is to facilitate discussion and get feedback from a certain member or group, then ask them questions directly. If Mike works in Marketing, and you really want him to help out with creating a graphic, then address him directly when you get to that part. “So this is what we’ve kind of started with but, Mike, this is really where I’m hoping you and your team can help us out. We need something like this [point to your crudely drawn doodle] but a lot better.”
Think of bike shedding as a cousin to tangents. Tangents are generally off-topic rants that obviously waste time. Bike shedding, also known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, actually stays on topic, but the discussion is far more involved and takes far more time than it should. A great statement that usually accompanies discussions on bike shedding is “the amount of noise generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change”. This can be tough to control, because people genuinely feel that the topic is something that should be discussed but, by having time already designated to each issue and being assertive enough to steer the conversation back on track, you can minimize its effect on your meeting.
Closing Out the Meeting
You’ve finally made it to the end of your, hopefully, short and successful meeting! Now, before you let everyone leave, you need to make sure everyone knows what they need to do after they leave. Save about three to five minutes at the end of your meeting to recap decisions made and each person’s action item. This can be as quick as “Ok, just so we’re all on the same page before we go, we decided that we are going to end working on the Mad Men Suit Identifier app due to lack of customer interest. James, you are going to speak with Legal regarding the implications of using the Game of Thrones logo in next month’s commercials. And, Mike, you are going to research new chairs for the conference room and send an email to everyone with price points and suggestions. Everyone clear on their tasks?” Make sure everyone responds, because that is what creates accountability. Everyone knows what is expected of them, and they can be held to it. That’s not a bad thing. Accountability is one of the things that makes the world work.
Before I finish up, I thought I would share one of my “bad meeting” examples.
What you see below is real. I am leaving it generic to protect the identities of those involved.
EXAMPLE: Service Inc. has two separate departments who both perform outreach to their customers. One department is the service department, which receives all of the general Customer Service calls and also makes general outreach to customers when it is close to time to replenish their stock or just to check in on them. The other department is the actual sales department who set up the accounts originally and helps customers make informed decisions about which products to choose and also work with customers when it is time to renew their contracts. This group also calls and emails customers just to check in on them. Additionally, various members of each team would assist with communications when members of their group were out of the office or falling behind. As you can imagine, customers were confused about who specifically to contact when they had questions.
So, a meeting was held to plan a merger of the two departments. The agenda was sent out with one item “Department merger discussion”. It was scheduled from 8am to 11am. I arrived to the meeting room at 7:58am to find it completely empty. I went back to my desk to make sure I read the invite correctly and to make sure the meeting hadn’t been moved. While I am at my desk, I see several people who I thought were leading the meeting walking in the front doors. It is now 8:03am and they do not seem to be rushing. Several other attendees are now moving to the conference room, so I join them and we wait for everything to start. It did. At 8:11am. It is 8:15am before conversation on the topic of the meeting begins, and we spend the next 10 minutes listening to a review of the issue that caused us to hold the meeting. Over the next 40 minutes we discussed some customer experiences that were related to the issue at hand, but we also discussed bacon, starfish, and tandem bicycles. It is now right about 9am…2 more hours.
The conversation came back to emails from customers who were confused about who to reach out to when they have questions. This then provided an opportunity for everyone to share a story about either a silly email they received, or a silly email address they came across in our system. As funny as it is, firstname.lastname@example.org is not worthy of the amount of payroll it cost for 13 people to laugh about it for 10 minutes.
Luckily, at around 9:25 I excused myself because I had an overlapping meeting to get to. I assumed the meeting would go on without me and some type of conclusion would be reached. I received a text from one of my teammates that afternoon that said “Meeting = bust. Talked about nothing for another 15 min & decided to hold until we get more direction from Board”.
As you can see, lots of issues there. I hope you find something in this information helpful to you, and perhaps you can put some of it to use in your own company or department.