Sad as this is, but many companies still run wholly ineffective meetings. If you’re not happy with how you run meetings, or you want to run meeting that make people go “wow” (and yes, I’ve had people respond this way!) then this article is for.
Fear not, I’m going to share with you communication practices and ideas about how to run amazing meetings.
When I run my Communication Workshop we cover a section on meetings and how improved communication skills can yield amazing results. During this section I always ask the attendees to raise their hands if they’ve ever been in an effective meeting. Sounds mad right? But every single time, only a few hands will go up!!
When I ask why their meetings are so ineffective the attendees pretty much list similar reasons to each other; poor facilitation, poor communication, too long, wrong people etc.
Meetings are a waste of time – mostly. They are too long, badly organised, poorly facilitated and often have no real purpose. Why? Because we never get taught, in education or the workplace, how to run effective meetings.
The basic reason my Comm(n) Workshop existing is that I’m filling the gap left behind by our education systems and world of work, where we can go decades stumbling through our career without anyone teaching us how to be good communicators.
This article is straight out of the workshop and includes some nuggets of awesomeness that will help you run amazing meetings at work. First let’s poke some fun at meetings – and then we’ll dig in to plenty of strategies for running amazing meetings.
Do your meetings run like this?
10:00am – You pitch up for the 10am meeting eager to discuss project details with the rest of the team only to find that the previous meeting is over running.
10:02am – After standing outside the meeting room making over enthusiastic “watch checking” gestures you decide to wander around to the kitchen to make a coffee.
10:05am – You return with your coffee. The meeting room is still busy. No other attendees have turned up for your meeting.
10:06am – The Project Manager from the over running meeting holds up his index finger to indicate he will be no longer than one minute.
10:10am – The previous meeting finally finishes. Attendees leave the room scowling at you for making them end their meeting before any decisions were made.
10:15am – Still no one has turned up. On a positive note though you’ve bagged the best seat at the back where you can “people watch” through the window.
10:17am – With no-one turning up you decide to go and make another coffee.
10:18am – Whilst making a coffee you suddenly become overwhelmed with a streak of mischievousness and decide to unscrew the lids on all the sugar shakers and balance them on the top, so it looks like the lid is still on.
10:20am – You return to the meeting room to find all the attendees in there waiting for you. You are gobsmacked but make your apologies for being late. You now only have the choice of one chair. The one at the front.
10:21am – The Product Owner (PO) decides to make a phone call and leaves the room.
10:23am – The PO returns but the “decision making exec” decides she now wants to make a call so leaves the room. She changes her mind in the doorway and returns to the meeting.
10:24am – The project meeting finally kicks off. First agenda point is raised. How to eliminate waste and unproductive activity in the project.
10:24:20am – You bite your lip and keep your late meeting comments to yourself, after all, everyone now thinks you were the late one.
10:26am – You start to have fidget attacks from all the coffee. Your foot starts to tap sporadically. You have an urge to throw rolled-up balls of paper at the tech lead.
10:27am – Apparently the defect count is down.
10:27:10am – Smiles and “hurrahs”
10:28am – The low defect count is because the release team are wrangling with some new seasonal release process and no-one can get anything built. General feeling of disappointment floods around the room.
10:36am – After more pointless defect stats, code measures and other illusions of productivity, the urge to throw paper is becoming increasingly strong. You now need the toilet. Badly.
10:45am – The PO announces, after checking emails on his phone, that the CEO has just had a sugar-shaker full of sugar dumped in their coffee and demands that the child responsible for this behavior steps forward.
10:45:10am – You face turns grey. You feel faint.
10:46am – You start humming with nervous energy.
10:46:20am – You are asked to stop humming.
And to sit still.
And to stop throwing bits of paper at people.
10:48am – The discussion moves to how we solve this inherent productivity problem. “Everyone is just so damn slow around here – nothing seems to get shipped” seems to be the feeling.
10:49am – A blame session erupts and heated exchanges are made. Even though it is “not a blame culture”, it is definately the Developer’s fault.
10:52am – Someone suggests a coffee break, someone else suggest we just abandon the meeting. The PO suggests we press on.
11:09am – The meeting ends after being harangued by the next meeting room attendees. The group disperse. You charge to the toilet. No decisions were made. Another meeting will be scheduled for a decision to be made.
11:15am – You turn up to your training session fifteen minutes late. Today’s topic: “Time Management”.
It’s your meeting
As with all Blazingly Simple Guides I’ve taken something nuanced and complicated and condensed it to something digestible and actionable. Take what is helpful, discard what isn’t – mash the following with your own experience to run your own Blazingly Effective Meeting. You will have to experiment and see what works for you.
I can never cover all aspects required to run effective meetings through words on a webpage, but there should be enough here to move your meetings in to the realms of awesomeness. I would encourage you to seek out a Communication Workshop near you, or bring it to your company, as we deep dive in to many aspects of non-verbal, language and the science behind excelling in communication at work.
Meetings are a waste of time
There are plenty of competing stats to be found around meetings but the one I like to reference, because it resonates with own experience, is this one in which the following stats are presented (these numbers are just from the US alone!!) :
- It’s estimated that there are 25 million meetings every day
- 37% of employee time is spent in meetings
- 50% of exec time is spent in meetings
- It is estimated that 25-50% of meeting time is wasted time
- 92% of people admit to multi-tasking in meetings
These numbers sound about right to me here in the UK too, certainly from my experience. As we spend so much time in meetings we had better start making sure our meetings are epic.
But what is a meeting?
A meeting, as a define it, is a gathering of people to make a decision(s) because it’s no longer possible for a single person to make that decision.
If it was possible for a single person to make a decision they would do so. They may choose to send the decision around for a final review, or have gated reviews in place, but the purpose of a meeting is to discuss something. Ironically, although many managers say they trust people, they are often the ones who call meetings to discuss a decision someone else was supposedly allowed to make. Don’t be that manager. Trust people. By all means review decisions, but is there a need for a meeting?
I like to think of meetings as a gathering of specialists – people who are able to make decisions, be critical about plans or feed in their expertise. Ultimately though – I believe almost all types of meetings should be about making a decision.
Groups can often make better decisions than individuals – especially if there is a known answer. More suggestions, ideas and potential solutions may come forward on how to solve your problem or make that decision.
If there is no decision to be made and you’re getting people together to brainstorm then I wouldn’t classify this as a meeting. I see a big difference between a creative workshop and a meeting.
I believe a meeting is at least two people or more. I suppose you could have a meeting with yourself 🙂
Interviews are a type of meeting. I don’t classify 1:1s as meetings as they’re not about making decisions.
So, meetings should be about making a decision by using specialists because it’s no longer possible for a single person to make that decision. I like that.
The down-sides of meetings
The downside to group meetings are that they take time, can duplicate work and can cost a lot of money. Every person in the meeting is giving up their time to be at the meeting. Meetings can quickly stack up the costs and use of time. I once saw around 15 high profile managers and execs coming together for a three hour meeting to discuss the extra £500 a year it would cost the business in internet cabling to the office. The meeting cost way more than £500.
Whenever you get a group of people together you bring together egos, attitudes, biases and politics; group dynamics. These dynamics can make it hard to “control” or facilitate meetings.
Another common downside of groups is something called Group Think where the group can make terrible decisions as they strive to keep the peace, maintain the status-quo and keep harmony. There can sometimes be group pressure if the vocal and loud people in the meeting are commanding and dominating the decision making, even if their ideas are be terrible.
So I would suggest you start by deciding whether you need to even have a meeting in the first place, or could you move forward with a decision on your own?
If you’re sure you need a meeting then the following 6 simple ideas for running blazingly amazing meeting will be helpful.
- Pre-Meeting planning and communication
- Include an agenda (reject any meeting that doesn’t have an agenda)
- Set some meeting rules
- Choose the right environment
- Positioning in a meeting
- Contributing in a meeting
1. Pre-Meeting Planning and Communication
The success of any meeting is ensuring people know about the meeting, why they are involved and what they need to bring to the meeting.
It’s generally accepted that the quality of the meeting will be no higher than the quality of the information being passed around.
If you want a high quality meeting you need high quality information in the meeting. This comes from having the right people in the room who know why they are there, and what they are expected to contribute.
Invite the right people to the meeting
Have you ever been in a meeting and wondered why you were there? I have. Many times. Equally, have you ever had a meeting that needed to be abandoned because a key person (with key bits of information) hadn’t been invited? I have. Many times.
Both of these examples are likely because the meeting organiser didn’t put much thought in to the meeting. It’s easy to invite an email distribution list, entire department, someone who was in a similar meeting or those nosey people who’ve made it clear they “want in” to everything. It’s easy to invite the wrong people and leave out the very people who hold the information or decision making powers.
If you ever have to re-run a meeting then you should stop and ask why. It’s likely that you didn’t have the right people in the room. As obvious as this sounds, it’s very common for meetings to be an hour of discussions that don’t lead anywhere, mostly because the wrong people are in the room.
Ensure you only have the people you need in your meeting. If you have people who you don’t need then you’re adding more dynamics, more voices and more potential opinions. If you don’t have the right people in the meeting you won’t have the right information present or someone who can make a decision, and the chances are you’ll get a poor decision, or no decision at all.
Keep the meeting short
Ever been in a meeting that was an hour long, but really should have just been 10 minutes? Yes. Me too.
Good communicators don’t waste other people’s time. If you can get to a decision in 30 minutes don’t book an hour long meeting. Sadly, many calendar tools have a default meeting slot of 1 hour encouraging people to book hour long meetings. It’s pretty much a norm in the workplace – meetings are 1 hour long.
Break that norm.
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the allocated time. I agree (mostly). This is why I would suggest you book 30 minute meetings – you’ll still likely get to the decision point but in a shorter amount of time. Book shorter meetings and run them more effectively.
If you can change the default meeting allocation – do it!
Send all required information and expectations
Be sure to send all required information needed for the meeting. If you’re discussing the latest company initiative then include the initiative deck or a link to the information. If you’re discussing the competition’s new service then include a link to it along with competitor analysis. Be as complete as possible. Good communicators don’t make their audience jump through hoops – so include all relevant information.
You may think this is too simplistic and people should put in the effort and find information themselves, but in a world where attention spans are short and there are too many meetings it’s important you provide everything they need easily. It’s your meeting – it’s your responsibility to include all of the right information and ensure people know what’s expected of them.
2. Include an agenda (reject any meeting that doesn’t have an agenda)
Always include an agenda stating the purpose and structure of a meeting.
You need to make it clear to those attending why they need to attend. What is the purpose? What will be discussed? What is the goal? What is the structure like? What do I need to bring with me? Who will be discussing what?
Again, sounds basic but in some companies, meeting invites fly around with little or no information about what they are about. No wonder people turn up unprepared – if at all – and the meeting has to be re-run.
Reject any meeting that does not have an agenda. It’s not as hard as you would imagine to do this. The more people that do this, the more people will start to think about communicating the purpose and outline of the meeting.
Use the following text to respond to any meeting with no agenda:
” Hi, Thank you for inviting me to this meeting. Please could you provide an agenda as it’s not clear what my involvement in this meeting will be. It would be useful to see what we are discussing so I can prepare for the meeting appropriately.”
Trust me – the above text works.
Either use it as is, or change it to meet your communication style. This works with execs, managers and peers alike. Don’t be afraid to send it but use your judgement – I wouldn’t want you to get in to trouble. I’ve used this response to many people and over time, they soon start to include an agenda. In fact, they often thank me for driving this initiative – as it makes meetings run smoother if the organiser puts some thought in to why they are running the meeting in the first place.
3. Instigate some meeting rules
Ha. Rules in a workplace meeting? Really?
Yep – absolutely.
Your culture is nothing more than what people do everyday – group habit. Want to change that culture of being late to meetings? Change people’s behaviours. Want to change that culture of having to re-run meetings because of poor facilitation? Change people’s behaviours.
It’s not easy to change people’s behaviours – as they have to change it themselves – but it is possible to raise their awareness of behaviours that don’t help them, or the company. And setting some meeting rules (and then living them) is a good way to run amazing meetings.
We’re not talking draconian rules or meetings that are sterile and unwelcoming. Far from it. We’re talking about rules that help everyone get work done, use as little time in meetings as possible and get the outcomes the business needs – no-one in their right mind would argue with that? Right? 🙂
Be aware of psychological safety – where a group is so connected and in tune with each other that seemingly counterintuitive behaviour is not only tolerated, but encouraged. This is the sign of a high performing team, but be aware that for most general meetings you won’t have this in play – and that the majority of the poor behaviour is not leading to positive outcomes.
Here’s some rules I implemented and they have served me very well indeed.
Start on time
Always start on time. Berate anyone who is late to the meeting even if they are the CEO (actually, go carefully here).
Don’t restart the meeting or go back to go over something again, unless the person who is late is the key decision maker. Keep moving forward and offer to fill in the late comers at the end. Some people arrive late to meetings because they are going from meeting to meeting, some to show how busy they are and some because they like a dramatic entrance. None of these are your fault or really your problem. Keep going with your meeting and keep moving ahead. They’ll catch up. It’s your meeting.
Participate and be honest
Take part in the meeting. If you’re the facilitator then make sure everyone you invite to the meeting gets involved – you invited all of the right people so ensure they get a chance to participate. We cover a few ideas on how to get quieter people involved in the meeting in the workshop, but use your creativity and good communication skills to ensure everyone gets a say – otherwise you’ll come to a conclusion or decision that might not be best for the team.
No silent plotting
Silent plotting is when people nod and say “Yes. Golden idea this. Love it. Genius.” then head back to their team and tell them how it’s doomed and pointless and won’t work. Don’t do it. If you don’t think it will work say so in the room.
As a facilitator you need to learn how to read the room, so you can spot people who are not engaged, don’t believe in what is being discussed or clearly have something they want to say, but for some reason feel they cannot say it.
Focus on what will work
Too many meetings are focused on what won’t work. Problems. Challenges. Doom and gloom. This may be essential and the bad side of work should never be overlooked, but sometimes focusing on the solutions, what will work or how to move forward can be much more rewarding. Consider running an appreciative inquiry meeting – all goodness.
Don’t be defensive
Try not to be defensive in a meeting. Sometimes the heat is on and you’re at the end of a grilling, cross examination or spotlight being shone by someone with an axe to grind. Sometimes you’re getting some feedback you don’t want. Try not to be defensive. I know it’s hard but by being defensive you’ll likely make yourself look bad in the eyes of others, drag the meeting out for too long and likely won’t learn how to move forward.
If you’re facilitating the meeting watch out for people being defensive or disengaging in the meeting and try to respond to it in an appropriate way. A lot of this will depend on your level of communication skills and ability to handle a variety of people..
Phones away, no laptops
Ban phones and laptops. They aren’t needed for taking notes (in fact they often encourage transcription rather than note taking), can be distracting for others (click clack of keys) and can mask what people might be doing, like responding to email (another waste of time) or on Social media (more waste?).
There is no need to ban phones for those expecting emergency calls but they should be encouraged to take their phones out of the room should they need to.
You’re in the meeting for a purpose – that purpose rarely lies within a laptop or phone. Of course, you may need presentations or communication software etc, but ensure you keep an eye out and encourage people to be present in the meeting. It will run smoother.
Capture actions, minutes and notes
Someone needs to be capturing actions, minutes and notes. It doesn’t have to be anything too heavyweight but the questions, discussions and actions should be captured. Note than who-ever is taking the notes will be less likely to get involved in the meeting. You may therefore choose to invite someone in to capture the notes.
These notes and actions should be distributed after the meeting to all involved.
Disagree and commit
I think I heard this from someone at Intel but I thought it was a genius approach to take as an individual. If the discussion is about something you don’t agree with then you should disagree with it in a sensible manner and with supporting evidence or an alternative solution. If the consensus is that the group choose the path you disagree with, then so be it, you now need to commit.
Disagree and commit.
No openly discussing people issues
You’ve been in a meeting like this I suspect. A meeting where someone is openly discussing people issues; a direct report who is having a hard time, a disagreement between departments, morale issues or someone who’s on a fast road to exiting the business. People issues as I call them, and there is a time and place to discuss them – and it may or may not be your meeting.
Don’t discuss people in a meeting that is not designed to be about discussing people. It’s not right, it’s not fair and you also have to ask “who is discussing me openly in front of others?”.
If you want to change the culture in your organisation it starts by leading meetings by example.
4. Choose the right environment
In the workshop we deep dive in to this section as we cover a lot of non-verbal communication and how our environments affect how people behave. For now though consider the following points when it comes to choosing the right environment for your meeting.
A large meeting, will by nature, provide fewer opportunities for people to be involved. If you want a good meeting my advice is to invite only those who you need. If you need lots of people then maybe you’re trying to solve a problem too big for a meeting. I once got stuck in a meeting with 60 people in it. It turned out the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss anything, but was merely an update meeting. This could, and should, have been done differently.
Off-sites work really well for contentious issues or strategic planning for example. They provide a distraction free setting and neutral ground.
People tend to form competition with those they sit opposite. They also tend to form alliances with those they sit next to.
If you have two people who are often confrontational with each other, use your creativity to try and get them sat next to each other. If you conflict with someone then try and sit next to them. I had an Arch-Nemesis at work for years and I always made an effort to sit next to them. It worked – we would always have less friction between us. This idea is essentially why Round Tables work – there is technically nobody at the head of the table and nobody directly opposite each other.
This is why meetings without tables are often better. Try removing tables, finding a couple of sofas oppositive each other or heading to coffee shop for your next meeting – I have personally found removing barriers between people a real game-changer when it comes to effective meetings.
5. Positioning in a meeting
You know those people at work – who have genuine presence. They enter a room and people pay attention. Then there are those who seek to dominate rather than engage. Then there are those who disappear and struggle to get involved and are hardly noticed in a meeting. There are many other archetypes but these are the three I like to use to describe how you, and your body language and involvement in a meeting, can make a big impact on others. The one with presence, the one who dominates and the one who shrinks away.
We likely flit between all of them but the one I coach people in to is the one with presence. Natural, approachable, honest presence. Not presence born from bullying, intimidation or domination – that rarely has the results people think it does.
Here are some body language tips for improving your presence. The following section includes some verbal tricks too. Both require practice.
Sit wide and use up your space comfortably. Try not to curl in on yourself as though you are protecting yourself from others. Try not to sit too wide and encroach on other people’s space – dominating people often do this. Your goal is to be confident and assertive through body language but not in your face to others. By sitting wide and using your space you are showing you respect your own territory, but you also respect other people’s too.
The middle seat is often described as the power seat. The head of the table is a common phrase and seating position for those in power. You can often tell the most influential person in a meeting by how others sit around them – they often end up in the middle seat. Think Alan Sugar in The Apprentice or The Head of the Table in almost any business or military film. If you’re not the power person in the room be cautious about sitting in the power seat 🙂 If you are, take that seat. What if you don’t know? Apply caution and sit where you like – just not opposite someone you disagree with regularly.
Sit well in your chair. The general advice is to imagine that the upright back of an office chair is hot and unbearable to lean on. Push yourself to the back of the chair and lean slightly off the upright back – remember – it’s hot! This will keep your spine straight and give you a sense of presence and attentiveness (leaning forward). We cover this in much more detail in the workshop.
6. Contribution in a meeting
Generally speaking those who contribute early in a meeting are often seen as more trustworthy and confident – but don’t talk for the sake of it. No point in contributing early and then rambling on about pointless stuff.
If you have something salient to say, say it as soon as possible – don’t wait until the final throes of the meeting to say your sage piece – especially if your comment throws the rest of the discussion in to the air (unless of course it only came to you late in the meeting).
I used to work with someone who would always have the last word and it would always mean we’d have to have another meeting because of it. He did this to show his authority and cleverness…or at least that’s what he thought it showed…..He rarely got invited to meetings.
Try not to chain talk and go on and on, moving from topic to topic with little pause or clarity. Say it, support it, be quiet.
Keep your own notes. This way you will have information and observations to call upon. Your own notes should then tally with the meeting notes.
Clarify any generalisations and don’t use them yourself. A generalisation can always be unpicked. There is always a time when the generalisation won’t be true, or won’t hold up against testing. Clarify generalisations to seek out the real information and data or opinions. Generalisations are like stereotypes – sometimes helpful for communicating, almost always based on some grain of truth, but typically universally inaccurate.
Para-phrase for extra clarity. Rephrase and repeat back what others have said to gain clarity. This is useful at the end of the meeting to ensure everyone agrees with the take-aways, actions and salient points. Para-phrasing is a powerful way to elicit deeper thoughts from people and clarify your own understanding.
So there you have it – loads of ideas and guidance on how to run amazing meetings.
When I started to use these tactics to run meetings, people would literally tell me how amazing the meeting was. That just shows how bad many meetings can be. So use what is helpful, discard what is not, find your own style and put in to practice that which you believe will help. Good luck running more effective meetings.
If you think your organisation, friends, peers or colleagues could benefit from running better meetings, learning how to present, learning how to write better business communications or learning how to network like a pro – then don’t hesitate to get in touch about bringing the Communication Workshop to your business, or alternatively check out this page for upcoming public workshop days.