A meeting survival guide

meeting room

Who likes meetings? I dare say that none of us awakens in the morning excited about the meetings we get to attend that day. Thomas Sowell once said, “The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings. I would estimate that in my 40 years of work life, I probably attended more than 50,000 business meetings! At that rate, how many more do you have to look forward to?

So, what is the secret to surviving so many meetings? What tips can I pass along to help those that still have 20 or 30,000 meetings to attend in their career?

Here are a few suggestions I have for helping you survive your next thousand meetings. I’m sure there are others you can suggest, but these few cover some of the basic concepts that I have learned:

  1. Start and end on time – Few things drive me nuts more than wasting the time of everyone else to recap “what we’ve covered so far” for someone that is late for a meeting. To combat this, I always made it a point to start meetings on time. And, when someone comes in late, I simply tell them they can get with someone after the meeting to catch up on what they missed. After a time or two, every those chronically late begin showing up on time. Don’t allow one or two individuals to waste the time of others that made the effort to be on time. And, don’t allow meetings to extend beyond the time scheduled. This forces you to work efficiently and effectively to accomplish, at a minimum, the key objectives of that specific meeting.
  2. Have a purpose for every meeting – You should never organize a meeting without having (and communicating) its purpose. What are you trying to accomplish? What information needs shared? What decisions are needed? By clearly and carefully constructing the purpose statement, you can help ensure that everyone gets what is needed and that time is not wasted. I remember countless meetings where the organizer had waited weeks or months to get the key individuals in the room at the same time. However, due to a lack of organization, the ultimate goal of the meeting was not accomplished because the objectives were not outlined and articulated beforehand or at the beginning of the meeting. (Side note: If you have to entice individuals to attend your meeting with donuts or cookies, you might consider whether the meeting is that valuable. Though donuts at morning meetings is nice, it is preferred that participants attend because of the value of the meeting rather than the hope of getting that chocolate covered delight.)
  3. End every meeting as quickly as you can – How many meetings have you attended in which it seems the purpose was achieved in the first 15 minutes, but the meeting dragged on for another 45 minutes during which nothing new was accomplished? I remember a Senior VP once saying during a meeting, “I’m buying, so you can stop selling now.” He was referring to the meeting organizer continuing to pitch a recommendation longer than needed. When the purpose of the meeting is accomplished, adjourn… simple as that. If you demonstrate that YOUR meetings will be efficient and purposeful, you are likely to get attendance of needed participants in the future. If you know your time will not be wasted, you are likely to feel a meeting is important. Get it done, then move on!
  4. Stay focused on the meeting purpose – Another key reason you should clearly establish a goal or meeting purpose is to ensure that you stay focused on the task at hand. If you are the organizer, prevent participants from deviating into other subjects. Bring it back by saying something like, “That is an interesting subject, but let’s stay focused on our problem. We can possibly address that in another forum.” Too many meetings are hijacked by individuals that hope to use the group to address their own issue or situation. As the meeting organizer, it is your responsibility to keep the meeting on target.
  5. Take notes and summarize (especially if there are action items) – For every meeting, someone needs to take notes and summarize the results for all participants. This summary can be short and to the point or long and comprehensive, if needed. But, a summary sent to all participants is essential for ensuring the success of the meeting. A summary is essential if action items were assigned. Don’t assume that everyone left the meeting with the same understanding as you. Make sure by providing a summary.
  6. Handouts and PowerPoint presentations are OK, but there are rules – There are some individuals that will state that handouts and PowerPoint presentations are not acceptable in meetings. I disagree. These can be essential for keeping individuals focused, summarizing key background information, or directing the discussion. However, keep the following in mind when creating these:
    • Economize on words – only state what is essential
    • Don’t be cute – fancy graphics and automation can be a distraction
    • State the takeaway point on every page, slide, or document – state clearly in the header or banner what the reader needs to know (eliminate their need to study the slide and interpret its importance)
    • Keep it simple and easy to read – enough said
    • Minimize pages – when in doubt, leave it out
    • Include a summary or list of key takeaways – this is your opportunity to ensure that the reader “gets” your key points
  7. Everyone that attends a meeting should add or gain value – for some, the value obtained is information that can guide future actions. For others, the value is a decision or direction. For others, it might be sharing insight that participants might not have gained otherwise. Some individuals never participate or comment during meetings. A good practice is that before attending any meeting, commit to adding value by asking a question, making a comment, or volunteering for an action. I have found that participating in meetings, especially with senior management members present, is a good opportunity to demonstrate your own value to the organization. And, if you are the meeting organizer, don’t invite individuals that will not contribute or add value to the meeting.
  8. Come to meetings prepared – Many times I observed individuals coming to meetings unprepared to participate, unprepared to provide an update on prior actions, or unprepared to make needed decisions at the meeting.  Take a few minutes to get up-to-speed on the meeting purpose and come ready to add value to the discussion. 
  9. Pay attention – Do not attend a meeting simply to show your face. Do not attend a meeting, yet spend the entire time reading email. If you go, go prepared to focus on the subject and the discussion occurring.
  10. Only have a meeting if it is needed – Finally, and perhaps most importantly, don’t schedule a meeting unless it is necessary. Many of my 50,000 lifetime meetings could have been avoided if individuals had simply talked with each other beforehand. Things typically get done better and faster when the affected parties talk together in small groups… not in meetings at which individual egos and territorial protection comes into play. When at all possible, avoid having meetings that are not essential or purposeful.

I’m sure each of you could add a few additional items to this list. However, I have found that by following these ten tips, meetings can be shorter, more effective, and produce greater results.

Good luck with your meetings today! I hope they are shorter, better, and more enjoyable than you could have expected.

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