Let’s face it. Most of us can’t stand meetings. Because so many are so unproductive, our first reaction when we hear the word meeting is often a cringe and a groan.
In reality, though, not all meetings are terrible.
So what’s the difference between a bad meeting and a good one?
Meetings we don’t hate are well run. We go into them knowing why we’re meeting, we know the person who’s running it has planned well and will keep it on track, and we trust we’ll leave with clear next steps.
You are the guide
As the meeting leader, think of yourself as the guide. You know the lay of the land. You know the goals and objectives, and you need to take the group to the desired end.
In his book Talk to Me, author Dean Nelson writes referring to river guides, “…good guides know how to prepare the riders; they know where the best place is to start, how to be confident during the unexpected developments, and how to guide the boat to a peaceful landing.”
The same goes for you. You’re the meeting guide.
Roadmap for a Well-Run Meeting
Here’s a clear roadmap for a well-run meeting. I’ve learned this from watching the project managers on my team at Way Forth Collective who are pros at keeping meetings on target.
Even if you're not a natural project manager, following these principles can significantly improve your meeting-leading skills.
Before the meeting
Preparing well for the meeting will go a long way toward ensuring it will be a good use of everyone’s time.
Here are three key things to determine before every meeting.
1. Determine the meeting purpose and goals
First, ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish in the meeting. What’s the purpose? What are the goals and desired outcomes? Is there a decision to be made, a plan to be devised, ideas to be generated, something else?
Once you’ve determined the purpose and goals, think about it. Is a meeting necessary? Or is there a better way to get to the desired end? Could email or Slack save everyone time and reach the same goal?
When you’ve decided a meeting will be the best route, be sure to communicate the purpose and goals in the calendar invitation. Provide enough context that everyone will know why you're meeting.
2. Create an agenda and prioritize the topics
Now think about what needs to be discussed and in what order. How can you best use the time to cover the topics and meet your goals?
Put the most important topics toward the top of the list so they’re sure to be covered. And, be willing to change the agenda on the fly during the meeting, if necessary—more on that later.
3. Invite the right people
With the meeting goals in mind, decide who should be invited. Who are the people that can contribute meaningfully to this particular discussion? Having the wrong people in the room can easily derail the plan.
For example, if you’re having a brainstorming session to generate creative ideas, it’s probably not a good idea to invite team members from operations as they will be thinking of all the potential risks associated with the ideas. Poking holes in the crazy ideas is for another meeting.
During the meeting
With the goals set, agenda built, and attendees invited, you’re ready to lead the meeting. Here are some tips for starting the meeting, keeping it on track, and ending it effectively.
1. Start and end the meeting on time
Start off on a positive note by beginning on time. People are busy. And, they probably have another meeting right after this one. So honor their time!
Likewise, be sure to end on time as well. If you make this a habit, people won’t groan when they get another meeting invitation from you.
2. Take great notes
Some people can lead meetings and effectively take notes simultaneously. If that’s not you, enlist someone else to do it while you steer the meeting.
Taking great notes is a balance of capturing enough of the right information to keep everyone informed. Meeting notes shouldn’t be a play-by-play documentation of the entire meeting, but they should provide enough enough context to so if someone isn’t present, they can get the gist of what what discussed, decided, etc.
Some key items to capture in the notes are:
• Decisions that were made
• Tasks to be completed by whom and by when
• Questions or issues that need further research or discussion
• Next steps.
3. Keep the meeting on target
Keeping meetings on target is an art that is honed with experience. In addition to minding the goals and desired outcomes, you need to also keep track of the clock.
Borrowing from Nelson again (this time he’s writing about athletes and interviewers, but I think it applies perfectly to this topic), “Good [meeting leaders] are always aware of how much time is left in the [meeting]…Knowing where they are in relation to time has a direct impact on what they do next…[as the meeting leader] It’s your job to know where the trajectory of the [meeting] is in relation to the time that is left…you have to think about how you’re going to end things.”
“Good [meeting leaders] are always aware of how much time is left in the [meeting]…Knowing where they are in relation to time has a direct impact on what they do next…[as the meeting leader] It’s your job to know where the trajectory of the [meeting] is in relation to the time that is left…you have to think about how you’re going to end things.”
Things don’t always go as planned. At times, you’ll need to be ready to adjust based on what’s happening in real time. If time is running short and there are still key topics you need to cover, be willing to shift the discussion to make sure you have time to cover them.
If the meeting starts going off the rails due to rabbit trails, use the “parking lot”* to keep a running list of topics to be addressed in the future.
4. Determine & review next steps
Before you end the meeting, be sure to go over what the next steps will be. Is a followup meeting needed? Are there tasks to be completed? What still needs to be discussed or decided related to this discussion? Do others outside of the meeting need to be consulted?
Address these items now while you have everyone’s attention!
After the meeting
Now that the meeting is over, it’s important to communicate with the team and any other stakeholders involved with your project or initiative.
1. Share the notes
Clean up your notes for grammar and clarity, and highlight any decisions made, tasks, or outstanding questions or issues using a different color text for each type of entry.
When they’re ready, share them through the Cloud (e.g., Google Docs, Box, etc.) with the attendees, making sure to link to documents, websites, and other resources that were discussed in the meeting for context.
Linking to documents in the Cloud rather than attaching documents to an email ensures you’re always using the most up-to-date copy of the documents.
2. Communicate next steps
Be sure everyone who attended the meeting—and anyone else who needs to know—is aware of the next steps and any tasks that were assigned to them.
3. Make the tasks centrally visible
Record any tasks in your organization’s project management tool or in a central place where they can be accessed and tracked by you and your team.
4. Follow up on next steps
Finally, follow up with team to make sure the next steps are on track according to the agreed upon timeline.
Tried & True Practices
Running meetings well is an art. But we can all get better at it by preparing well, keeping the goals in focus throughout the meeting, and following up with clear communication.
These are tried and true practices our team at Way Forth Collective uses for running effective meetings.
What practices would you add?
*Parking lot - a running list of topics that are important, but will be discussed later in order to keep the current meeting on goal. Add these topics to the end of the meeting notes or on a white board as they come up to acknowledge they were heard and will be addressed.
*Nelson, D. (2019). Talk to me: How to ask better questions, get better answers, and interview anyone like a pro. Harper Perennial.