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How to run a meeting – the 8 best tips to excel at organizing meetings

How to run a meeting - best tips
Blaz Kos
Author
Date
12/04/2021

Research shows that meetings can be a big waste of time. For example, in one of the studies 1/3 of employees found that they waste 2 - 5 hours per day on meetings, but they achieve nothing to show. 

People frequently schedule meetings (whether they are aware of it or not) to socialize, feel important, share opinions, or even avoid decision making. Many times, the issues discussed at a meeting could be solved with a few phone calls or messages, instead of having an actual meeting. 

Besides that, meetings usually take more time than planned, and this is exacerbated if you have to commute to another destination. 

Not only this, but so few meetings are run in a professional and impressive way meaning that more often than not, people are on their phones and laptops, the debate strays off the topic, and the only conclusion of the meeting is to have another meeting. It’s a disaster.

Thus, let’s look at the best recommendations to help you excel at organizing meetings, impress your colleagues, and avoid wasting your or other people’s time.

1. First of all ask yourself - Is the meeting really necessary?

Meetings can definitely be real and important work if they are scheduled for the right reasons. Meetings are most useful in the following business situations:

  • When you need collective brainpower (brainstorming, retrospectives etc.)
  • Goal alignments and updates (strategy outlining, planning, reporting etc.)
  • Building relationships (sales meetings, team meetings, 1:1 meetings etc.)
  • Knowledge sharing and education

But for many other things, meetings are not really necessary, and issues can be solved in a better and faster way; be it with a phone call, a mail, or a message. 

The problem is that meetings are so popular and provide such value (socializing, idle time etc.) that we all instinctively want to schedule a meeting when an issue arises.

So, the first thing to do is to ask yourself: Is the meeting really necessary, or is there any other much more efficient way to solve the issue? 

Have the opposite mindset of the majority. Instead of scheduling a meeting for every small issue, be very reserved in scheduling or participating in meetings. Think every invitation through before you respond. 

And when people ask you to have a meeting and there is a better way to solve the problem, reply with something like: “Let’s solve the problem immediately on the phone or I’ll find a solution and call you back, because I really care about you as a client. There’s no meeting necessary.” 

And, as mentioned, initiate as few meetings as possible.

2. Carefully consider who to invite to a meeting

When organizing a meeting, you should make careful choices on who and how many people to invite. Each and every person added to a meeting adds complexity in communication. 

The number of communication paths (every meeting member can talk to every other member) grows with the number of participants. That means a longer meeting and much more effort to come to conclusions regarding the main agenda.

If the goal of the meeting is to gather as many ideas as possible and to gain a broader prospective on a certain issue, a higher number of participants might be justified, but in most cases 3 – 7 people at a meeting is optimal. 

You should respect every person’s time as the greatest currency there is; keep that also in mind when booking a meeting.

So, out of respect you should invite to each meeting only those who can really contribute to the meeting agenda or are the decision makers. In general the following is true: The fewer the people, the more work done, and the more hours saved.

3. The obvious thing – have a clear agenda and objectives for the meeting

The next important piece of advice is to have a clear agenda and related objectives for every meeting. Make sure everybody knows what the goal of the meeting is - this information should be highlighted in the invitation agenda. 

If you’re not organizing the meeting, ask the person who is for the agenda if there is none. 

There also shouldn’t be too many objectives for a single meeting - one to three objectives are optimal; otherwise meetings tend to get too long, and your decision muscles get too weak after a long debate to make any sound decision.

Make sure you are very clear with what you expect from the meeting, i.e.:

  • A status report
  • A decision about an issue
  • A list of ideas
  • A draft of a plan etc.

You should end the meeting with clear action steps regarding who needs to do what and by when. That also means you should always take notes of the meeting, no matter how short or long it is. Share the notes with the participants.

And the most important thing: always do the follow‑up to make sure that people delivered on their commitments, otherwise, the meeting was a complete waste of time.

4. Start and finish (more or less) on time

It’s become somehow a standard that people can be late to meetings and that meetings never end on time. It’s one of the main reasons meetings have such a bad reputation. 

You can combat that by having a personal reputation of always starting and ending meetings on time.

So, first of all make sure you’re never late to meetings when invited. You must always walk your talk. Then, when you organize a meeting, simply start on time with no hesitation. 

In the invitation ask people not to be late and warn people that you will start on time. At the beginning of the meeting, you can also emphasize how much time you have to go through the agenda and come to the conclusions. 

10 – 15 minutes before the planned end of the meeting, let people know that the meeting will soon be over. This will encourage people to really focus on the conclusions. 

You can also use a tool like My Hours to track how much time is spent on meetings on different projects.

5. Ban technology during meetings

By far the most important piece of advice is to ban all technology during a meeting, assuming it’s not an online meeting, of course. 

Kindly ask people to close their laptops and put their phones on silent/airplane mode to be fully present at the meeting, and consequently keep them as short as possible.

It’s shocking how nowadays meetings can not only be a big waste of time, but a disrespectful experience to all people involved. 

Ten people gather in a meeting room, everybody is on their laptop or phone, one person speaks and nobody else listens and that’s it. No real connection, no real work done, no solutions or commitments - a disaster.

So, make sure that before the meeting begins, you nicely ask all the people involved to close their laptops and put away their phones. 

In the majority of cases, people will listen to you if you are head of the meeting, they just need to be reminded to put limits on their tech distractions.

6. Gently bring people back on topic, when they stray off in the debate

During meetings, the debate can quickly stray from the meeting topic. 

Our thinking is driven by associations, news alerts, etc. and that means that the meeting can quickly go from discussing a serious business issue to where the participants tend to spend the summer holidays or the recent news about something that happened to a coworker.

There are two approaches to “outsmart” the brain and avoid these distractions. First of all, you can allow 5 – 10 minutes of small talk before the meeting starts, so people can discuss the most important news that they just can’t wait to share. 

Then, you should give a very clear start to the meeting (on time), review the agenda, and remind people of the goal of the meeting.

The second thing you can do is, when the debate strays, remind people in a gentle way to come back to the topic. 

You can say something like: 

“That’s a very interesting subject, but let’s get back to X now so we can reach a conclusion, and we can talk about that later when the meeting ends”.  When the associative flow leads off topic, and this can occur several times in a meeting, get it back on track.

7. Engage all members and be careful of share of voice

One of the best indicators of whether the meeting was successful, besides having clear conclusions and commitments, is if all the meeting members were engaged and the share of voice was equally distributed. 

"On the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking."  The New York Times Magazine article.

In other words, has every team member expressed their thoughts, concerns, and ideas, or were there one or more people who dominated the debate?

If you are running a meeting, one of your main jobs is to provide psychological safety for all meeting members. That means making them feel safe to express their ideas without being interrupted, spoken over, or even ridiculed. 

So, if you notice that only a few people talk during a meeting and others are more or less quiet, invite and encourage everybody to share. 

And keep set limits for those who want to dominate the debate. It’s one of the hardest things to do, but it can also make the difference between a successful meeting and a preaching session from those who wish to highjack the debate.

8. Bonus tip: Have stand-up or walking meetings

If you want to really minimize the time spent on meetings, have stand-up or walking meetings. Invite people to take a walk with you in a nearby park to tackle the problem. 

Most people will immediately agree that you can solve the issue without having a meeting at all. And if people agree with your walking meeting suggestion, you’ll do something good for the body while being productive. Two birds with one stone.

Inviting people on walking meetings will probably help you minimize the number of meetings you have, but nevertheless, you will still be left with some meetings that will have to be held. 

With that in mind, here is the summary on how to run the meetings that are really necessary: Minimize the logistics and invite only the people who can really contribute to the agenda. 

Make sure people stay focused on the topic during the meeting and are not distracted by technology. Include everyone and write down the conclusions and commitments from the meeting. 

And last but not least, make sure people follow through on their commitments.

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