Kierstin studied business communications at Northwestern Michigan College.
In nearly every episode of the American version of The Office, Steve Carell's quirky Michael Scott ushered his employees into the conference room for a meeting that started badly, went nowhere, and typically ended with someone being threatened with termination, physical injury, or an unwanted hug. In real life, workplace meetings (or meetings anywhere, really—church, after-school programs, or even a sit-down with your family) can feel equally arbitrary and uncomfortable. If the point is to brainstorm and ultimately reach solutions, then huddling around a boardroom table or rounding up 40 employees via Zoom without a defined direction is like hopping in a sailboat with no sails. You're seriously not going anywhere.
Follow these steps for better meetings that start and end strong with a lot of progress made in between.
Tips for Having an Effective Meeting
- Pick a time and place that won't distract the members. Having a meeting an hour before lunch in an office across from the cafeteria will be wholly uninteresting to the attendees.
- If you can conduct the meeting virtually, do it. There's no reason to ask people to shift their day to meet in a single location anymore.
- Make sure your purpose has a solid and definite purpose. Meeting to discuss ways to trim next quarter's budget isn't narrow enough. Make the theme "Deciding Which Three Things We Don't Need to Spend Money on Next Quarter."
- Only invite people who are relevant to the point of the meeting. People generally don't love to go to meetings, so don't make anyone who isn't necessary to solving the problem attend.
- Create ground rules before the meeting starts and make sure that all attendees have a copy going in—a universally great ground rule is "no interrupting each other."
- Send follow-up emails within 24 hours of the meeting, confirming and decisions made and who will be carrying out specific roles in these decisions.
The first thing to recognize about conducting effective meetings is that they don't just magically come together when you step into a stuffy meeting room. Like any awesome get-together, there's an element of planning and preparation, without which, an actual meeting is completely pointless.
The four stages of effective meetings are:
- Preparation. This is the time to really define what your meeting is all about. Is it a brainstorming session on how to better utilize the summer interns? Are you trying to decide where to spend extra money in the art department's budget? Having a well-formed main topic of discussion is key to the success of the meeting because attendees want to feel like this extra time taken out of their routine is worthwhile.
- The Meeting. During the meeting, you will be sure to follow the agenda you formed during preparation so that all key talking points are brought up, and everyone is given a chance to contribute input without going off-topic, making the meeting longer than it needs to be.
- Closing. A few minutes before the meeting is scheduled to end, you'll wrap up discussions, set a time for the next meeting, if necessary, and review the opportunity for attendees to contact you with any additional questions.
- Follow-up. The follow-up is as important to the quality of the meeting as the preparation stage. This is where you close any gaps and tie up any loose ends to make sure that the decisions made during the meeting are properly implemented.
Decide the Purpose of the Meeting
Here we are at the most essential stage of planning for a meeting—deciding why you're meeting. To decide the purpose of meeting in the first place, ask yourself two simple questions:
- What issue needs to be addressed?
- Why does the issue need to be addressed?
The answers to these questions will be the purpose of the meeting.
Choose the Best Time and Location
Think about a time and place that will be conducive to brainstorming and open discussion and what kind of setting will best accommodate the size of your group.
If you choose a remote location, you can utilize a video chat service like Zoom, a simple conference call, or even a chat discussion through a messenger service. A huge benefit of remote meetings is that the time can be much more flexible since attendees can just join via their phone from wherever they're at.
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If you choose to meet in person, consider picking a time where tummies won't be rumbling and eyes won't be staring at the clock. A meeting right before work lets out or right before lunch is probably a bad idea.
Create the Agenda
Next, you'll need to create an agenda. Sometimes called a "roadmap," the agenda will guide the meeting and help you as the conductor and everyone else involved, keep tabs on where you're at and where you should be going.
A good meeting agenda will include:
- Topics that need to be discussed
- Key talking points related to each specific topic
- A defined start and end time for the meeting
- Room for questions before the end time
An agenda might look something like this:
3:00 PM Meeting starts
3:00-3:05 Introduction of attendees and topic
3:05-3:20 Discussion of topic and talking points
3:30 PM Meeting ends
End Time: 3:30 PM
Main Topic of Concern: Where Should We Put the New Vending Machines?
Key Talking Points
- There will be three new vending machines—two for snacks and one for beverages
- Should all of the vending machines be located in one place or spread out within the building?
- Fire code states the vending machines can not be located near building exits
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This agenda works because it sets clear guidelines for the path of the meeting. Print your agenda out and hand it out to each attendee at the beginning of the meeting or email it beforehand so that everyone has a chance to review the agenda and refer back to it throughout the meeting. It's also a good idea to post it wherever you're meeting so that it's always in front of you and the attendees throughout the discussion.
Choose and Invite Members to the Meeting
- Decide who should be at the meeting and why
- Send members requests through email, text, or another form of professional communication
Establish Ground Rules
Boundaries help to keep a society functioning in a mostly civil state. Think of your meeting as a mini-society and establish some boundaries, called Ground Rules. To establish ground rules for an effective meeting, be specific, and address potential distractions like:
- Technology. Should phones and computers be allowed during the meeting?
- Respecting other members. Interrupting, talking loudly, over each other, or for too long should be discouraged.
- Breaks. If the meeting is going to be long, will there be any breaks and when and where should members expect to meet back?
Ground Rule Objectives
Ground rules should be specific and ensure that everyone present in the meeting has a chance to engage and participate in a productive environment.
Assign Critical Roles
Like any well-oiled machine, a successful meeting takes more than the person conducting it. You'll need to assign three critical rolls within the meeting to help keep it humming along from start to finish.
The facilitator keeps the meeting on track, enforces ground rules, and helps guide members back to the purpose of the meeting if the conversation veers off-topic.
The timekeeper will keep track of the defined start and end times of the meeting, periodically reminding members of how much time has passed and how much time remains.
The recorder records ideas brought up during the meeting and makes sure to ask for clarification if the conversation becomes confusing so that all recorded information is helpful and can be used as an effective reference after the meeting.
Procure and Organize Materials
Decide what materials are needed for the meeting and gather them prior to the meeting time. So, if you'll be using a laptop, check that it isn't going to just start updating halfway through the meeting and if you expect everyone to take notes, grab enough pens and notepads to pass around. If you plan to present data, take the time to create a few visuals to support your numbers.
Conduct a brief introduction to familiarize all of the meeting members with each other, then state the purpose of the meeting and go over the ground rules so that everyone has a clear understanding of how the meeting is going to go.
State the Purpose of the Meeting
Go over the purpose of the meeting, why you are all there, and what you hope to accomplish (to come to a unanimous decision on the best location or locations for the three new vending machines).
Review the Agenda
For in-person meetings, pass out printed copies of the agenda that include topics up for discussion, talking points, and start and end times.
For remote meetings, double-check that everyone was sent and has access to the agenda before you get started. Give an extra minute to attendees so they can pull it up before delving into the discussion.
Tips for Staying Focused
•Keep talking points brief
•Allot a specific amount of time for brainstorming
•Go around the group and encourage each person to share at least one idea, thought, or question
•Repeat ideas to make sure everyone agrees on a possible solution or thought
•Ask the timekeeper how much time is left for the meeting if it feels like the conversation is going off-topic
•Gently refer back to the ground rules if things become heated
Even if the meeting is going really well and everyone is coming up with great ideas, it's important to stick to the final end time established at the beginning of the meeting. If there's more to be discussed, this can be done during the follow-up phase.
To have a smooth closing:
- Give a few minutes at the end of the meeting for members to ask and answer questions.
- Decide if a solution has been reached or if it will be discussed again at the next meeting.
- If a solution has been reached create an action plan with a specific timeline.
- If a solution has not been reached, come up with another meeting time to take place in the near future.
Creating an Action Plan
When it's time to create an action plan, you'll need to include the following elements:
- The solution. The solution is to move all three vending machines to one central location, with the beverage machine in the middle so that the machines are easy to locate, and all snacks can be purchased in one place.
- How to implement the solution. To implement this solution, the machines will be moved to the stretch of hall across from the bathrooms.
- Who will be a part of implementing the solution and their specific roles. Jackie will contact the vendors to notify them of where the machines should be installed, and Juan will meet them on the day of installation to ensure that the machines are installed in the proper location.
- A timeline for the solution process. Jackie will call the vendors Monday morning with the information and set a date of installation while Juan will contact his manager to request time off from his usual morning tasks to meet with the vendors.
Send Follow-Up Emails
Keep the momentum from the meeting going after it’s ended by sending the recorder’s notes to meeting attendees in a follow-up email. Remind everyone of Jackie and Juan's duties, and ensure that everyone has your contact information if any issues or questions arise.
Send Individual Follow-Up Emails
For those chosen to perform specific duties to implement the solution, send an email to check in on progress, and discuss any issues that may hinder the timeline. Make sure that Juan got approval from his manager to take time off to meet with the vendors, and double-check Monday afternoon that Jackie got in touch with the vendors to confirm an installation time and location.
Following these simple guidelines for a brief and highly effective meeting will help you and your colleagues to stay on top of issues without becoming totally derailed by them.
What tips and tactics have you found most useful for effective meetings? What's the worst meeting you've ever been to? Let me know in the comments below!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2017 Kierstin Gunsberg
Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on April 19, 2018:
Excellent tips for effective meetings, Kierstin. I am active in several church committees, social justice organizations, and meetups, each of which meets monthly, and at times I've been the chairperson or facilitator. I fully agree about the importance of having an agenda, of timely followup, etc.