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Effective Meetings – AKA: Worthless meetings – Rest in Peace

Training Session 1

“When I die, I hope it’s in a meeting. The transition from life to death will be barely perceptible.”

There is more than a little bit of truth to this joke from an unknown author. We’ve all found ourselves trapped in the meeting down the hall from purgatory. Moreover, we all know what a drain that can be, not only on time and energy, but on the enthusiasm and interaction that a good meeting is supposed to inspire.

But good meeting habits, both in preparation and execution, are learnable skills. For anyone who has a hand in business get-togethers, it’s imperative that you know the specific problems that can kill your meetings and what you can do about them.

First, an overview of several deadly meeting sins:

  • Time leaks: This can take several forms. Your meeting might not start on time or it might run way over its appointed end. Perhaps more important is the time between those two poles.
  • Unfocused agenda: This is the meeting that goes nowhere. This evil has several guises. It may be the meeting without an agenda (“let’s get together and shoot the breeze”). It can appear as a meeting that seems to take a swipe at a prearranged agenda: “Another problem is wide-open agenda categories,” says Charlie Hawkins, author of “First Aid for Meetings.” “It’s no more help to have items such as ‘Department Head Reports’ or ‘Old Business’ and ‘New Business’,” unless they are guided and focused.
  • Idea assassins: Even meetings that seem well-orchestrated may not encourage creative, proactive participation. This can mean a meeting leader who doesn’t encourage input from other attendees. Even worse are meeting participants who are quick to criticize an idea before they’ve had a chance to hear it through and give it due consideration. “With that kind of meeting, a lot of ideas never make it to the crawling stage, let alone the running,” notes Hawkins.
  • Bad cop, absent cop: The person in charge of the meeting is the vortex where all these snafus converge. The problem may be a meeting facilitator who runs roughshod over everyone, dictating every element of the meeting and squelching participation. It can also mean a facilitator who does little to direct the meeting, leaving it to drift toward the Gilligan’s Island of productivity.

Any of these problems sound familiar? I’ll bet they do, as nearly everyone has endured the pain of meetings like these. But there is hope, that is, if you develop sound strategies for planning and controlling meetings.

Here are eleven strategies to get the most out of your meetings:

  1. Is this meeting necessary? Before you ever put a single word to your meeting announcement memo, make sure the issues involved warrant a get-together. Can they be handled via e-mail, web-conference or phone calls? Consider, too, who should be there. Not every meeting mandates attendance from everyone.
  2. Set ground rules beforehand. This may be the single most valuable piece of advice to help ensure time-efficient, productive meetings. Create an agenda, lay out topic issues and keep the conversations focused on the subject at hand.
  3. Set time limits. Obviously, there are some meetings that are productive and can go over the allotted time, but time limits ensure that you focus on what needs to be discussed first.
  4. Park some items. Great meetings often foster issues not originally on the agenda. If those come up, Hawkins urges that they be placed in a “parking lot,” a space of time at the end of the meeting. If everyone wants to continue, fine. If not, earmark those issues for the next gathering.
  5. Please, no war stories. Urge people not to ramble, but to keep to the topic at hand within a reasonable amount of time. It is the facilitator’s responsibility to keep people on track.
  6. One meeting, one voice. Only one person speaks at a time. We all know what a time- drain it can be when eight people are locked in a conversational scrum.
  7. If you’re going to lead, lead. Many of the elements of good meetings come down to the direction offered by the meeting facilitator. In general, try to use a light touch. For instance, remind someone that they have five minutes left in their presentation rather than just cutting them off, but don’t be gun-shy about enforcing the rules. Also, Hawkins suggests that groups rotate facilitators rather than having the same person lead every meeting. If nothing else, that solves the problem of the same meeting leader pushing the same ideas — and perhaps committing the same offenses — meeting after meeting.
  8. Have a real agenda. This means more than just scribbling down a bunch of topics that may or may not come up.
  9. Be specific. Don’t plan to talk about “sales.” Break it down, according to product or geographic region. A specific agenda makes for a time-effective discussion; honed agenda items tend to keep the discussion focused as well.
  10. Prioritize. Nothing’s more frustrating than a meeting organized around a central topic that never even comes up. To prevent that, organize agenda items in order of importance. The key issues are at the top, ancillary topics at the bottom. That way, should time crunch the meeting, only less important issues are lost.
  11. The art of language. This is important for everyone in the meeting, not just the person in charge. Encourage positive feedback that, in turn, fosters participation. Rather than saying, “That idea stinks!” consider, “It doesn’t grab me now, but tell me more.” Carefully crafted language lets others know where you stand but doesn’t discourage creativity or put down others in the group, making for a more vibrant meeting.


Typical (Preferred) Business Meeting Agenda

Most Meeting Agendas should be short and focused:

Subject:          Specific Subject or Purpose

Where:           Specific Location

When:             Date/Time

Duration:       1:00PM to 2:00 PM (or 1-hour)

Materials:       Example: “Bring paper, pen, specified data, etc.”

Note: Assign meeting equipment set up to specific person(s)

Identify the Facilitator for each meeting phase:

  1. Greeting / Introduction
  2. Purpose: State what you are going to focus on, train on or try to resolve
  3. Discussion and/or Practical Exercise(as applicable)                                         
  4. Summary/Conclusions: Review what was accomplished and/or agreed to
  5. Assign related responsibilities and due dates for assigned actions
  6. Adjourn

Minutes:   Who is assigned to take meeting minutes (notes)

{Set distribution method and deadline}

Distribution: List who should receive a copy of this agenda & subsequently the “Minutes”

File: Where