How Not to Waste Other People's Time
Five days a week, I get to spend most of my working day sitting in meetings. I am the facilitator for some and I am a participant in others. In short, I view myself as a "connoisseur" of meetings.
Meetings don't have to be bad
Have you ever eaten at a bad restaurant (poorly cooked food, ugly decor, rude wait staff, over-priced food, etc.)? I'm sure you have. Does that mean all restaurants are bad? Of course not. The experience at a great restaurant can be truly wonderful! The same concept applies to meetings. A great meeting can be a wonderful way to achieve your work goals.
Let's be honest: meetings have a bad reputation, and for good reason. Many meetings I attend are simply terrible experiences. In general, modern organizations just accept the fact that "meetings suck". Sure, there are some passive-aggressive policies being created to push back against this "meeting abuse" (such as meeting-free days one day a week, or short "stand up" style meetings) but generally these policies don't address the main problem. The main problem with meetings is not that they exist, but that most people don't understand how to run a meeting well.
Unless you are new to being a professional (such as a new university graduate), knowing how to competently run a meeting is a basic skill that all knowledge workers should know. And like any skill, it takes practice to become good.
If you are a leader of other professionals, or a leader of other leaders, there is simply no excuse for being a poor meeting facilitator.
Sitting in badly run meetings is a guaranteed waste of time, and wasting other people's time is one of the biggest sins of a leader. Remember, you're a great leader so you should facilitate meetings like a great leader should.
10 tips for running effective meetings
- Start the meeting on time and begin by reviewing the purpose for the meeting. What is everyone trying to achieve by meeting together? Think of this as a 60 second investment that allows you to achieve as much as possible for the next 59 minutes.
- As a group, review the agenda before you start discussing any of the topics. People like to know what is going to be discussed and approximately how long it will take. You should have sent the agenda out in advance of the actual meeting, but review it anyway because it's likely most people didn't read it.
- Invite everyone that is needed to achieve the meeting's purpose, but no one else. Avoid the temptation to "protect yourself" from future criticism by inviting anyone and everyone that might have an opinion. Keep the meeting attendance as small as possible to allow for faster, more efficient meetings.
- Let other people talk. Don't monopolize the conversation. Pretend you are the host of a party, and not giving a speech.
- If needed, don't be afraid to politely interrupt others to keep the meeting on track. If you are interrupting someone that is rambling, other people will silently thank you. If you are interrupting an important discussion (but one that doesn't relate to the meeting's purpose), ask that a separate, dedicated meeting be called with the appropriate participants. Then, move everyone's attention back to the agenda topics.
- Be prepared with what you need (slides, speaking points, pre-work needed, etc.) to have a successful meeting. This tip is almost a "no brainer", but I include it here because in many meetings I attend, the facilitator tries to improvise and speak extemporaneously. If you did not prepare properly in advance of the meeting, then postpone the meeting until you can. Again, your meeting attendees will thank you.
- When multiple people are trying to speak at once, break the tie by asking the people that are "remote" to the main conversation to speak first. For example, if you have five people in a room speaking on a conference telephone, and a single caller dialing in from a remote location, it will be harder for the remote caller to participate as fully as the other five participants that are all sitting together. When you see that more than one person is talking simultaneously, stop everyone and ask the person remotely participating to speak first, followed by the local person. The same rule applies for video conferences and people that are unusually quiet speakers.
- As the facilitator, speak loudly and clearly. It is important that people understand and respect that you are controlling the flow of the meeting. If they can't hear you, people will talk while you talk and you won't be able to perform your main service as a facilitator.
- Be aware of the time remaining in the meeting. If you sense that the participants cannot complete the entire agenda in the time remaining, then stop the meeting. Call attention to the time remaining and potentially reprioritize the remaining agenda items to ensure that you cover the most important items before the meeting concludes. Don't try to rush through everything just to "squeeze it all in".
- End the meeting on time. When you scheduled the meeting, you created a contract of trust with the meeting participants. If they give you their time, everyone will achieve a common goal (the meeting's purpose). Don't abuse that trust. Don't keep them later than you promised to in the meeting invitation. Review any decisions, conclusions, or action points, and agree to schedule a follow-up meeting if needed.
Bonus #11: Keep a light atmosphere (if appropriate for the meeting setting and meeting purpose). Open the meeting with a joke, or make a friendly comment if someone does something funny. Remember, it's okay to have fun in a meeting!
Be helpful to less skilled facilitators
What should you do if you are in the unfortunate situation of attending a meeting that has devolved into unorganized chaos? If you can see the facilitator is unable to regain control of the meeting, then politely step in and help them get the meeting back on track.
Remember, if your time is being wasted, then all the attendees' time are likely being wasted as well. Don't allow that kind of was organizational waste. Life is too short to sit in poorly executed meetings.
Take care, and I'll talk to you next time.
Question: Is there an important meeting tip you think I forgot? Post your tip in the comments section for others to see!