One of the organizations that regularly hires me to write its public affairs materials has an ongoing staff gathering that their manager calls a “5 to 30 meeting.” The meeting runs from 5 to 30 minutes, depending on what they need to discuss. When they’re done, meeting’s over, even if they’re just 5 minutes into it. If only every meeting were this efficient.
If you’ve been in the workforce even a few months, you’ve probably found that most meetings lack a clear point, run far too long and usually aren’t worth the time they pulled you away from your work.
No wonder, then, that author Thomas Sowell has observed, “People who enjoy meetings shouldn’t be in charge of anything.”
Four reasons meetings fail
- No clear purpose
- The right people aren’t there
- Some of the wrong people are
- The discussion is imprecise
Note that last item: imprecise discussion. One job of a meeting leader is to make sure everyone in the room hears and understands updates, commitments and other details the same way. This is more important than most meeting organizers realize – because the key point of a meeting is to communicate information face-to-face that co-workers can then go out and act on. Unless everyone in the meeting understands exactly what’s being said, many will leave unclear what to do next, or worse, start making “progress” in the wrong direction.
We rarely think of it this way, but the ability to lead productive meetings is an invaluable communication skill. It can help you build professional bonds, strengthen your staff and inspire your team to do their best work.
Here are a few strategies you might not have thought of for making your meetings more productive and valuable to you and your team.
Invite the right people
Microsoft Outlook and similar programs have made it so easy to schedule meetings and invite attendees that we tend to over-invite.
But one of the most important ingredients for a productive meeting is to have the right people in the room. After all, what is a meeting if not the specific people assembled? As meeting organizers, we should devote more time to thinking through this key ingredient.
So for each person you want to invite, spend a moment thinking of (or even writing) a phrase or sentence that explains why. For example, “I want Kevin there to ______________.” Jody should be in the room because _____________.”
This exercise will give you a better idea of what each of your attendees can contribute to and learn from your meeting. You’ll also have a much better sense of how the meeting will unfold and what to put into your agenda. And finally, you will limit your meeting to those who need to be there – which will cut down on “verbal clutter” and wasted time.
Now let’s say that during this exercise, you come to a person you thought of inviting but can’t think of a reason to invite, or the reason you come up with seems insufficient to warrant the person’s attending. Two options: Don’t invite this person, or invite them as “optional.” And here, I believe, is the right way to invite someone as optional.
Tell your “optional” attendees why they’re invited
When you list someone as optional on your meeting invitation, that person has no way of knowing how important it is to you that they come, why you want them there, or if you don’t care at all but are just being polite. If you’re her boss or above her in your organization’s hierarchy, your “optional” might feel compelled to attend even if she is completely unnecessary to the meeting.
You might be inviting Laurie, for example, because she’s your graphic artist and you’ll be discussing how to use her artwork in the tradeshow, which she might want to see. If she doesn’t care, though, but attends out of obligation, neither Laurie nor the other attendees will benefit from her being there – and she’ll have lost an hour. Worse, if Laurie feels the need to participate in the meeting, she will likely create “verbal clutter” and waste important meeting time.
So give your optional attendees the information they need to make an informed decision about whether to attend.
I recommend either that you send each optional attendee a separate email, after you send the meeting invite, explaining why you thought they might want to attend, or that you include a brief explanation right in the body of the meeting invitation.
Now you’ve got the right people in the meeting (including your “optional” guests) and everyone’s ready. Here’s one way to make the meeting as productive as possible.
Insist on precise language
Imagine: You’re running a meeting and ask an attendee when he will have a draft of the proposal. “Any day now,” he tells you. What does that mean? Tomorrow? The end of next week?
In this new meeting culture you’re creating, demand that your attendees give factual, hard answers to questions – percentages, numbers, dates, times.
Your attendees will quickly get the message. And you know what will happen? In many cases they’ll be more productive, because they’ll know that you’re going to publicly hold them accountable for the cold facts in your meeting.
This will also cut down on the confusion that always surfaces when people are allowed to use imprecise language – someone thinks “any day now” means he’ll be seeing the proposal within two days, but it’s not ready for three weeks.
These few suggestions, of course, are not even close to a comprehensive list of what to do to create a productive meeting. You’ll want to use plenty of other smart tactics. For example, you’ll want to send out a detailed agenda beforehand, you’ll want to set clear time limits on the meeting, and you’ll want to inform your attendees you’re interested in the quality of discussion, not the quantity (so attendees don’t all feel the need to say something in the meeting, which wastes time and adds confusion).
But with just these few strategies in place, now you’ve got the right people in the room (or on speakerphone), none of the wrong people, and you’re leading a discussion that focuses only on precise details that everyone understands. You’re running a productive meeting.