How to Run a Painless Meeting
There are two ways to run a meeting. The first is probably the most common—you sit at the head of the table, open the meeting, and then the meeting just starts, the same way it did last time, and the time before that, and the time before that.
This might not be the way you’d like to run your meetings, but it can be hard to shake things up. Think about your day the last time you ran one. Did you have the whole day to decide how to schedule things, and think about what you could do to keep team members engaged? Or did you have other things on your to-do list?
If you’re in the second category, you have plenty of company. Running meetings is probably just part of your job description, and it’s understandable that you have limited time to plan them. But don’t use that as an excuse to push meeting planning to the bottom of your list. Conducting a successful meeting isn’t that hard, and making meetings easy is something everyone values, but before we get to that, let’s answer some basic meeting management questions:
What are you trying to achieve with your meeting?
Every meeting should have a goal, and by not clearly defining that goal with your agenda, or even clearly spelling it out in the description of your meeting invite, you are wasting your co-workers’ time. Sometimes that goal is simple, like establishing next steps or assigning specific people to specific tasks. But whatever you do, don’t leave a meeting with questions an un-actionable to-do list.
Does this require a meeting or just an email?
We’ve all been to meetings that ended 30 minutes early because everything was resolved after one person answered a couple of questions. Before you create a meeting, start outlining your concerns in an email. If that email takes you less than five minutes to compose, you may be able to solve this with a cc, some specific questions and a good subject line.
Is it important that you get approval on every decision you make?
If you can solve a problem without completely disrupting others’ work or overstepping your responsibilities, solve it. No meeting necessary. Having to ask permission for everything conveys a lack of confidence, and your boss takes that into consideration when performance reviews come around.
How do I prepare for a meeting? (Quick list)
Meetings come in all shapes and sizes. And some require less preparation than others. Here are some basic rules of thumb that will ensure your meeting doesn’t go off the rails:
- Make sure you have clear goals.
- Be selective when choosing attendees. Don’t invite the entire organization.
- Strategically select a date, then a start and end time (early in the day and mid week tend to be best).
- Provide an agenda before the meeting.
- Make sure someone’s taking notes.
That said, meetings are very important. Here’s why.
It’s fair to wonder why meetings are necessary, especially in an age when you and your team can easily text each other questions or hop on hangouts.
Those techniques are great for staying in touch, but they don’t replace the convergent thinking that happens when people actually get together.
Meetings let you use one-on-one discussions, small group activities, and facilitated discussions to make sure everyone’s ideas get heard before the group settles on a final idea or strategy. This is known as the 1-2-All technique, and it’s only one of many strategies in which changing the physical arrangement of bodies in the room focuses team members’ minds in different ways.
Meetings also let you build relationships in a way that you can only do in person. You don’t have to make s’mores and sing camp songs—not that there’s anything wrong with that—but you need to be in the same room when you’re bonding. It’s the only way you can:
- Look each other in the eye
- Change seating arrangements so team members talk to new people
- See and hear people in real-time
- Read body language
You can even introduce ice breakers or games that get people thinking in new ways. If done at the right time and in the right way for a team, these kinds of activities can keep your meetings fresh and interesting.
A bored team is not an engaged team—and if your team isn’t engaged, why bother having a meeting?
Making Meetings Meaningful
If people aren’t engaged, they’re sitting there thinking about everything else they could be doing. When you need them to be at the table, mentally as well as physically, you need to run meetings that feel purposeful and productive.
Read on to learn 15 effective meeting strategies that can help you get there.
1: Decide whether you really need a meeting.
Meetings are great when they’re necessary. However, sometimes they aren’t necessary. Some meetings are essentially one-way conversations—like when a manager or several team leaders are reporting on the status of a project. That information could easily be shared via email or in a group chat.
Put simply, if you don’t need other people’s input, you don’t need a meeting.
You do need a meeting if you want your team to:
- Reflect on the work—what’s going well, what needs to change
- Make a decision and have everyone on board
- Collaborate to solve a specific problem
- Strategize a project’s trajectory
- Connect across levels of the organization
Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the broader purpose of your meeting is. In that case, ask yourself:
- Have you done all the work you can do independently on the topic?
- Does this need to involve more than you and one other person?
- Does this have to happen in real-time?
- Does your team have to meet face-to-face? Why?
If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then you’re ready for a meeting.
2: Schedule it at the right time.
There are right and wrong times for meetings. Some “bad times” are obvious—Friday at 4:30 pm, for example. Others are less obvious.
Take Monday mornings. Research shows that it’s the worst time to have a meeting, despite the fact that it’s so common.
It makes sense at first glance. Get everyone together and set the tone for the week. The problem is that people have more “work energy” on Monday mornings, having (hopefully) rested through the weekend. It’s also a common day for employees to be out.
When’s the best time to have a meeting?
According to UK scheduling firm YouCanBookMe, who analyzed meeting data from more than half a million meeting invitations, Tuesday at 2:30 pm is the best time in terms of attendance and focus. It’s not too early, not too late, and not when people are burned out.
3: Create an agenda.
If you don’t know where your meeting is going, it can easily go off-track.
Speaker David Grady went viral when he showed, as part of a TED Talk, his roleplay of a directionless and un-productive conference call. The purpose of this fictional call? “To come to an agreement on a very important proposal. As a group.”
It’s painful because it’s vague. What does agreement mean? What’s the proposal about? Without these answers, people don’t know why they’re there.
Fortunately, you can fix this easily by creating an agenda that tells people what they’re going to do and when. For example:
- Attendees share why the choice of vendor matters to his/her department (10 mins)
- Brainstorm 3 pros and 3 cons for Vendor X and Vendor Y (20 mins)
- Come to a 60% majority on a vendor decision or set a date for a final vote (10 mins)
Notice that all three of these action items are SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based. You know whether you’ve achieved them and whether the group is on-task or not at any given time. Already, the meeting is more focused.
4: Get input for your plan.
When you have an agenda set up, send it out to your team. You’ll accomplish several things at once:
- Your team will know why they need to attend the meeting.
- You can use it to tell people how to prepare.
- You have the opportunity to ask for feedback.
Getting input is important for several reasons. First, you’re having the meeting because you want and/or need to hear other points of view. If your team has the chance to tell you what they want to contribute or need to hear about, your schedule will be more efficient from the start.
Also, people have more buy-in when they feel like they’re actively participating in the process. When they know they’ve contributed to the planning, they’re more present. In many ways, your meeting hygiene acts as an implicit part of your broader marketing communications strategy.
5: Read through materials and hash out issues beforehand.
A meeting is not the place for a read-aloud or lecture. If you have information to share with the team before the meeting itself, send the relevant documents out with the agenda and have people read them independently.
Preliminary discussions can also happen out of the meeting room. The further apart people are on an issue, the longer they’ll debate, so don’t hold the meeting until all team members are on the same page or close to it.
Before you schedule a meeting that involves a big decision, check in with attendees. If there are significant disagreements, address them before the big group has to sit down together.
6: Make it a stand-up if possible.
Feeling like you should be able to finish your meeting in 15 or 20 minutes? Try a stand-up.
The software industry has been doing it for years. And not surprisingly, it’s developed a glut of meeting management software to facilitate meeting management and scheduling. Every morning, teams come together to share their goals for the day and any challenges they’re facing. Ideally, they do it standing up (hence the name) so that they don’t get lost in the discussion.
Now companies across industries are doing stand-up meetings, mostly as daily or weekly check-ins. But you can still try it with your team if you’re striving for a quick and painless meeting.
When you introduce a stand-up meeting for the first time, make sure you have a structure. Set a time limit for each speaker and specify an end time for the meeting as a whole. Be watchful for issues that need to be parked and addressed later.
And whatever you do, don’t give people chairs. As soon as people sit down, they settle in, and that’s when things start to plod.
7: Come together with a ritual.
If you start your meetings with a particular group activity every time, you can help your team to bond while reinforcing company culture. Be sure to pick one that suits your team’s working style.
Icebreakers, for example, are great for some teams but aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. You know your team best, so maybe these group games will be just right. If not, there are plenty of other options, for example:
- An informal “check-in,” where everyone offers one word or a few to describe their mood
- A brief mindful meditation (it works for Google!)
- A team dance party
As long as it gets people connected and focused—and is legal and appropriate—it’s worth a try!
8: Stick to the agenda.
Whether you use chairs or not, staying on task is an essential part of pain-free meetings. Nothing frustrates busy team members like a tangent, and it’s easy to go off on one if someone’s not keeping track.
Someone has a good idea? Put a pin in it. Maybe put it on the agenda for the next meeting.
Someone has an unexpected objection? Decide how much time you can allocate to a discussion. If it hasn’t been resolved, schedule a time to meet with the person objecting one-on-one and move on to other topics.
A general rule of thumb: If your agenda says you should be discussing Topic A for 15 minutes, you shouldn’t move on to the next action item until you’ve reached a resolution or 15 minutes have passed, whichever comes first.
9: Embrace tabling.
Things come up in meetings, and you won’t always be able to touch on them at that point. It happens often—there’s a reason why there are so many terms for it.
Tabling. Parking. Putting a pin in it.
Your team may have another term, but the idea is the same. If two or more people need to talk about an issue that’s related to the topic but doesn’t involve everyone in the group, put it aside and let that sub-group talk about it outside of the meeting.
As a rule of thumb, big group meetings should talk about “bigger” ideas and smaller groups can handle smaller details.
10: Ditch long meetings for frequent meetings.
If all of your meetings are too long for stand-ups, think about how often they happen. It’s easy for companies to avoid scheduling meetings until there’s a lot to talk about. But by the time the meeting actually happens, so many discussion points have built up that the meeting drags on endlessly and people walk away dreading the next one.
It’s a vicious cycle … but it’s easy to break. Remember those stand-up meetings you learned about? Try setting them up as a regular event. Or have a regular sit-down meeting, but more often than you have them now.
It might take a few tries to figure out how often you need to meet, but that’s okay. You’ll know you have it right when your team doesn’t start shifting around in their chairs before you’ve reached the last item on the agenda.
11: Make it a safe place for input.
Don’t confuse avoiding tangents with discouraging contributions. It’s a difficult line to walk, but you can’t have a productive meeting if people are afraid to speak up.
In fact, research shows that the best teams out there feel like safe places to take risks, speak up, try something new, and make mistakes. The feeling is known as psychological safety, and it’s as delicate as it is important to success.
When you feel attacked by a boss or co-worker, your brain perceives it as a threat to life and limb. Your reasoning centers shut down and you don’t feel like it’s safe to participate.
On the other hand, when you feel challenged but not attacked, your body secretes trust hormones and you become more open to collaboration.
The same is true for your team, so check in regularly to make sure people feel safe speaking up. If they need some help, work on framing discussions as collaborations and strive for mutually beneficial outcomes, not “winners.” It takes time and careful attention to team behaviors, but the results are worth the effort.
12: Start with expectations.
People follow specific instructions better than vague ones. If you tell your team to “stay focused” and “stick to the essentials,” they can certainly try to comply, but they may interpret it differently than you do.
Whether you do it in writing or verbally before the meeting begins, set some ground rules.
- Will you allow phones and laptops to be out? (Tip: Don’t. It distracts people.)
- When is it okay to ask questions?
- Are statements open for dissent?
- How long will each person have to talk?
Not all of these guidelines will be necessary for every meeting, but it’s good to know the kind of expectations people appreciate.
13: Clarify your decision-making procedure.
You don’t want to spend valuable meeting time debating when the group can consider a decision to be final. Before the meeting starts, decide and tell your team how you’re going to settle things. There are three common options.
- Leader’s choice: Just like it sounds. The chair of the meeting gets to make the final call.
- Majority rule: Everyone can voice their opinion, but a decision is final if at least 50 percent of people are on board.
- Consensus: Decisions are only final when everyone is on board.
No single decision-making model is better than the rest, but some are better fit-wise for certain teams or situations. Figure out what will suit your purposes best, then let everyone know well in advance of the meeting.
14: Close with action items and communicate them clearly.
Team members should leave the meeting knowing two things:
- What was accomplished at the meeting, and
- Their individual action items.
Make sure that the action items are specific and time-limited. You don’t have to have everyone’s action items be due at the next meeting, but it can be a good way to keep things consistent if it works for your project.
After the meeting, consider sending out an email or group chat blast with everyone’s action items and due dates. This keeps people from forgetting what they had to do and holds each individual accountable to the group. Also, that message creates the opportunity for people to email you afterward with questions that they forgot to ask or didn’t know they had.
15: Solicit feedback for the next meeting.
You wouldn’t release a product without finding out what your customers think of the first one, so why would you schedule a meeting without knowing if the last one worked for everyone? Consider reaching out to your team soon after the meeting ends and finding out what they took away from it.
You want your survey to be a reasonable length, so think about what you most need to know. Maybe you want team members’ thoughts on:
- Duration and pace of the meeting
- Agenda items (number and content)
- Quality of discussion—did everyone feel heard?
- End result—was the meeting useful to people?
Make sure that you follow up with people if you get feedback that’s particularly specific or thought-provoking. And if someone seems very unhappy, check in with them. You want everyone to feel heard.
A Final Word
Always be evaluating your meetings. Consider your own thoughts and those of your attendees and make sure that, to the best of your ability, each meeting that you run is:
With the meeting management tips you’ve learned here, you can start planning a meeting that is not just painless but actually a positive experience for your team. Enjoy the accolades!