Toward Better Meetings (Part 2)

This is the second in a three-part series on improving meeting effectiveness.

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how valuable 10-15 minutes of preparatory time can be toward having more effective meetings. If you haven’t had a chance to read Part 1 yet, I suggest starting there. This part is going to focus on what happens during the meeting.

Have an agenda and stick to it

Part 1 talked about preparing an agenda driven by the meeting’s goals that is distributed ahead of time to the participants. Here’s a powerful tip for the actual meeting: follow that agenda! I’m not kidding. Most meetings go nowhere because they either don’t have or don’t follow an agenda. The agenda is a focus tool. It’s a set of criteria for discussion and decision making, keeping things on topic, and staying on time. I’m not a huge fan of timing out how long each agenda item should take because I don’t like to constrain the collaborative value of meetings, but it is worth thinking about roughly how much time each item needs. This is especially true for helping schedule the right length meeting.

Part 1 also mentioned distributing the agenda ahead of time with preparatory work expectations. I find this valuable for engaging participants, keeping the meeting on time and on topic, and making sure you have results afterward. I can tell you that one time (and only one time) I went into a meeting with a blank piece of paper planning to emerge with a draft document. After emerging with a blank piece of paper and a lost hour, I vowed to always go in with a draft in the future. Many of those subsequent drafts have been covered with red after the meeting, but only very rarely do I emerge with a blank piece of paper anymore.

Effective meetings have engaged participants who know why they’re there. A simple agenda and a request for a little preparatory work yields a HUGE return for your meeting.

Do something other than sitting around and talking

Stop me if you’ve been in this meeting: so, our next agenda item is the slow sales this quarter…any good ideas on that? This is followed by a slightly unfocused, rambling discussion that goes nowhere. We default to “discussing” in meetings, but there are so many other great ways to achieve meeting goals. For example, how about brainstorming? Not the brainstorming where one person suggests an idea, which is immediately shredded while everyone else slinks down in their chairs. I mean real brainstorming where an engaged team has been asked to think about ideas they bring to the meeting that are shared without criticism and are later evaluated for possible selection.

Or what about relaying, where we go around the table generating ideas in rapid succession until we’ve exhausted creative energy…sort of like a lightning round brainstorm? You could also try focus voting when you need to quickly reach consensus: put all the ideas on a board, give everyone a few sticky dots, and tell them they’ve got x number of votes and to use them however they want. Then see what wins. There’s also paired weighting when you need to prioritize. List 5, 10, or 15 criteria, and compare 1 vs. 2, 1 vs. 3, 1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3, 2 vs. 4, and so on. Total them up individually and then for the whole group and you’ll know what’s actually important to everyone. Or what about prototyping to sketch, draw, or make a physical mock-up of an idea to see how it might work?

These are all great ways to achieve our meeting goals, and they’re all nice changes from the usual “sit around and talk” approach. What drives your options? Your agenda, goals, and purpose. See why that meeting preparation is important?

Stimulate or discourage discussion

Sometimes you need to get people talking in a meeting. Sometimes you need them to shut up! If you need to get a discussion going, the relay strategy from the previous section works great. It gets everyone involved but doesn’t single out certain people. Another great way to stimulate discussion is to ask people to generate some ideas prior to the meeting. A third idea is to ask specific people for their thoughts during the meeting. This works best if you pick someone who you know will be comfortable being put “on the spot”, or even with a “plant”.

If you have that one or two dominant people, you can usually handle them by saying, “thank you, let’s hear from a few other people” or “that’s great, does anyone else have any other feedback or ideas?”. You can also pay attention to when these people get off topic and use your agenda to gently (or not so gently) steer the discussion back to topic. By the way, don’t underestimate the importance of you, as the meeting leader, occasionally playing Devil’s Advocate. If the discussion moves to consensus or a solution too fast, that’s a good indicator you may need to push back.

Use the last 10 minutes well

Every meeting (yes, every) should end with a short summary, a reminder of any action item assignments, and an explanation of next steps. It’s tempting to think you can do this in one minute while people are rushing out the door. You can’t. This takes a solid 10 minutes, so plan for it. And if you don’t believe me, watch how long it takes organically in your next meeting (preferably one someone else is leading!).

So, we’ve covered the importance of 10-15 minutes of meeting preparation and now we’ve discussed the value of an agenda, some engagement strategies, how to get people more involved, and how to recap the meeting in a value-added way. Our meetings should already be getting a lot better. Next time we’ll briefly look at post-meeting follow through.


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Craig A. Escamilla
Craig A. Escamilla
Craig Escamilla helps you find solutions before problems exist. With fifteen years of consulting, teaching, and senior management experience, Craig brings a wealth of practical expertise to helping others work on rather than in their businesses.

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