7 tips for better meetings

Some extremely productive people avoid meetings, notably Seth Godin who says, “I don’t watch television and I don’t go to meetings. So I have 7 more hours every day than everybody else”.

Crikey, he’s very keen isn’t he? What about the rest of us who don’t have much of a choice about whether or not we go to meetings? How can we make them better?

Image ‘Peanut figurines attending an official meeting’ by @Wavebreakmedia / Deposit Photos

1. Be clear

Why is this meeting happening? What does this gathering of people need to achieve, and within what time? Hint: it’s probably not so that everyone can catch up on their weekends. That’s what cafes, coffee machines and water fountains are for. Whether the meeting’s external or internal, there’s a cost involved in this gathering of people. Everyone has their hourly rate; indeed Harvard Business Review developed their Meeting Cost Calculator to help put a price tag on meetings. “Oh, but wouldn’t that mean we’d have to know what it is?” I hear you muse. Well yes, but if you don’t know your chargeable hourly rate it’s well worth finding out; and if colleagues are reluctant to share theirs it’s worth a discussion. So it’s essential that there’s a clear objective for the meeting to achieve and a time limit for doing that. Have this where everyone can see it: on a screen, whiteboard or flip chart, as well as documents for individuals (otherwise I’m willing to bet at least half the attendees won’t have a clue why they’re there).

2. Prioritise

What’s the most important item on the agenda for achieving the meeting’s objective? That’s obviously going to be the first point, and most likely the one that involves everyone in the room. If there are agenda items that don’t need all attendees’ input, make sure the cast of characters knows who’s doing what, in what order.

3. Record what was agreed

Ever left a meeting thinking, “Great, Bert is going to get the first draft done by Friday, then Rachel, Phil and I will give the go or no-go by the following Wednesday”? And then, on Friday, nothing materialises because Bert didn’t think it was down to him to get the first draft done. Sound familiar? It’s surprising – or very worrying in some cases – how 10 people can attend the same meeting and leave with 10 different versions of events. That’s why it’s essential to record what was agreed. Again, this is best done in a format that everyone can see; even better if it allows for screen capture that can then be shared.

4. Make notes

For someone like me who can remember life before laptops, the idea of actually writing something down by hand may seem common sense. I’ll venture it still is: if you’ve ever sat next to anyone who’s tapping away it can be distracting. Make notes using signs, symbols and bullet points, or Mind Maps if that’s your preference (see this short video from Tony Buzan, inventor of Mind Maps). If it’s your job to take the notes in a meeting, do everyone else a favour and question each action point that’s agreed, “…so I’ve got this right for the notes”.

5. Identify next steps and timing

Once something’s agreed, it’s very tempting to think “oh good, that’s all done then” – when we know that stuff gets done in small sequential steps. Specify the actions that need to be taken to reach the next stage, and by when they need to be done.

6. Use names, not ‘we’

Yes, I know you all work in lovely warm and cuddly workplaces where everyone collaborates regardless of age, experience, seniority, etc. etc. Lucky you. However, a downside of this that I often observe is overuse of ‘we’ in meetings – particularly when it comes to who is going to get stuff done. ‘We’ can’t all be doing all the different stages of the task all together – can we? When a next step is identified, put a name/names next to it – and yes, where everyone can see. This can transform the productivity of meetings, as there’s really no wriggle room for Bert to say he thought Katie was doing the draft. It also shows who’s doing the most and least (and the latter may want to ask themselves why they’re in the meeting).

7. Ban the biscuits

Hunger focuses the mind somewhat. Cookies can keep us in a state of sweetened contentment. And if you really want to keep people on their toes, hold the meeting standing up.


You may find this blog post useful ‘More productive meetings mean someone has to take notes’.

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’, available now at bookstores and on Amazon.

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