12 tips for having an awesome meeting

I have to admit it: the title is only partially true. These tips may contribute for awesome meetings, but they likely won’t be enough. However, they will help preventing dreadfully boring meetings. If you attend dreadfully boring meetings on a regular basis, you know that being able to prevent them is kind of awesome.

1. Invite only the required attendees

Meetings can be both useful and a waste of time, depending on how they’re handled. But even the best meeting can be a waste of time for someone that shouldn’t be there. When scheduling a meeting, always see if the people you’re inviting are really required. When in doubt, check with them. Remember that people will have to stop doing something else to attend your meeting.

2. Keep the attendees’ list short

Meetings with a large number of people tend to become unproductive quickly. There’s usually too much noise and confusion, it’s difficult to keep track of all viewpoints, speaking out of order becomes the norm… you’ll regret scheduling it soon after it starts (and those who attended will regret being there as well).

As a rule of thumb, I try to avoid scheduling a meeting with more than 5 attendees (7 at most, and that’s already pushing it). For meetings that require more people, I try to break it down in separate discussions first, or double check the list of attendees to see who needs to be there, and who can be updated off-line.

3. Pick a suitable timeslot

Choosing the right time for a meeting is something that shouldn’t be overlooked. There are several aspects to consider when picking it:

  • check the timezones of all the attendees, so you won’t end up scheduling the meeting for an inappropriate time for one of’em;
  • don’t schedule it for too early in the morning, as some people may not be in the office and will likely either skip the meeting or join during their daily commute (which will be bad for everyone);
  • don’t schedule it for too late in the day, as that may impact people’s routines (bus schedules, for example) and cause them to lose focus in the meeting or have to leave before it ends – for example, I try never to schedule a meeting after 4 PM.

If you’re having difficulties finding a suitable schedule for all attendees, re-check the list and ensure that everybody you have there is really required. If they are, check with those unable to attend if they can select someone else to attend in their place, or if they can suggest a better timeslot.

4. Find a good place for it

Finding a good place for the meeting will help tremendously. If it’s a meeting over the web, ensure that you’ll be at a place where you can have a quiet meeting. That means you should never schedule a meeting for an occasion where you know you’ll have to join by phone while on the move, or if you’ll be at a noisy place – it’s already bad enough when that happens with an attendee, the meeting host should never risk it.

If the meeting is in a physical space, ensure it’s adequate. Is the meeting room large enough for the attendance you have in mind? Does it have all the equipment that will be required? Do you have a plan in case one of the attendees needs to connect remotely?

Always try your best to ensure that the meeting conditions won’t affect the outcome of the meeting.

5. Have a clear purpose

At the start of the meeting, you should know what you expect to have at the end. It’s even better if this is clearly stated in the invitation for the meeting and stated again when the meeting begins. Though this purpose may shift during the meeting if new information comes into play, you should have it at the start.

Going into a meeting without a clear purpose is a good way for it to quickly go off-track, with side discussions taking up most of the time. It also raises an important question: if you don’t know what to expect from the meeting, why are you even scheduling it?

6. Prepare the meeting

Don’t go into your own meeting unprepared. Make sure you’ve done your own homework when you start it.

You should have a clear goal for the meeting, along with the topics you will be covering. It’ll be even better if the list is prioritized, and if it’s easy to differentiate the topics you really need to cover in this meeting from the ones you can discuss separately, if required.

Have all the material you’ll require laid out adequately, so you don’t need to search for something in the middle of the meeting. Everything you can write down beforehand, do so. If the meeting room requires special conditions, make sure they are met before the meeting. Arriving a few minutes early to ensure everything is fine is also highly recommended.

7. Share relevant materials beforehand

If whatever you’ll be discussing in the meeting requires attendees to read some material beforehand, make sure you share them, giving people to go over’em. Clearly state the material should be checked before the meeting.

Sharing them only in the meeting will turn it into a reading session, and people will likely lose focus or reach the discussion part already tired – not to mention you’ll be wasting people’s time needlessly, as reading times will vary. Nevertheless, try to have a short summary ready, in case someone hasn’t done their homework or if you feel it’s useful to refresh people’s minds on the topic.

8. Beware of side discussions

Side discussions will pop up during the meeting, so be prepared to deal with them. You’ll need to achieve a balance between allowing them enough time to confirm it’s not relevant to the main topic and ensuring they won’t take too much time out of the main topic’s discussion.

Once you’ve identified something as a side discussion that shouldn’t be handled in the meeting, inform those discussing it in a polite way. Don’t cut’em off with a “whatever, that’s not important right now”, but go for something like “That seems to be a relevant topic, but it’s out of the scope of this meeting, we should discuss it further off-line”. Make a note of the topic, adding a comment that it’ll be checked separately, and follow up on it afterwards.

If you have a meeting where you expect that side discussions will occur often, you can prepare for it in advance. Reserve a space where these ideas can be written down: a whiteboard or a wall where post-its can be added will do just fine. Call it a parking lot or an idea storage room, for example. At the start of the meeting, explain to people that side discussions may occur, and you’re making that space available to place them, so they can be followed up afterwards. Whenever a side discussion appears, you simply have to mention it’s a topic to be followed up later, and add it to that spot.

9. Keep it time-boxed

Always keep your meetings within the allotted time. Remember that your attendees have their own commitments, and the extra time you’ll require from them will impact them. If they have another meeting right after yours, they will either drop out of your meeting (and you’ll lose part of your audience, likely rendering your meeting less productive) or they will be late for their next meeting (and impact someone else, which is also not a good thing).

If you’re reaching the end of the meeting and notice that you won’t be able to cover everything in time, stick to the higher priority topics and notify the attendees that another meeting may be required to follow up on the remaining issues. Extend your meeting only if there’s no better option.

10. Don’t take longer than necessary

Did you schedule an hour long meeting and wrapped everything up in 30 minutes? Great. That means you can end the meeting 30 minutes earlier. Don’t feel the need to extend the meeting just because you’ve booked an extra large slot. If you wish to take the opportunity to discuss a separate topic, please state it clearly and dismiss the members of the audience that won’t be required.

11. Keep and share notes

You don’t need to be the one taking notes, but always make sure someone is taking notes from what went on during the meeting, with special care given to the decisions and action points (and who will be responsible for them). These notes should be visible during the meeting, in case someone wishes to suggest corrections to what’s there. Before the meeting ends, confirm that everyone agrees with what was decided. After the meeting, share the notes with all the attendees – for example, by e-mail.

12. Do you really need to schedule a meeting?

This is a really critical question. Useful meetings represent a time investment by several people. Useless meetings represent a waste of time by several people. If there isn’t a reason for it, don’t schedule the meeting. Can this issue be solved by a quick email? Or perhaps by a quick chat? Go for it.

On the other hand, sometimes meetings really are the best way to handle things. If you’re seeing an email thread going out of hand, for example, scheduling a quick meeting with relevant stakeholders may end up saving everyone time. Meetings are an amazing resource when used wisely.

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