7 steps to less miserable meetings

Seren Snow, staff writerSeren Snow, staff writer

What's the number one decision made in conference and board rooms across America? To have another meeting.

Maybe you just left a meeting or have one or several on your calendar today. Look at them. Ask yourself whether each one is worth your time. If you have no control over that decision, then consider how you could make those meetings as impactful as possible for you and the other participants.

Can't figure out how? This is a problem in organizations everywhere. In a recent analysis of 17 companies, management consulting firm Bain & Co. found one executive who devoted eight hours per week to unnecessary meetings. The same executive also spent four hours each week responding to unnecessary emails. He had only a scant 11 hours weekly for core job tasks.

Reclaim your workday by reading and sharing these seven steps to make sure future meetings are as well-run as possible:

Step 1: Cancel the ones you don't need

We all have meetings show up on our calendars that we don't actually need to attend. These meetings can impede our productivity throughout the day. Instead of attending them by default, simply don't confirm them in the first place. Wondering which ones you should cancel?

As a general rule, consider converting your meeting to an email or short conference call if the meeting:Is purely intended to provide information or an update;

  • Can be conducted in only 10 or 20 minutes;
  • Can't begin until everyone is in attendance;
  • Involves "thinking out loud";
  • Is likely to end without any action items;
  • Ends with a recap of the information presented; or
  • Includes a period of team bonding.

The best meetings are the ones you would pay to attend because the content is so valuable that missing it would be unthinkable.

Step 2: Invite the right number of people

Inviting the wrong number of people to a meeting is likely to derail the agenda. The good news is that management experts have a few rules of thumb for identifying the right number of attendees based on the kind of meeting taking place.  

Trying to solve a problem? Invite 4-6 people. Be sure to include people who have expertise or deep knowledge of the problem at hand.

Trying to make a decision? Invite 4-7 people. Anything beyond that and the meeting will just be all talking and no decision-making.

Trying to set an agenda? Invite 5-15 people. If an individual's job or responsibilities are not directly relevant to the meeting you're planning, don't invite them.

Trying to brainstorm? Invite 10-20 people. More people typically means more ideas, so be comfortable making the invitee list a little longer here.

The 5 P's of productive meetings

Step 3: Make sure everyone gets heard

When your colleagues—whether your direct reports or senior leaders—get interrupted, they feel disrespected. You can avoid this by watching out for these three groups, who tend to get talked over the most, according to Renee Cullinan, cofounder of Stop Meeting Like This:

Introverts: Yes, they're quieter, but their contributions during meetings can be extremely valuable if you give them a chance. Try to give them a head start by allowing comments on the agenda before the meeting takes place. This way everyone knows what points they'll make during the meeting, and they'll be more comfortable elaborating on them.

Remote attendees: It's easy to forget about people on conference lines. If you can, try to use video conferencing instead. This way, remote participants feel more engaged, and you won't forget to ask for their input.

Women: Studies have shown over and over again that women are more likely to be interrupted than men. Some colleagues unfortunately don't recognize when they're doing it. Before a meeting starts, empower women to speak up if they get interrupted.

While they shouldn't have to do this in the first place, it can help your male colleagues begin to recognize that they're doing it. Also, consider making a rule at the beginning of a meeting that no one gets to interrupt another person, without singling out women who are present.

Step 4: Limit the agenda

Depending on the personalities of those involved, meetings can include lots of chatter that's either irrelevant to the heart of the agenda or that won't result in any meaningful actions.

Be sure to trim the agenda as much as possible before the meeting takes place. Also, try to propose something specific in the agenda to start with so you can jump into discussion the moment the meeting begins.

During the meeting, a few simple rules can help keep things moving. For example, try to call on people to participate instead of waiting for people talk whenever a thought comes to them. Also, try not to get bogged down with backtracking by revisiting ideas that have already been considered.

Another tactic that can help is assigning tasks to everyone before the meeting takes place, based on the topic(s) presented. And don't forget to thank people for completing those tasks. No matter how senior someone is, everyone wants to know they did a good job.

Step 5: Put decisions in writing

The moment that a meeting is complete, participants may be thinking about their next meeting or the project they were working on before the meeting began. If you want real outcomes from the meeting, you have to remind them of what they should do in follow-up.

An easy way to do this is to put the decisions that were made and any next steps in writing. This can be in the form of minutes or you could take a snapshot of anything that was written on the whiteboard or blackboard during the meeting.

Step 6: Take your meeting for a walk

Several recent studies have told us that a sedentary lifestyle is an unhealthy lifestyle. It is true that it can be difficult to find opportunities to take walks when you have a demanding job that involves lots of meetings and computer time. One easy way to find time for more exercise is to go for a walk during your meetings.  

If your meeting's agenda does not include sensitive topics or does not require an in-depth discussion, then consider doing a lap around the office or even on the sidewalk outside. In addition to the calorie-burning benefits, additional studies have found that walking can spark creativity.

Step 7: Bring humor to the meeting

We all have meetings that involve dull topics that would make even a coffee-addict fall asleep, so don't hesitate to add some humor to the conversation. Studies have found that not only does humor help people pay more close attention to weighty topics of discussion, it also eliminates status barriers.

For example, a junior employee included in a meeting full of senior executives could feel intimated and avoid speaking up. But if one of the senior executives tells a joke, that junior employee will feel more liberated to share their opinion on the meeting's topic(s).

Keep in mind that humor can take many forms. It can be a short funny anecdote at the start of a new agenda item, a quirky perspective in the form of a hypothetical, or a play on words through a pun. But just remember to read your participants' body language and assess the timing so that you don't end up embarrassed.

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