Updated: Apr 6
How to make meetings a whole lot better...
I've found that the intention you bring to life starting with your relationships to work to family, has an incredible impact on the outcome. While outside factors can sway what happens day to day, I think we give the external forces way more sway than warranted, when so much of our lives are dictated by our internal intentions, actions or inactions. One place that this continues to become painfully apparent is within the meeting setting.
As a society, why are we collectively so bad at something we have to do so often? Is it that meetings are that hard to endure? Or that as a whole many weren't taught how to hold or even attend meetings with an eye on productivity, mission or purpose?
In my 20+ years of work, I cannot count how many meetings I’ve attended, ran, participated in, or designed. Many meetings felt unnecessary or poorly planned by those who didn’t understand the reason for meetings in the first place or what they wanted out of it. Some people would even count the fact that a meeting happened as an accomplishment, in and of itself, even when nothing was actually accomplished.
Should we blame it on zoom culture ruining the glorious way we met before? Sorry, this is one thing we can’t blame on the pandemic. Meetings have been bad for a LONG time.
Sure, they became way worse when we all jumped into the online format for every call, but we really can’t blame virtual life for something that is essentially a planning & intention issue (or lack thereof).
And though this permeates the agencies and corporations, where I’ve worked in the U.S., I've also encountered much of the same abroad. It seems quite widespread outside the office setting too, including school boards, church groups, non-profits, social associations and on and on and on. Bad meetings everywhere!
So this post is somewhat of a down and dirty guide for those who were never taught how to hold or attend a productive meeting and be intentional in your participation. There is a way to make the best of each meeting, even if you aren’t the one putting the meeting together. Remember, so much of what happens in a meeting, occurs beforehand and that you have the power to make even the dullest meeting more fruitful.
Why were YOU invited?
This is the single most important question to ask. Not what time is the meeting, how long is the meeting or where is the meeting. All of those questions are logistics, while the first question will tell you what role you are expected to play or can play. Think about what you know that is important to this meeting, what you should bring to the meeting and how you should prepare as a whole. Too many people show up as passive audiences instead of active participants.
Now, I’m sure that many of you have been invited to those department-wide/company-wide meetings where you might think that perhaps you are just a number. You don’t feel invited as much as summoned based on your role. That’s fine! Know that this doesn’t mean you can tune out or shut down during this meeting. It means you may have the attention of key leadership that are usually spending time elsewhere. It might be where you get to ask a question or absorb as much as you can so you can better connect the dots between your function/dept. and the greater strategies/goals.
There are a few things that can help you figure out your role. First, know the agenda. Understanding the key focus for the meeting will help you understand how you can or can not contribute, but it can also prepare you for what type of meeting this will be. Is this a meeting to share news/information or a true discussion? Will there be a need to brainstorm with the team or do you need to be ready to present your own findings, slides, or well-thought out analysis? Understand what you are stepping into.
So what if there isn’t an agenda? That’s a big uh-oh. No agenda usually equals a free for all where little is accomplished and is about as effective as an email to everyone saying “what’s up?” I’m a big proponent of asking for the agenda, so that I can come prepared and at times this alone helps the orchestrator of the meeting figure out their shit (but not always!)
And ask if there should be any prep work or discussions prior to the meeting. There is a ton of pre-work that goes into a meeting by the presenters, but they shouldn’t be the only ones prepared. Understand the prep work, know what you would be able to contribute and come ready to do so! You'll only look smarter and make the meeting more fruitful for everyone including you.
If you are putting together the meeting, just flip all this amazing advice back on yourself. Do you have the right people in the room, does “everyone” really need to be there and what are you asking of the group. If you don’t know that going in, you shouldn’t meet. Period.
Who was invited and who was not?
Always go through the invite list for the meeting. It will immediately tell you a few things:
Where you sit within the list of people invited
How many people from your functional team will be there
The size of the group meeting, will usually dictate the number of people who will be able to speak vs. listen to the information at the meeting.
Although more and more organizations are going flat, their are still hierarchical measures based on level of expertise, time spent in an industry or even level of influence that can change the balance in a room. This is just one point of consideration to help you understand what’s about to take place in a meeting, but shouldn’t be ignored.
On the agency side, I would carefully weigh the number of people invited from our agency to see a client, based on the number of clients that would attend. We didn’t want to outnumber clients to such a degree to make the meeting feel too one-sided or a waste of agency time/fees.
Check to see how many people from your team, dept. or company (if it’s an external meeting) were invited. Are you the only one? That’s a huge indicator that you will have to do A LOT more than just show up. The meeting organizers want you there to represent, provide critical information or ensure that their changes/project/program doesn’t get derailed due to your piece of the puzzle. Come prepared to connect the dots and see how things do/don’t work.
The larger the meeting size, the smaller the chances are that you will have a large speaking role, beyond asking a question. Knowing that this is your role should prep you to have questions going into the meeting, but also listen intently to the information given so you can potentially use it within your own work/team. This hopefully isn’t a time to zone out or multi-task. Remember why you were invited.
When/where is the meeting happening?
Although this isn’t as important as the first two sections, it can sway a meeting especially depending on the subject matter. Is this happening very close to a big decision? Is this happening at a time that’s inconvenient for key team members? Is this occurring in a place where few can be in the physical room (not as important today- but don’t underestimate the long lasting power of being in the room)
Assessing whether the time or place of the meeting will hold significance to the outcome helps you to further know what you are in for and what the intent of the meeting is. This doesn’t mean that there is negative intent behind the meeting time/place, but like everything before this, gives you more information to be prepared.
Based on what you know now, understand if you are the right person to be in the room or if your time is actually better spent elsewhere. It’s ok to have this discussion with the meeting planner if you have another meeting, task or deadline that’s more pressing. As long as you aren’t just trying to have an out for the sake of wanting to skip all meetings, share your thoughts about how your time would be better spent elsewhere and see if that’s the better option. Not every meeting is a "must attend" and understanding that upfront will position you to have a much more productive day.
DURING THE MEETING:
Read the room
When you get into the meeting, read the room. Who is there, what are they talking about as they enter, what’s the tone, how are things getting introduced? I’ve been in plenty of fun, productive but also tense and serious meetings. The subject matter or invite list can tell you a lot, but there is nothing like the tone of a room to give you an indicator of where things are going.
Use this! But don’t let it cripple you.
Be confident in what you know, what you don’t and that you are completely capable to find out the things that are still unknown. Most people just want to get the most out of these meetings, but I can’t count how many times people have turned meetings into a platform to completely derail projects or people. Be on alert.
So you may be thinking, of course I’m going to listen. But I don’t mean sit there and here the content, I mean really listen.
What are people saying?
How are they saying it?
Why are they telling you?
What are they leaving out in their responses?
Are they open to questions or is this a speech?
What are they suggesting you to do with this information?
Do they have a plan forward or is this a meeting without a visible next step?
How is this information being distilled?
Are you getting facts about a plan already in motion or are you being asked to provide input to the strategy?
Are there dates associated with the next steps or are people leaving things open ended?
You need to actively listen to EVERYONE in the meeting to ensure you are able to understand the context and subtext. Leaving that part out, will mean that you are not hearing the most important parts of the meeting. Don’t tune out when people ask questions or more junior members speak. Tune all the way in.
Take key notes:
Assuming it isn’t your job to take notes for the meeting, you should still be writing down key notes for yourself during the meeting. With the amount of meetings taking place every day, there is no way you’ll retain all that you heard, even if you want to. And since details can sometimes become more important as projects move forward, it’s good practice to keep notes for yourself and for others that you might be representing at the meeting.
Good practice is to jot down the biggest 3 take aways and your next step(s). That way you keep it manageable but effective.
How should you contribute?
You don’t always have or should be the voice that is heard. In fact, if you are leading a team, you should be encouraging your team to speak up and share their POV, far more than you should be speaking.
I like to use the following 3 questions when thinking about how I should participate in a meeting: Should this be said? Should it be said by me? Should it be said by me now?
Not everything needs to be voiced and many times it’s not the right time or you aren’t the right messenger. Figuring this out can help you become a far better leader and make meetings much more efficient and far more productive.
Ask lots of questions. You should never assume you know how things will work outside of your functional area. Probe others in the room. Find out the rationale, source or proof of what people are claiming so these assumptions can be examined. The best meetings I’ve attended have had lots of engagement from most people in the room and probing questions to help make a project better.
Perhaps you are adding vital content, research, designs, etc. that help bring a meeting to life. Obviously, these can be pivotal pieces of information, storytelling or persuasive facts that can turn a project or the direction a team is heading. This can be far more memorable than anything that is actually said.
Make sure you put that extra time to make it something that will be easily understood and remembered long after every utterance within the meeting is forgotten. If it’s a key slide, ensure you have or will share it with the team. Your voice will definitely be felt even more if you are allowed to present, but if that’s not possible, you can add salient points to the discussion.
Participation through action
So what if you don’t have the chance to participate through the first two points? Go back to the point of the meeting, it’s not just to present ideas or showcase a case study, it’s to share information that can then help to make a project, product, team, company stronger and build from where you are today.
USE the ideas, show how you are able to include them in your part of the work. Then when the next meeting comes up, showcase how you are connecting the dots and therefore making the team even stronger.
What’s the follow-up for meeting organizers?
If you are the organizer of a meeting, do a mental and verbal check-in about the meeting. Was it worth the time it took to put together and hold? Did the meeting serve the need that you intended? Was it the right format? Should you hold them more/less often? Did you have the right people in the meeting?
Ask those who attended if they have a better way.
Sometimes leaders get bogged down in the need to reach a goal but don’t always understand how messages land. Be open to asking and receiving feedback. It will only make you more productive overall.
And please try to avoid the recurring meetings that go on calendars for all of time. Make meetings intentional and time bound to get the most out of a team and most out of your precious time.
Here’s to (hopefully) much better meetings :)