We all attend them, run them, and complain about them. But there are things you can do before, during and after a meeting to make sure it is productive and efficient.
Before you call a meeting, determine the purpose. What the goals are, and what resources (people and information) do you need? Does it need to be a discussion?
Prepare a written agenda – a brief list of all the topics to be covered, in descending order of importance (with time allocations if needed). Having a formal, written agenda lets everyone know what to expect, how to prepare, and allows them to start thinking about the issues ahead of time.*
In addition to the agenda, what other background material should you provide ahead of time? Make sure to send it well in advance. Yes, people will probably read it at the last minute, but if you’ve sent it well in advance they are more likely to actually do that.
If you are an attendee (opposed to the organizer), make sure you understand why you were invited, and what you are expected to contribute. Are you the right person? Depending on the type of decisions to be made, could you provide this in advance and not attend? (If you need to explain the data or answer questions; you probably need to be present.)
Arrive on time, with all the materials you need, and with enough time to mentally transition to the topic of the meeting. If you’re the organizer, allow extra time to set up room logistics, deal with last minute problems and greet attendees. This sets a friendly tone, and shows your respect and appreciation for other people’s time.
Make sure to identify the scribe (to take notes of action items), and the moderator (to lead the discussion). If you’re not the scribe, you can still keep your own notes – especially of action items that were assigned to you.
Unless you are expecting an urgent call, turn off your cell phone and avoid distractions. (No checking email during the meeting.) Try to avoid side conversations with your neighbors. If it’s related to the topic under discussion, then everyone needs to hear it. If it’s not related, it can wait until afterwards. The more everyone focuses on the meeting, the more efficient it will be.
Don’t be afraid to speak up when you have something to contribute, keeping your remarks on topic and as brief as possible. Face the group, speak at the proper volume for the venue, and enunciate clearly. Make sure your idea is developed enough to be expressed, but don’t be afraid to share an incomplete idea that others can expand – especially if it’s a brainstorming meeting.
Really listen to other’s ideas, and see how you can enhance them. Confine your comments to the issues, not personal attacks. Avoid making hasty judgments, or becoming defensive when someone suggests a solution that conflicts with one of your ideas.
If you are the moderator, remember to pay attention to those who are not talking. They may be waiting for you to ask their opinion. Keep the discussion on topic, and make notes of ideas that are outside the scope of the current meeting, for future discussion. If a particular subject is taking longer than allotted in the agenda, as moderator you may need to hold it over, and move on.
Don’t get caught up in rules. For small groups, formal rules of order may not be necessary. As the group gets larger, more stringent rules can make sure everyone is heard, and no single person dominates. Most organizations follow Robert’s Rules of Order, but you can use whatever system your organization chooses.
At the appointed time, bring the meeting to a successful close. A brief review and explicit follow-up plans (including assigning action items) are often the most important parts of the meeting.
Make sure the minutes properly record the disposition of each item, and who has responsibility for each action item. Circulate the minutes to all attendees for agreement.
If action items were assigned to you, complete them in a timely manner, and report your success.
If necessary, set the date and time for the next meeting. Any agenda items that were carried over, or topics outside the scope of the last meeting, can form the basis of the agenda for the follow-up meeting.
So there you go! With a little planning and some common sense, you too can have productive, efficient meetings – and use the time you save for something even more fun!
*I have been known to send out an agenda with detailed questions, and then tell the attendees that if they can answer all the questions beforehand, I will cancel the meeting. I get the information I need, and they get their hour back.
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.