I've been in the advertising business for twenty four years and have attended my fair share of meetings. Some productive. Some painful. Some groundbreaking. Many downright unnecessary. Here are some simple ideas to help your meetings run smoothly and, potentially, lower your blood pressure. Some of these recommendations may seem basic, but you'd be surprised at how often these simple details are overlooked.
Have a purpose and an agenda
I'm reminded of the Steve Martin movie, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”. Martin is lambasting John Candy's character, Del Griffith, for his rambling stories with no apparent purpose. "Here's a good idea. Have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener." Although he was rude, he did have a valid point. Clearly defining, (perhaps in writing), the meeting purpose and the participants’ roles and expectations will keep everyone engaged and focused on the objective.
Have a capable leader
Not everyone is a born leader. My dad always told me, "The world needs ditch diggers." Let the ditch diggers dig ditches. Try saying that three times fast. Be sure that you identify a strong point person to manage the meeting. The most important traits are leadership, organization, and assertiveness. A sense of humor and a background in hostage negotiation wouldn't hurt either. The group leader needs to make sure everyone is heard, and no one takes over or derails the meeting. A good leader will keep the meeting focused on the stated goals, and not let strong personalities take over.
Test drive technology
Technology is great when it works. When it doesn't work, it can be a source of frustration and a big time-suck. Screen sharing and on-screen presentations are compelling, but just be sure that everything works before you have a room full of eager meeting-goers. Rehearsals are important when using technology.
Clear the room of distractions
Checking email and even texting during meetings is commonplace now. That doesn't mean that you have to give in to these distractions during your meeting. The first step is asking participants to silence their phones. You might want to take a harder line and ask participants to actually turn off their phones. This may be an unorthodox strategy that may ruffle some feathers, but you'll surely see greater attention, better results, and shorter meeting durations.
Set a stop time
I've been in meetings where the moderator had a squirt gun and sprayed people that went over their allotted time. This may be a tad overzealous, but certainly effective. Simply communicating the stop time and regularly noting the remaining time throughout the meeting is also effective ... and somewhat more socially acceptable. If the Academy Awards can play music to indicate when someone has to stop talking, you could probably do that, too.
Make definitive decisions
Don't promise to "circle back". Don't "put a pin in it" with the intention of returning to a topic. Demand resolution before moving on to the next topic. If you don't, the intent of the meeting is undermined and you'll just have to set another meeting to complete the task. More effective meetings = less meetings!
At the end, immediately recap the meeting for all attendees so that the content is fresh in your mind. Include tasks that need to be followed up on. Identify the personnel responsible for those tasks and provide realistic deadlines for completion.
Prioritize in-person when possible
Without question, face to face meetings are the most productive. The interaction and nonverbal communication from being at the same table is invaluable. Conference calls are sometimes necessary though, and good tips for that are another blog post for another day.
I have some other entertaining meeting stories that don't easily fit into this topic. Like the time that a distracted client had to cut the meeting short because it started to storm and she had left her dogs outside. I don't have a recommendation for thwarting this situation.
In brief, be brief, decisive and action-oriented. You'll accomplish more and people may actually show up for your next meeting without any sense of anticipatory dread. If that doesn't work, try bringing chocolate.