by Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis

Originally published in Settlement Services Today

There are three kinds of meetings that most of us will conduct: those with clients, those with staff and those with partners or associates. These meetings can either be an expensive exercise in frustration or highly productive.

If you follow a few basic guidelines for preparing and leading a meeting, you will have a better chance at creating something that is beneficial rather than boring.

1. Plan Ahead

A little planning can go a long way. First, consider who should attend: who are the key players and do they need to attend the entire meeting or can they come just to give a report or listen to a presentation? Invite only those people who really need to be there, for only the time they need to be there.

Next, determine how long the meeting should take and set a specific time limit. Consider how long each agenda item should take to discuss. Know that the discussion period lengthens for each person who attends. If you intend to make financial decisions, think about the hourly rate of each attendee. Do not hold a $600 meeting to make a $400 decision.

2. Set an Agenda

One of the easiest ways to ensure a productive meeting is to create an agenda beforehand and circulate it to the attendees at least two days prior to the meeting. The agenda should include: attendee names; date, time and location of the meeting; and the type of meeting it is—informational, brainstorming, decision-making, etc.

It should also include specific objectives for the meeting. State clearly and in one sentence what you would like to accomplish and how the meeting’s success will be measured.

Finally, the agenda should list the topics that will be discussed complete with a time limit that is proportional to their value. List the items in order of their priority so the least important one not only has the least amount of time, but is also positioned at the end of the meeting when people are more likely to be distracted, impatient or tired.

3. Controlling the Meeting

Conflicts and other interruptions can keep you from accomplishing the meeting objectives. Make sure the environment is free from distractions and that seating arrangements support the purpose of the meeting. If there will be a lot of discussion, everyone should be able to see and hear each other.

Some common problems:

  • Messages and Distractions. Whenever possible, arrange the room so that people enter from the back. If the meeting will go on for hours, have an agreement about how messages will be handled. You may decide to have frequent breaks to pick up messages.
  • Late-comers. If key players have reports to deliver to the group, schedule their presentations early in the agenda. This will encourage them to come on time.
  • Arguments and Negativity. When you can regain control of the meeting, summarize the different points of view and validate others’ feelings. Bring items to a vote or table them for another meeting. Stress the importance of suspending judgement until all ideas and strategies have been considered. Ask for positive suggestions.
  • Low energy. Get people involved by brainstorming, asking for feedback or calling them by name. Have a break to stretch or pick up messages.
  • Talkers and Tangents. Don’t let one person monopolize the discussion. Break in and summarize the person’s points briefly and ask for others’ opinions. Ask leading questions referring to the meeting’s objectives or suggest that new items be discussed at the end of the meeting if there is time.

4. Close It

After several hours of discussion it’s easy to forget earlier decisions and assignments. Before ending a meeting, remind the participants of the original objectives and compare them to what actually happened.

Summarize the main points of the meeting as well as any tasks that were assigned and who will be accomplishing them. If appropriate, ask each attendee to name one thing they learned, commit to a task or an action, or give a comment to summarize the meeting.

Identify items that were left unfinished during the meeting for the next agenda. Then tell participants how much you appreciate their involvement.

Properly conducted meetings can be beneficial and productive for your clients and staff. Take the brief self-assessment survey to determine how well you manage meetings.

5. How Well Do You Manage Meetings?

Answer each item with the most representative answer: Often, Sometimes or Seldom.

  • For company meetings I send meeting announcements and agendas to participants well in advance.
  • Prior to any meeting I conduct, I arrange for appropriate meeting space.
  • I have materials prepared for meetings well in advance.
  • I ask participants to confirm their attendance prior to the meeting.
  • Whenever possible I ask participants to do something specific to prepare for the meeting, such as reading a report to bring ideas to the meeting.
  • I will cancel a meeting if key players are not available.
  • I use visual aids such as flip charts, white boards and Power Point presentations when appropriate.
  • I summarize key outcomes, decisions and assignments after the meeting and distribute the summary promptly.

If you answered “seldom” to more than three of the above questions you are probably not conducting effective meetings and should pay particular attention to correcting these areas.

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