21 Tips for Better Meetings in 2021
You’ve heard the term “death by a thousand cuts”? It’s adapted from the Chinese term lingchi representing an ancient form of slow torture too graphic this article. But, it’s relevant. Chronic meeting overload is exacerbating stress and frustration levels; it’s the 21st century’s lingchi. And it’s killing our productivity, think time, and employee morale.
I get asked a lot about how to better manage meetings. These 21 tips will help make your meetings in 2021 more productive and valuable, so you can put your time and energy where it matters most. Let's connect to make your meetings better.
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Evaluate your meetings
Reflect your role in your calendar. Ruthlessly evaluate your schedule – are you spending time where you should? If you have three desired outcomes this month, does your calendar reflect them as priorities? Also consider your role - are you in a decision-making position? If yes (and it’s always yes), are your meetings utilized to help make decisions? If not, take control of your calendar and focus your time where it matters.
Resolve to have a meeting’s purpose be for dialogue. Meetings are an effective tool to brainstorm, evaluate options, or make a decision. Not everything deserves a meeting. Presenting your research report? Call it a presentation. Just need to share information? That better be a status meeting or a Town Hall, otherwise find another channel – email, Slack, video messages, chat, or maybe even a phone call.
Review your standing meetings. How can you make them more valuable? Can any be combined? Ask why you have a standing meeting – if the answer is ‘because we’ve always done it this way’, then rethink it, NOW. First principle that meeting… If you were starting from scratch how could you achieve your objectives, sans meeting?
Plan for better meetings
Invite pure participants only. Some invitees will add value to the conversation, some are there to buy-in and support future decisions, some are there because they just “need to be there” … why? Only invite those who will help achieve your meeting objectives; anyone else deserves your respect with the absence of an invite. This one is easy to say, but difficult to execute as it requires a mindset shift, from thinking: “I don’t want to hurt So and So’s feelings by not inviting them.” To: “I’m respecting my colleagues’ valuable time by not inviting them.” Get others on board with this approach and you’ll instantly create capacity for your organization.
Give the 5-minute sandwich buffer. Book meetings to start five minutes past the hour and end five minutes before the top of the hour. That collective 10 minutes can be a gift; it will give people time to caffeinate, stretch, or crash prepare. If all meetings are booked this way, you’ll create a movement of efficiency.
Do a pre-mortem for critical meetings. The pre-mortem is my favourite tool for scenario planning. And it works well in preparing for a big meeting. As part of your preparation, put yourself in your future shoes – the meeting is over and everything that could go wrong did. Work backwards to determine what lead to those failures, then put safeguards in place to prevent them. Changing your frame of reference prepares you in way that gives you confidence to manage any number of situations.
Share pre-reads to accelerate discussions. Want to level-set participants’ knowledge base for informed discussions? Pre-reads are a wonderful tool when used effectively. Keep them brief and share relevant context and information that will mitigate bias in the room. Provide pre-reads in advance so that people can review when it’s best for them. A client told me recently they had a 120-page pre-read – and that was the norm! Too many pages set you up for downstream failure because you aren’t isolating the most important information. (If that’s the case, check out Amazon’s 6-page memos to help ground your information sharing.)
Create an agenda. Investing time in an agenda is a gift to you and your colleagues’ future selves. IF YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO PREPARE AN AGENDA, DON’T BOOK THE MEETING. (Yes, I’m yelling!). Include the meeting objective(s), context to be shared, issues to progress or decisions to be made, and desired actions. I recently worked with a team to institute this simple rule: Every meeting invite includes an agenda; without one, you have permission to decline the invite. A simple rule and a disciplined behaviour shift resulted in improved productivity.
Start your meeting with focused energy
Set the pace and the ground rules. If you’re the host, embody the role of facilitator. You set the tone and energy for the meeting. Start by stating the objective of the meeting and advise attendees of their role – are they there to contribute ideas, challenge ideas, align on a decision? Then move onto the ground rules. My favourites: Listen to understand; No interrupting; No “yea, but…”, rather use “Yes, and let me build on that…”; (If virtual) Cameras on please; Use chat for questions or builds.
State clear roles and responsibilities. Who will take notes during the meeting? Who will be accountable for following through on action items? Make this clear at the start of the meeting.
Use icebreakers. Especially now, when most desk work is virtual, it’s easy for people to multitask through a meeting. Icebreakers are effective at bringing people’s attention and focus into the meeting. And they help colleagues get to know each other a bit better. There are two types of ice breakers I use: 1. “Begin with a smile” (My favourite right now is “What’s the place you’re most looking forward to travelling to after pandemic restrictions lift.”) and 2. “Connect with purpose”. A few years ago, I facilitated a meeting with leaders from 12 different post-secondary institutions on a controversial topic where there was known dissent coming in the door. The icebreaker I used was “Why is this initiative personally important to you?”. Responses instantly dissolved the tension, grounded us in our purpose, and led to an immensely productive time together.
Keep it engaging
Use interactive tools. If presentations are part of the meeting, the general rule of thumb is that content delivery from one person should be less than 20 minutes. If more time is required, build in engagement activities at least every 15 minutes. This can be done with discussion questions or interactive tools like mentimeter.
Limit interrupters. “Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply” is fabulous advice from Stephen Covey. Encourage your colleagues to do the same. I get asked a lot how to minimize interruptions in meetings. It begins with setting the tone of the meeting (See #9 above). I also find it highly effective to advise participants that women are far more likely to be interrupted than men; that generally stops interrupters in their tracks.
Watch body language. Body language is a strong form of communication – even if you’re not the one talking. In a recent facilitation (all properly socially distanced), I learned participants had only found out about the session the day before. They came in grumpy and their body language showed it; Arms crossed, and furrowed brows brewed skepticism. That body language spoke louder than words could. I called out the elephant in the room, we talked about it, learned from it, and moved on. The biggest complaint I hear about virtual meetings is missing body language cues; ask people to turn on cameras, and watch shoulder position and their eyes to see if they’re engaged.
Be present – as a host
or a participant
Focus on the speaker. It’s difficult to focus in a discussion as our brains can process 400 words per minute, yet we speak at about 125 words per minute (in English). That leaves our brains lots of time to fill with distractions. Working remotely is even more difficult with our second screens, open files, and kids interrupting. Resist multi-tasking during meetings and choose to be present, engaged, and focused on what people are saying. Practice those active listening skills!
Discuss only relevant context. Ever been in a meeting where people over share? Your attention drifts off. How about when they under share? You’re lost or are missing key details. Thoughtfully calibrate your messages to your audience; the CEO’s needs are different than that of staff. If you’re attending a meeting, consider what you need to know – what context or questions will ensure your contributions are valuable?
Wrap up & Follow up effectively
Wrap up the meeting with a summary. Share with the group the key conclusions, agreements, next steps and corresponding accountabilities you’ve captured though the meeting. Ensure that everyone agrees with your summary and welcome any edits or builds.
Close with personal reflections. My favourite question to ask in a closing roundtable is “what’s your key takeaway from the meeting?”. This is a great way to see what was most important to attendees. When time is limited, my go-to closing is for participants to “share a single word or phrase with how they are feeling as a result of the conversation”. This works well in person and virtually. In virtual environments have participants use the chat function for their responses.
Follow-up decisions and action items. A quick note to attendees synthesizing decisions, conclusions, next steps with owners and timelines will ensure everyone has the same notes to reflect back upon. If a colleague didn’t attend but needs to be informed, this is a good time to share information with them.
Reflect daily on your meetings. If you have those magical five minutes between meetings (see tip #6), note what went well and not so well in your last meeting. How was the energy, engagement, and achievement of objectives? What could have been done better? Spend 10 minutes at the end of your day reviewing what you want to improve upon in tomorrow’s meetings. Reflection is a great way to change behaviours and continuously improve.
Ask for feedback. Everyone has a unique perspective about how a meeting went. Asking for input on what went well or what could be done differently to make it better next time is a great way to continuously improve your meetings.
If you’re feeling completely overwhelmed by your calendar full of meetings, look to understand the root causes of meeting madness versus just treating the symptoms.
Let’s connect to make your meetings more effective, efficient, and engaging!