Be a Meeting Hero: A 5-Step Plan

We've all been there, in meetings for which the purpose is unknown or wildly flouted, meetings that run over time, that have no outcomes except to generate more meetings. In fact, there's a good chance that you are in such a meeting now, reading this post and vaguely aware of some droning and e-mailing and IM'ing around you. (Please tell me you aren't!)

While I can't guarantee that running great meetings will get you promoted, you can learn to use meetings to communicate more efficiently, get things done, save people time, and do your job better. A little effort is all it takes to be a meeting hero, revered by all.

Well-run meetings have five things in common: purpose, preparation, structure, facilitation, and follow-up. Once you've figured out and articulated the first, the rest should fall easily into place.

1. State the meeting purpose(s) so you can be intentional about everything else.

Knowing why you're having a meeting, even one you've run dozens of times before, helps you decide whom to invite, how to prepare, what to discuss, and how to facilitate.

Some meetings might require a bit of thought to determine and articulate purpose. I like to think of meetings as active sessions in which participants learn, decide, or create—or sometimes do a mix of all three. As an example, my team facilitates a monthly conference committee videoconference meeting. At any given meeting, we might provide information to the committee, such as details about venues or finances. I categorize that as a learning activity. Or the committee might need to make a collective decision about the ranking of keynote sessions. Or we might design new conference activities or opportunities, creating something new together. No matter the goals, my team makes sure the committee knows what they are when the meeting begins.

Certain regular meetings have set goals. For instance, a standing 1:1 meeting with a direct report is primarily a learning meeting. It helps the manager understand how well an employee is doing a job and where there might be obstacles to success. It also provides an opportunity for a supervisor to delegate and to provide feedback. Excellent resources on 1:1 meetings with direct reports can be found at the Manager Tools website.

2. Be prepared.

Create an agenda. Please.

Our conference committee gets an agenda in the same format every month, two days before the meeting. The agenda includes all scheduling and venue information (including dial-in and videoconference information), a list of the invitees, the topics, who's responsible for each topic, and how long we've allotted for each one. It also includes key decisions and action items from the previous meeting and space to list the same for the current one.

This sounds like a lot of work upfront, but it might take all of fifteen minutes in advance to pull the agenda together and another five for reviewing and editing it. The best part about the agenda: it also does duty as a tool for facilitation (step #4) and follow-up (step #5).

Sometimes you need to run a meeting with a capital "M." The Meeting might be highly political or have the potential for conflict. You might have a resident curmudgeon who is known for taking the agenda clear off the rails. In these cases, it can be helpful to pre-wire the meeting. To do so, you call people who will be attending to ensure a shared understanding of the meeting purpose, to give fair warning of information that might come as a surprise to someone, to provide background or context for the meeting, or even to help move the meeting toward its goal. Pre-wiring takes time, but it is time well spent. Pre-wiring can help a meeting reach its intended purposes and build stronger connections between participants. Getting some of the nitty-gritty out of the way ahead of time can open time and space for richer discussion and work during the meeting.  

3. Give your participants the gift of structure.

That agenda I talked about earlier? Use it to craft a meeting with flow, with a discernable beginning, middle, and end. For most of my meetings, introductions and updates come at the beginning. Go easy on the updates—keep them short and sweet. Longer updates, if they are noncontentious, can be saved for an e-mail or a newsletter. On the other hand, you should take all the time you need with contentious updates.

Deciding and creating are great activities for the middle part of the meeting. To prevent flagging attention, I try to change topics or ask direct questions to ensure full participation during the traditional one-hour meeting, much like an expert teacher might. (See the 10 Minute Rule.) I wrap up our meetings with a review of key decisions and action items. I do my best to end meetings early, to avoid the meeting death knell of people leaving to get to their next appointment.

4. Use facilitation as chiropractic for your meeting.

To get the most out of meetings as efficiently as possible, I rely on a few proven facilitation tools: a parking lot, presence, and gentle realignment.

First, make good use of a parking lot, a place to "park" ideas that are beyond the scope of the meeting. Putting an idea or item in the parking lot acknowledges a contribution without getting unnecessarily bogged down by it. A parking lot can be a big sticky note on the wall or a section of a white board or a list in a shared, virtual document. Decide and communicate how you'll handle ideas that make it to the parking lot. For instance, will you return to them at a subsequent meeting or via e-mail? Will they be assigned as homework?

Second, excellent meeting facilitation (and, I'd argue, participation) requires presence, a state of being fully aware, attuned to the words and emotions of the moment. While it sounds simple, presence can be wickedly difficult to attain, let alone sustain during a meeting. It's all too easy to let thoughts churn over something someone said (past thinking) or to listen only for pauses so that you can jump in with your most excellent idea (future thinking). Being present means giving all participants (an appropriate amount of) time to express ideas, listening closely, and waiting until they have stopped talking to formulate and give your response. To do otherwise means to miss their ideas. Over time, you can develop the habit of presence by noticing when you're engaged in past or future thinking and then bringing yourself back to the present. If you do this enough, it will become second nature.

To encourage presence, I prefer device-free meetings. We have all been in too many meetings where self-professed expert multitaskers keep their eyes on their laptop or phone screens. We know that effective multitasking is a myth, but our behavior doesn't reflect that knowledge. Still, in the age of videoconferencing, it's not always possible to be device-free, so it's the job of the meeting facilitator to keep the conversation lively and goal-oriented and to set expectations about devices and presence.

I have attempted to avoid my own device-based multitasking in some meetings by knitting. Although some frowned upon this as inappropriate, I have been vindicated: some types of knitting and doodling are considered cognitive anchors that help focus attention.

Sometimes when you're facilitating a meeting, someone may be off the mark with the length or the content or the emotion of his/her contributions. A good facilitator will intervene. Unfortunately, we've often not been trained on how to intervene gently, effectively, and sincerely. I have learned to get a meeting back on track using simple phrases and tactics. I begin with gratitude and acknowledgment, which is as easy as saying: "Thank you. I appreciate your saying that," or "Thank you. I hadn't thought of that before." I then realign the conversation to allow others to participate or to get back to the meeting goal. Phrases like the following have worked for me:

  • "Let's hear from Madison or Jesse."
  • "I wish we had more time to follow that train of thought now, but we have to accomplish X in the next few minutes <point to agenda for emphasis>. I'll put that in the parking lot for now, and we'll decide at the end of this meeting how to address it."
  • "You're a good problem solver. Let's get to our task of listing business requirements now, and we'll schedule time later to brainstorm solutions."
  • "You're good with words. Can you help me after the meeting to wordsmith this policy?"
  • "I can see you are passionate about this subject. Let's take a five-minute break to process some of the emotions around this topic and return when we can be more measured."

5. Wrap it up and put a bow on it.

You're almost there! You stated the meeting purpose. You prepared your participants for the meeting. You structured and facilitated: navigating decisions and contentious discussions, appropriately stowing devices, and keeping the conversation pointed and productive. Now it's time to bring it home by formally closing the meeting and providing follow-up.

If you've used your agenda for note taking, you'll be able to quickly confirm key decisions and action items. Next, decide about ideas in the parking lot. Assign homework. Confirm the date, time, and location of the next meeting. Thank participants for their time and praise them for their contributions. If you want to be hailed as a true meeting hero, end the meeting early. And you can do this with ease. Meetings fill up the time allotted, no matter how short or long. So begin your meeting with a private goal of making it shorter by even just a few minutes and you will. By giving the gift of time, you will win the admiration and gratitude of all. And as soon as possible after you've adjourned the meeting, send or post the updated agenda as a follow-up document. You're now among the ranks of the great!

The big secret: Meetings that use these principles needn't be dull. In fact, meetings I run tend to be filled with laughter and some downright giddy moments. That's possible because we efficiently achieve the meeting goals and then have time and energy to let ‘er rip.

My questions for you: What are your meeting bugaboos, and what are you going to do to debug them?


Deborah Keyek-Franssen (deblkf@cu.edu) is Associate Vice President for Digital Education and Engagement at the University of Colorado System Office.

© 2016 Deborah Keyek-Franssen. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.