How to (Actually) Run Exceptionally Successful Meetings

What comes to mind when you think about the meetings you have in your business or organization?

Are they productive, engaging, and helpful?

Or, are they boring, painful, and pointless?

Unfortunately, the answer for many people is the latter. There is plenty of data out there backing up the perspective that meetings are a terrible use of time. For example:

  • Managers spend 35 – 50% of their time in meetings

  • Employees consider half of their time in meetings to be wasted

  • Executives feel 67% of meetings to be failures

The impact of unproductive meetings is considerable. They waste time and resources. They create dread and frustration. They directly affect your ability to get work done.

Bad meeting habits can spread like a virus – moving from one meeting to the next, team to team, and beyond. Here are some signs that your organization may be infected with “meeting-itis”:

  • You always start late and/or drag on well past the stated end time.

  • You finally get to your agenda after 20 minutes of small talk.

  • Everyone is either looking at his or her phones, yawning, staring out the window, or trying to sneak out.

  • One person dominates the conversation while others remain silent.

  • You never get to the point because you’re missing key background information and data.

  • The discussion is halted by failed technology (bad connectivity, dropped calls, broken projector, etc).

  • Participants leave more confused about the meeting topic and next steps than they were before they came in.

  • You and your colleagues jump for joy every time a meeting is canceled.

If you’re experiencing one or more of these symptoms regularly, you need to take action. 

If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’
— Dave Barry

How to Make Your Meetings Great in 15 Steps

You’re going to have a hard time achieving your leadership goals or taking your organization to the next level if you and your colleagues are wasting 5, 10, or more hours each week in bad meetings. At worst, your meetings need to be efficient and productive. At best, you can and should aspire to create meetings that serve as an excellent way to communicate, brainstorm ideas, reach agreements, and work collaboratively.

Many resources suggest how to have better meetings, with a majority of the tips focusing on how to organize the meeting. This, of course, is an important aspect of any meeting which we’ll discuss here. However, just as important is what you need to do within a meeting to make it great.

Following these steps will help you conquer “meeting-itis” and set a foundation for leading productive and energizing meetings that people will look forward to.

Before the Meeting

1. What’s the Point?

When planning a meeting, the best place to start is by asking yourself the following questions: What do I want out of this meeting? Does something specific need to be discussed or decided? What would success look like?

These simple but critical questions will help you define a meaningful objective and reason why the meeting needs to take place. If you can’t come up with at least one or two clear objectives, you probably don’t need to have the meeting.

2. Create an Agenda

Don’t take this step for granted. A simple, well-written agenda sets clear expectations for everyone involved and will help to keep the discussion on track.

Be sure to include specific start/end times, a statement of objective(s), location and other logistical information, key topics, timeframes, and presenters. Send it out to participants in advance so they know what to expect and have time to prepare.

3. Check Your Invite List

Here’s a surefire way to guarantee that a meeting will be pointless – involve the wrong people.

That could mean missing important contributors or having too many people included. If you’ve left someone off that is a critical stakeholder or decision maker, you’re bound to have to have the discussion again. If some attendees don’t need to be involved, they may slow things down and are unlikely to be engaged in the conversation.

Be thoughtful and intentional about deciding whom you ask to come and why.  

4. Consider the Setting

Choose a location for the meeting that gives you the best overall chance of success.

For an in-person meeting, find a room that will be comfortable and appropriate for the topic. Make sure it has proper resources available to support your meeting plan such as wi-fi, computers, whiteboards, flip charts, markers, etc.

If you have to meet virtually, determine if video or a traditional conference call is best. Run a quick test in advance to make sure everything is working.

Hint # 1 – Some organizations get too comfortable using conference calls for important meetings, literally sitting down the hall from each other while meeting on the phone. If you’re dealing with a complex topic or an issue involving conflict and emotion, it is critical to get people into a room together. Not only is it easier to read reactions and facilitate discussion in person than it is over the phone, but participants on conference calls are also often multi-tasking and not giving the meeting their full attention.

5. Pick the Right Duration, Timing, and Frequency

Consider how long the meeting needs to be. Try to plan your meetings for 30 minutes or less. While this may not always be possible, capping your meetings at 30 minutes will force you to stay on point and minimize distractions.

Also, determine the best time to start. Are you more likely to get engagement first thing in the morning or later in the day? Are you working across time zones?

Finally, for recurring meetings, pick a reasonable frequency that makes the most sense for everyone involved. In some cases, that means daily. In others, it means weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc. Look for opportunities to keep the frequency down by using technology and virtual methods to communicate and share information between meetings.

Hint #2 – Beware of typical “status check-in meetings.” These are meetings with one-way communication or updates that are only relevant to a subset of participants. These meetings are bound to be tedious and wasteful.

A good meeting should be collaborative, not just informational. If you are looking to push or gather necessary information, consider scheduling smaller, quicker briefings or using other channels to share updates.

By working through these five steps, you’ll have laid the foundation for a great meeting. However, you haven’t made it to the finish line yet.

You need to lead your meeting effectively by staying focused on the goal, following your rules, getting everyone involved, and agreeing to what comes next. These next ten steps will help you achieve this.

During the Meeting

6. Who’s in Charge?

Be clear about who is leading the meeting. If you called the meeting, be prepared to chair it. If you’re not in a position to lead, identify the right person and be specific in asking them to run it.

The lead needs to be responsible for watching the agenda and clock, moving the group forward, calling out any bad behaviors, and keeping things on track. A meeting with no leader has a high chance of falling apart.

7. Set Ground Rules

From the start, especially if you are bringing a group of people together for the first time, set expectations for the meeting’s “rules of behavior.” This includes norms on how the team starts and communicates, whether phones/laptops are allowed, and what happens when participants are late or leave early.

If you’re gearing up for a long meeting, ask the group to offer suggestions to the rules. Write the rules down and post them where everyone can see them. If you’re looking to build better meeting habits within an organization, you may need to repeat this step several times to get the message out and set expectations.

8. Set a Standard by Starting and Ending on Time

Bad habits on meeting timeliness are hard to break. It’s easy to slip into a pattern of “sorry I’m late but…” The best place to address this is with yourself by setting a standard regarding timeliness.

Start the meeting exactly on time, even if some of the participants are late. Don’t feel like you have to start over or provide a re-cap every time someone joins. If you’re having a hard time getting people to follow along, consider what incentives/penalties you can put in place. People will notice and get the message.

End the meeting exactly when you planned, even if it means that you can’t cover all of the topics or have to convene again later to finish. Look for opportunities to follow-up on open items outside of the group discussion.

Hint #3 – As a leader, the number one success factor for having great meetings is by personally demonstrating your stated standards on preparation and timeliness. You can have all of the rules in the world, but no one will take them seriously if you’re the one with bad meeting habits. This same concept applies even if you are not the official leader or meeting owner. Be consistent and disciplined in following the rules. Lead by example.

9. Get Everyone Involved

As noted earlier, great meetings are not about one-way communication. That’s what announcements, speeches, and emails are for.

It’s your responsibility to ensure that everyone in the meeting is involved and participating. Pay attention to what is happening around you and the body language in the room. Are the participants listening or are they checked-out? Is one person dominating the discussion? Do you see that someone is withholding an opinion?

In all of these cases, you need to take steps to speak up and address these behaviors. You can share what you are observing without being confrontational. For example, “John, you seem distracted, what is going on?” or “Jane, we’ve heard your opinion on the matter, I’d like to hear what Sally has to say” or “Mike, I sense that you have something you’d like to add” are all effective statements.

This step is a little trickier with a virtual meeting, but you can still pay attention to the dynamics of the discussion and address them to keep everyone pulling together in the same direction.

10. Lead with Questions

Another way to keep everyone involved and engaged is to facilitate discussion by asking Powerful Questions. If you’re leading the meeting, don’t feel like you must have all of the answers ready in advance (in fact, if you do, there’s no need to meet).

Posing effective questions establishes active dialogue and gives members of the group an opportunity to provide their input and perspective. Check out our post on how to construct and use Powerful Questions for specific guidance on how to accomplish this.

11. Take Frequent Breaks

Even if you’ve got a great meeting going, people can only focus for so long. Everyone has a finite amount of brain power he or she can give before they become tired. Once tired, your participants are more likely to get bored and distracted.

A hungry group is also one that will have a hard time concentrating. Plan in breaks and add in others ad hoc when you observe that the group is fading. Give them just enough time to grab a snack, use the restroom, or quickly check email. Be sure to start back up promptly.

12. Have a Parking Lot

Inevitably, topics and questions that are important but not directly relevant to the objective of the meeting at hand are going to come up. You don’t want to lose those thoughts, but you also don’t want to go down a path that will lead you away from the meeting purpose.

Have a process for capturing these and tabling them for a future discussion. You’ll need to be disciplined in addressing these if you want others to trust that you’ll follow-up.

13. Take Good Notes

There is nothing worse than having a great discussion only to realize that no one captured what was said. Taking notes sounds trivial, but it’s a vital step in meetings where participants are sharing ideas or making decisions. In addition to providing a helpful reference, it lets everyone know that someone is bothering to record what he or she shared.

The level and detail of notes should be relative to the complexity of the meeting. Sometimes you may need to capture very specific comments while in other cases a few quick bullet points summarizing the discussion will suffice.

If you can’t take them yourself, ask someone else to do it. There are fewer excuses to mess this up now that recording technology is readily available. Have a simple and consistent format and process for the notes that makes them useful and accessible for anyone who might review them.

14. Agree to Action

Go back and reflect on the objective of the meeting. In almost all cases, there is some outcome that should be produced as a result of the meeting.

It could be a plan, a list of ideas, feedback, or a specific agreement. In all of these cases, the question is, what comes next? What actions are the group agreeing to? What specifically needs to happen, who owns it, and by when will it be done?

Even if a meeting is interesting and engaging, it is by definition pointless if nothing comes out of it.    

15. Take a Long View

You might be thinking to yourself, running through all of these steps doesn’t sound very fun. And truthfully, if you’re taking on a team or organization where bad meetings are the norm, instituting these steps to great meetings may not be fun at first.

It might feel like you’re putting more time and effort into meetings than you ever were before. That’s ok because the energy you are investing will pay off in the long run.

Leaders don’t look for quick fixes and aren’t afraid of driving change when the organization stands to benefit. Once people see how much better meetings can be and how much time can be saved, you’ll reach a tipping point where good habits take over the bad.

At that point, meetings become fun. The value of having great meetings will be very real and you and your staff will embrace the planning and discipline that it takes to keep them going.

Share Your Experiences

Use the comments below to share your experiences with bad meetings and how they have impacted you and your teams or businesses. Let us know where you’ve used these steps to make improvements or where you’ve struggled to change to a great meeting culture.