In this episode of PM Lift we are going to be looking at how to make meetings work well. Meetings can be valuable and best way to communicate, but they are expensive.

Have you calculated the cost of meetings… all the meetings you organise or attend on any given day?  Harvard Business Review has a simple and effective cost calculator that helps to highlight the financial cost of meeting attendees time.  Meeting Cost Calculator.  I would encourage you to take a look, as it can be quite eye-opening.  How much justification do you need to provide to spend a couple of thousand dollars, pounds or euros on a physical purchase, such as computer software or office equipment?  Yet frequently we squander an equivalent amount on a daily basis in meetings often without any justification.

Today we are going to look at two different perspectives to making meetings more effective.  The first is looking at those meetings we organise and run, how can we make these better.  The second perspective is how can we improve meetings we attend.

For meetings that we organise there are lots of things that we can do to improve the experience and value for our attendees and ourselves. 

Organising Meetings

Let’s start by looking at what we can do when setting up the meeting.  This doesn’t need to take a long time, maybe just 2 or 3 minutes and will result in a much more beneficial outcome than simply dashing off a vague meeting invite via Outlook.

1 – Ensure that there is a clear purpose for the meeting.  Be really clear in your own mind what result you want from the meeting.  Then reflect on whether this is really the best method of achieving the result.  Would an email be more appropriate for example?  This may well be the case when delivering a status update that is not going to lead to any discussion, debate or problem-solving.

Take just a few minutes before sending the meeting invite to think about and then write down a clear succinct purpose for the meeting.  Include this in the meeting invite to help ensure everyone is clear on why the meeting is important to the group.  But don’t send that meeting invite just yet, next take a couple more minutes to define the Outcomes expected from the meeting, these  are the concrete goals of what needs to be done during the meeting, finally define the process for the meeting, that is, how the meeting is going to be structured, any decision making steps or inputs that need to be gathered and any logistics that attendees need to be aware of.

2 – The duration and size of the attendee list will largely be driven by the purpose of the meeting.

    – If the focus is on sharing information then communication in mainly one-way.  These “tell” meetings ensure everyone receives the same information at the same time, for example, town halls.  In this case then the more people the better, just keep the duration to as short as possible 60-90 minutes

    – Progress updates could include up to 15 people – everyone comes to report on their bit of work.  Focus here is getting straight down to business and being very factual and succinct.  Focus on progress, charts, reports etcetera.  Aim for 30 to 60 minutes.

    – Daily or weekly team meetings should be short, fun and informal focused on sharing key pieces of news or big things that arise.  The duration will depend on the frequency of such meetings, ideally 15 minutes but certainly less than an hour.

    – Problem-solving meeting – can be anything from a half-day to multiple days and typically involve a small group working collaboratively and creatively to create a something new.  That could be an organisation strategy, training program or technical product.

    – Think about who really needs to be included in the meeting.  Avoid inviting a cast of thousands to the call, not only is the cost of people’s time increased but so too is the complexity of communication and the likelihood that attendees attention may drift onto other activities.

3 – Send an Agenda – having thought through the Purpose, Outcomes and Process of the meeting.  Use these as the basis for the Agenda and ideally include it in the meeting invite or at the very least, and depending on the amount of pre-work attendees need to undertake, a few days to a few weeks before the meeting is due to take place. 

Having a clear purpose, agenda and outcomes for the meeting helps attendees to understand the expectations, work they need to do to prepare and even whether their attendance is required.  Whilst this may make you concerned that your attendees will all decline, it gives you a number of important benefits.  It’s better to have people decline than to be on the call or in the meeting room whilst they work on something else.  If it gets really bad and you have a lot of people declining, then investigate why, seek input from attendees on improving the agenda or suggesting better timing for the meeting.

When running the meeting be sure to respect other people’s time by starting and finishing on time,  and don’t backtrack over topics already discussed just for the benefit of latecomers.    Aim to finish a few minutes early to allow attendees to get to their next meeting.  They will appreciate it, as will the organiser of their next meeting.

Afterwards be sure to share a summary of the discussion and most importantly have clear next steps and actions you and others need to take an by when.  Ensure that every follow up has a What, Who and When communicate this clearly and then ensure you follow up on these actions after the meeting. 

Remember the value of a meeting comes from what we do as a result of the meeting, and not from simply the act of having the meeting.

Virtual Attendees

Staying engaged in video conferencing is more difficult than in traditional meetings because there are more distractions right in front of us. It’s not just about self-discipline, our brains will happily hijack our best efforts when we get bored so it’s important we do everything we can pre-empt this.

    – Close open application (don’t just minimise them) so that you can focus on the content being shared on the virtual meeting whether that’s a PowerPoint slide or a video of the current speaker.

    – Shutting down applications also helps reduce the amount of network bandwidth your computer will be trying to use during the meeting, this is especially helpful for those on slower connections

– Turn off notifications that might pop up from the Skype, Outlook or other installed applications that could distract you

    – If you often reach for your phone in times of boredom then make it less accessible.  Place it in your desk your bag or somewhere, anywhere, less accessible than next to your computer.  Oh and turn off notifications for all but essential contacts such as your partner or your kid’s school or nursery.

It’s also important to join the call early to allow for any technical issues that could occur.  This is important even if you use the platform regularly.

If the platform is new then ensure you test it well in advance of the meeting to allow additional virtual meeting software to be downloaded and installed, camera and microphones configured and tested etcetera.

Make sure you have all materials on hand so that they are easy to find.  Obvious this includes the PowerPoint slide or material you plan to present.  However, it also includes other resources you may need to answer questions or provide additional details if attendees ask for it.  Make sure you also have a glass of water to hand.

Web cameras are a great way of helping to improve engagement and connection during virtual meetings.  In order to give the illusion of looking at the person you’re speaking to, move the camera and screen as close together as possible.  Having the camera in a different location to the screen can result in the disconcerting image of having the person speaking appear to be looking off into space when they are in fact looking at their screen.  This affects engagement and makes it look like the person speaking is distant or distracted.  It is as uncomfortable to those listening and watching as if you were face to face with the person you’re talking to whilst looking over their shoulder and not into their eyes.

Also, frame the camera so that your head is at the top (and not the centre) of the screen to make the best use of the available frame.

When dealing with multiple attendees and especially when some attendees are in the same meeting room whilst others are joining remotely it is important to ensure everyone feels included and listened too.  Make an effort to ask questions of all meeting participants.  Do this by addressing individuals by name when raising questions.  So, rather than saying “How did the network outage impact the Marketing department?” rephrase it to “James, how did the network outage impact your Marketing department?”  This will make it clear who you are looking for input from and will also help to bring James back into the meeting if he has allowed himself to become distracted.

Unless you really don’t like sitting in the same room as your colleagues, virtual meetings usually occur because people are working in different locations, and often across different time zones.  Be mindful of this and if appropriate change the meeting time from one meeting to the next so that it’s not always the same people who have to join at 5am or 11pm local time. 

Attending Meetings

During the meeting, whether you’re the meeting leader or an attendee be sure you have a list of points you want to cover, and questions you want to ask, ready and to hand before the meeting starts.

If there are topics that could be met with resistance, then enlist some allies before the meeting.  Speak with those likely to share your point of view or buy into the idea being presented and ask them to help support the item during the meeting.

Present ideas as confidently as you can.  Not everyone is comfortable speaking in meetings and it doesn’t matter if some of that nervousness comes across when raising your points of view or asking questions.   Don’t worry too much about the ums and errs initially, it’s more important to put your point forward. Overcoming anxieties about speaking up during meetings isn’t something that can be overcome immediately but there are some things that you can do to help yourself and help your ideas get a fairer hearing.  One of the most important is not to raise suggestions and ideas in an apologetic way.  In short, don’t preface ideas with phrases such as “you may already have thought of this” or “this may be a silly idea but…”

Don’t be afraid of silence, after asking a question other attendees may need a few seconds to process their thoughts and respond.  These few seconds tend to feel like several painful minutes and as a result, we often continue to talk.  Don’t simply ask your question and pause, give people sufficient time in silence and then after the silence has felt awkward for quite a while ask a follow-up question, then again remain silent.  More often than not someone else will find the silence too much and will break in with a response, a follow-up question or their thoughts long before you get to ask your follow up question.  This will feel uncomfortable to start with, that’s ok.

If someone interrupts you then practice politely but confidently interrupting the interrupter and taking back the floor by practicing using phrases such as “thank you for reinforcing the point I was making”, “I’m glad you agree, I suggest we do “this” as a next step” or more simply “I’m not done, please let me finish.” said in a firm but friendly tone.

If you notice that others are being interrupted then help support them by using phrases like “I’m glad you agree with the point Susan just made.  Susan could you tell us more about the next steps you started to explain?”.

If you’re running a virtual meeting then be sure to have something to share onscreen.  Even if this is just the Agenda for the session.  This will help keep attendees focused and remind them of the reason they are in the meeting.  It will also reduce the chance of them being distracted by other applications on their computer screen.

Distraction is far more common in virtual meetings but does still happen in face to face meetings as well.  The plethora of opportunities that now exist on our phones and laptops makes it increasingly difficult to remain focused on the task, or meeting, at hand.  There are some things that you can do to reduce the risk of you being distracted such as putting phones to silent, closing all applications on your computer except those required for the meeting, Email applications like Outlook and your favourite web browser should certainly be closed. It is also a good idea to disable notifications from email, skype or any other messaging services.

If you really need to be checking and responding to emails during the meeting then you shouldn’t be there.  You are setting a bad impression of your own time management and showing disrespect for other people’s time.  You may think you’re able to multi-task but are in fact task switching and doing neither job as effectively as you could.  Instead either ask for the meeting to be rescheduled, delegate the meeting attendance to someone who can engage effectively or leave your email until later.

Similarly eating during conference calls or meetings (unless food and snacks are provided in the meeting) shows up as being unable to manage your schedule effectively and depending on what you’re eating can be at best distracting to other attendees or in the case of noisy or smelly foods can be downright unpleasant. The effects on virtual meetings rather than being reduced can be amplified, ok so the smell of your tuna pasta won’t be noticed by other attendees but the image of you chewing on camera along with the amplified sounds from your microphone will certainly be noticed by fellow attendees and really won’t be appreciated.

If you’re finding it hard to fit everything into your workday then Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work has guidance on how to protect your own time so that you can show up engaged.  For example, only accepting meeting invites that you need to and where you will either contribute or gain something of value.  Suggesting alternative times for meetings and blocking time in your calendar to ensure you have time to do work outside of meetings.  Don’t be afraid to decline a meeting invite or ask for it to be rescheduled

Here are some tips to consider next time you’re organising a meeting:

    1. Stop and think… Do we really need a meeting

    2. Only invite those that really need to contribute

    3. Tell everyone what is expected from them before & during the meeting – share an Agenda ahead of the meeting

    4. Prepare – share any pre-reads at least 24 hours before the meeting

    5. Start and finish on-time

    6. Ensure active engagement and not one-way comms

    7. Always have something on the screen to show your audience, especially if it’s a virtual meeting

    8. Protect your own time

In Summary

    – Meetings can be valuable and are one of the best ways to communicate.  However they are expensive so learning to contribute to, and run meeting effectively is an extremely valuable skill. 

    – Ensure meetings are only held where appropriate.  Select the best form of communication, based on the purpose and desired outcomes.

    – Only invite people to meetings that truly need to be there.  This helps ensure that you don’t waste people’s time and having a smaller more focused group can lead to a better and more productive meeting.

    – Give attendees clear instructions prior to the meeting about its purpose, agenda, require outcomes and any preparatory work they need to do before attending

    – During the meeting keep everyone focused

    – We won’t automatically get all meeting attendees in our organisations to change their meeting behaviour.  However, what we can do is to model the behaviours we want to see.  Over time they will follow and introduce their own improved behaviours that we too may benefit from

Categories: Episodes


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