When I hold workshops with my clients, I always start with the question: How much of your time in a typical week is wasted in bad meetings, conference calls or poorly communicated messages? I’ve never had anyone say less than 20%, and I sometimes hear up to 80%. On average, I hear around 50%. That’s a huge problem.
Worse, a bad meeting can be expensive. Think about how much each person in the room gets paid by the hour. When you’ve added that all up, consider the opportunity cost of what the meeting is taking people away from: finalizing the month’s numbers, selling your company’s product, developing the next big innovation. It all adds up.
So how do you create healthy, productive, engaging, cost-effective meetings?
The key is communication — concise, clear, engaging communication. There are a few strategies you can wield as both a leader of meetings and as a participant in them.
When you take charge of a meeting, keep these tactics in mind:
• Respect your attendees’ time. Start on time and end on time ... or even a few minutes early! Leave a break between the end of your meeting and the start of another one. That way, people will be less likely to think of their next meeting during the last few minutes of yours and will have a clearer head as they go into the next gathering. Everyone will appreciate it, and every meeting will be better for it.
• Get to the point. Spend a few minutes before the meeting thinking about your message. What do you want to get across? Make sure you say it directly, clearly and early on. If not everyone in your audience can articulate what the point was, your meeting has been a failure.
• Consider who needs to be there. If it’s not essential for someone to be in attendance, let them off the hook. We all have too many meetings to attend; take one off someone’s to-do list.
• Consider what your audience actually needs to know. For any particular subject, there will always be three areas of information: the entirety of the knowledge you have on the subject, what you need your audience to know and what the audience wants to know. Home in on what you need your audience to know as part of your message. Anticipate the questions that your audience might have in pursuing what they want to know. This will help make your meeting much more efficient, as you’ll waste less time digressing into knowledge that’s not really pertinent to your needs or their wants.
• Set the agenda ahead of time. Giving people a sense of what they are walking into, whether with a bullet-point agenda or handouts of key information. This allows them to come in prepared for a specific discussion. You’ll spend less time laying out the situation and more time delving into the relevant details.
• End with clear action items. What needs to be done, who needs to do it and when does it need to be accomplished? This may be the most crucial step to having a meeting pay off.
How about your role as a participant, rather than a leader? Attendees can help make meetings more productive, too.
• Turn off your cell phone or other devices. Just as you want a speaker to respect your time by starting and ending on time and getting right to the point, you as a listener should eliminate any potential distractions. After all, one of the biggest reasons meetings are a waste of time is that we are all too busy multitasking to pay attention.
• Take notes. Not only does this show the speaker that you are engaged and actively listening, it will help you remember key information later on.
• Ask questions. Remember that third area of information, what an audience wants to know? Make sure you get what you want out of a meeting by asking questions. If you don’t understand something, chances are others were confused too. Just make sure that you are asking a meaningful question, not just filling space.
If your organization’s meetings are feeling stagnant, inefficient and a waste of everyone’s time, it may also be worthwhile to change things up in other ways. Consider these options:
• Change roles. Let someone who is typically a leader step down and someone who typically stays in the background step up. A change in roles will challenge everyone in new ways.
• Change venue or configuration. Do you always meet in the same room? Do you always sit in the same place? Just moving to a new conference room or switching up the seating can make people feel newly energized.
• Include someone new. This could be someone from another team or an outside consultant. A new perspective on a problem can be invaluable. And they might ask the obvious questions that those close to the topic can’t see.
• Pause. If you have challenged yourself, used your active listening and asked questions, try taking a break to let yourself absorb a new perspective. Take the time to really consider what you’ve learned before you charge into the next agenda item.
Meetings are a fact of life. But bad meetings don’t have to be. Think of them as opportunities to wield your skills as a persuasive communicator. Set clear goals, respect your colleagues and embrace new ideas. You’ll be amazed at how powerful and productive gathering together can be.
Dean Brenner, recognized expert in persuasive communication, and is president and founder of The Latimer Group