The Art of Organising a Good Meeting

Meetings – you either love them or you hate them.  But you can’t avoid them – they are an integral part of today’s business world.  

Have you ever been invited to a meeting, and already within a few minutes you realise that this is not the most productive use of your time? There seems to be no structure and everyone leaves the meeting feeling that nothing has been achieved. 

Organising and leading a meeting is an art in itself. 

It requires the right skills, a thorough preparation and a clear vision of the objectives you want to achieve. 

It sounds simple. What could be difficult about getting a group of people together around a table to have a discussion? 

But to run a meeting well, you need to be like the proverbial duck – calm and smooth on the surface and paddling like mad below the water.

Often the first challenge is finding a date.  With so many business people travelling, or living and working remotely, finding a time when your whole team is available can be nearly impossible.  You may need to help them to prioritise – let them know exactly what your meeting is about, what the outcomes are, and, most importantly, what is in it for them.  The trend in working remotely has upsides and downsides – although it makes physical contact less frequent, it also engenders a more flexible and solution-oriented mind-set in today’s business people. If necessary, you can negotiate – perhaps it’s more convenient for the team member from Jakarta to join for only the first half of the meeting – you can make sure the agenda is arranged so that her key items are covered during that time.

Drawing up the agenda can be another hidden challenge.  Usually, the fact that you are calling a meeting means that you know what subject is going to be discussed.  But having the whole team together around the table can be too good an opportunity to be missed.  A good meeting organiser will ask all the invitees ahead of time if there are any other items they would like to be addressed during the meeting.  And an excellent meeting organiser will then use her skills of prioritisation to select the items that will be included, and to diplomatically reject the others.   

Remember that time is money – and a longer meeting doesn’t mean a more effective one!

When the agenda is agreed, the next chore is to collect and distribute related documents.  This can demand a high level of inter-personal skills – or in plain language, chasing people up!  Everybody wants to be able to put as much time into their reports or presentations as possible, and the later they are prepared the more up to date the data in them will be.  We have all been to meetings where the relevant documents are handed out a few seconds before the meeting begins.  But how useful is up-to-date information if no-one in the meeting has had time to read it?  Give your contributors a deadline – say two days before the meeting – for distributing their documents – and don’t give in to excuses! 

The meeting itself !

Meeting formats have moved on dramatically from the simple group of people sitting in a room, which was the norm thirty years ago.  With conference phone lines, voice-over-Internet Protocol (such as Skype) and video conferencing, all the members of your group can join the meeting even if they are spread over the entire globe. I have sat in a meeting room listening to colleagues updating on their projects from a poolside in Singapore, from an airport in Sao Paulo, or from their car in the Scottish highlands.  It sounds exotic, but when the novelty has worn off, the challenge of a modern meeting manager is to keep these people focused on the agenda – and not let them be distracted by a passing cocktail waitress or a flock of sheep. 

A few years ago video conferencing was hailed as the new miracle. But who hasn’t sat in the conference room looking expectantly at a huge screen on which the only information displayed is “Searching for a connection…” – and meanwhile a flustered admin assistant is desperately logging off and logging on and plugging and unplugging cables?  After ten minutes or so – of your precious time – the decision is made to forget the video and hold the meeting over the phone. Several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment sits unused because no-one thought of checking it the day before to make sure it was properly connected.

Think about whether it is really necessary to take the risk of proposing a video conference.  Quite often the only benefit of video is a distorted and blurry view of your colleagues sitting around their conference table, and after you have all waved to each other across the intervening miles, not much extra value is actually added to the conversation.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Time is money! Your job as meeting manager is to keep the meeting on track so that all the agenda items are successfully covered without the meeting going over time. And the first challenge is to start on time.  Try to remember the last meeting you were in that started exactly on time – it doesn’t happen often!  We have all heard about managers who lock the door of the meeting room at the scheduled start time of the meeting. How useful this is can be debated; but there are other ways to make sure people get the message – and it is your job as meeting manager to get your message over in an authoritative way – without being despotic!

Six people waiting five minutes for one colleague have wasted half an hour of the company’s time!

There are a number of tips you need to remember to keep the meeting rolling.  If every item on the agenda has a specific time, this can help to structure the time flow.  If not, you should have a note yourself of how long you expect – and how long you will allow – for each item.  Flexibility is fine, but not complete loss of control.

Banning mobile phones is not always popular, but even a phone switched to silent can be disruptive as it vibrates its way across the conference table, and the owner grabs it and rushes out of the room.

Nobody is going to suggest that your meeting might be boring – but conference rooms are notoriously soporific.  Not only just after the lunch break – commonly known as “the graveyard shift” among presenters – but at any time in a semi-darkened, warm and airless conference room, you can find your participants struggling to keep their eyes open and prevent themselves from becoming comatose.  Give your meeting several shorter breaks, rather than expecting people to sit for two hours before they have a chance to stretch their legs.  Make sure they can leave the room during the break, and preferably go somewhere to breathe outside air for a few minutes.  Choose refreshments that give them fast energy – fresh fruit instead of stodgy buns and biscuits.  For all-day meetings, insert five minutes of physical exercise on to the agenda – arm stretching and head-and-neck exercises will wake people up and refresh their bodies and minds. And they will enjoy themselves – you will benefit from some team-building on the side.

The outcomes of the meeting 

Make sure that somebody – it doesn’t have to be you – is taking good notes of the meeting.  This doesn’t mean writing down every word that is said.  The key points to note are decisions that are made and the action points. Try to avoid having the notes taken by an admin assistant who doesn’t have experience or knowledge of the meeting content. Ask someone who has a working knowledge of the agenda items, and understands the implications of what is being discussed. 

We all know it is important to record who is responsible for an action – and make sure they understand that they have taken on the responsibility.  But it is easy to forget that all actions need a deadline. Having clear deadlines for achievement of the actions gives you the power to chase those responsible up for completion afterwards! 

Even a meeting that seems to flow perfectly and finish on time might be able to be improved.  Don’t be afraid to ask your participants at the end of the meeting for their suggestions for improvement for next time. 

It is easy after a meeting to be so satisfied that it all went well that you “put it to bed” in your mind, and move on to your other priorities.  But the meeting is not completely finished until the minutes have been typed up and distributed. Give yourself a timeframe for sending out the minutes – and be strict on yourself. 

And don’t wait until the next meeting to find out whether the actions have been taken! 

Five Top Tips on organising a good meeting:

- Help people to prioritise by:

  • letting them know exactly what your meeting is about,
  • what outcomes are expected, and,
  • most importantly, what is in it for them

- Give people a deadline for distributing their documents prior to the meeting

- Allow a specific time for every item on the agenda  

- Taking good notes of the meeting helps you to achieve a productive outcome

- Always link the key actions to the minutes of the meeting

ETACC, The European Training & Coaching Company organise practical ‘two-hour coaching sessions’ on how to optimise your internal and external meetings. You want to find out more? or phone Diana 0033 64616  5759

Diana Vanbrabant is the Managing Director of ETACC: 'The European Training and Coaching Company', working with clients based in Europe, America and the UK.Diana works together with other carefully selected trainers to deliver ETACC’s wide range of high qualitytraining courses and one-on-one coaching programmes. Her specialization is in topics such as public speaking, motivational speeches, persuasion and negotiation skills; as well as cross-cultural business skills and international leadership skills. Her programmes are delivered in English, French, German and Dutch.

 In 2011 Diana qualified as a Trait Emotional Intelligence practitioner, gaining certification from Ei World in conjunction with the London Psychometric Laboratory. Today she is coaching leaders to optimise their Emotional Intelligence at work.

As well as having trained more than 1,500 professionals in 15 different countries worldwide, Diana has coached over 100 senior managers and directors during executive one-on-one coaching sessions.

Great Article! Thank You for the suggestions. I'll be sure to use them.
I've sat in many meetings where the focus seemed to be on making excuses, not making progress.

I also sat in a company mandatory meeting with the trainer talking about how rude it is to be using your cell phone, even if you are just texting, and the president of the company was obliviously typing on his phone.

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