Don’t Ruin Meetings – A Top Ten List

You don’t hate meetings. You generally like people, you like getting things done and you like learning new stuff. No, you don’t hate meetings. You hate bad meetings. And you should. Bad meetings are often worse than a waste of time – they can be damaging and downright painful. What’s worse is when you are the one responsible. And surprisingly, it’s usually just one or two things that go wrong that spoil everything – much like pouring a bottle of vinegar on a plate of fine French pastries. Here are 10 things to keep in mind so you don’t ruin your meetings.

  1. Know why you’re there: As a facilitator or a participant, you should know the goal of the meeting, as well as your role. If you feel like your presence is pointless or if the meeting has no defined ‘product goal’, you’re likely going to hate being there. If you’re leading the meeting, make sure to tell people why they’ve been asked to join. Make everyone present feel essential, or they may mentally check out.
  2. Prepare: You’ve been in a meeting where someone was expected to do something and you can tell they are winging it. You feel disrespected and can see the hour before you is about to go down the toilet. Spend at least 30 minutes getting ready for the topic, team and tasks. It will make all the difference. If you’re meeting with new people, look them up on LinkedIn before the meeting. Have they written any blogs recently? Background info on attendees will give you fodder for chit-chat before the meeting starts and show you took time to care about them personally. And have your materials ready – pens, notepads, cables and waters.
  3. Have a solid presentation: That doesn’t always mean having a PowerPoint deck. Sometimes the presentation is a story you’ll tell, or ways you’ll get others to share stories. If you do create a visual presentation, make it minimalist. The visuals are the back-up singers and you are the lead singer. It’s just there to help you be the star, not to be the star itself.
  4. Set ground rules: And make sure everyone agrees at the beginning. Did you ever play pick-up-basketball as a kid and the other team kept introducing rules throughout the game, but acted like you should have assumed those were the rules from the beginning? Meetings are the same way. Don’t want people on phones or laptops during the meeting? Want to curb side conversations? The best way to solve a problem is to keep it from happening.
  5. Be flexible: Prepare, but also prepare to be flexible in the moment. Most of the time, meetings don’t go as you planned. Embrace late arrivals and substantive topic changes if they happen. Ask follow-up questions and go deeper into unplanned areas if the group (and you) deem them more important than the agenda. Sometimes you will spend 20 hours creating a visual presentation and, in the moment, you realize the conversation happening is more valuable than your 45 slides. That’s OK. Know what parts of your meeting can be skipped or adjusted. Read the room.
  6. Room presence: You say a lot more with your body than you do with your mouth. You want to exude all the signs that you care and are actively engaged in the meeting. Don’t fiddle with your hair, hands or clothes – it makes you look nervous or distracted. Practice body language you may want to use in meetings by looking in the mirror – seriously. Oh, and if you’re tired in a meeting and can feel a yawn coming on? Bite the inside of your cheek. The pain will wake you up and curb the yawn.
  7. Make your speaking times count: You know the person who rambles without making many points, or the person who sits like a mannequin in the corner? Avoid both of those. Make sure your voice is heard, but pick your moments. Be aware of when you should concede the floor to someone else, or even to call on someone else for their opinion. And if you’re in a room of bluster and blowhards, interrupt when you have a big point or question to pose.
  8. Address people by name: Think about the simple but powerful difference between “I like your idea about getting Finance more involved,” versus “I like your idea about getting Finance more involved, Courtney.” Acknowledging a person by name is like putting a warm spotlight on them. It will encourage them to share ideas again, too.
  9. Mind your attire: The pinstripe three-piece suit is not always the right call. Anticipate the dress and/or company culture of your guests to avoid looking pretentious or underdressed. But always dress in a manner that says you’re taking the meeting seriously.
  10. Nothing is ever a problem: There are always issues or things that don’t go according to plan in a meeting, especially the big ones with lots of moving parts. The A/V won’t work? No problem. “We’d much rather have a conversation than make you stare at a PowerPoint for an hour anyway,” you’ll say. Keep calm, make a joke about it and move along. After all, you prepared and know your stuff.

In life and in work – nothing ever goes quite like you think it will. Plan as much as you can, surround yourself with good people and be ready to adapt. If you do all that, you’re gonna be just fine. You may even start to like meetings again.