Running a meeting may look easy on the outside, from the perspective of a participant or onlooker. And maybe it does become easier. Practice makes perfect, right?
But running a meeting and running a great meeting are two very different things.
Have you ever been in a meeting and been impressed at how well the leader deftly handled tension or conflict, or maybe it was really well organized and huge progress got made? That does not happen naturally. It is a skill, and one that most people do not have or choose to invest in working on. (Which is why so many meetings are boring time-wasters.)
However, with a little bit of focus and practice, you can do these things too! We want to share our best ideas and strategies with you so the next meeting you run goes above and beyond.
Here’s what you can do and our recommendations for how to do it.
What kind of meeting are you preparing for?
You can categorize most meetings into three types:
- Regular or cyclical meetings: Many teams use monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly meetings to meet and discuss current issues, achievements, improvements, etc. These kinds of meetings are scheduled in advance and are on people’s radar; there’s more time to prepare for them as well, both for the leader and participants.
- Urgent meetings: Most meetings don’t just fall from the sky, but sometimes they do when an issue requires urgent discussion and resolution. Unless you’re in a business that is dominated by crisis, you likely won’t have urgent meetings that frequently. These meetings are challenging because there is less time to prepare, emotions may be running high, and the structure may be less organized as a result.
- All other meetings: Meetings that don’t fall within either of the above categories fall somewhere in between. Though you may not have weeks to prepare, you’ll likely have at least a week or a few days. Still plenty of time to make it a great meeting with our recommendations below!
1. The agenda
A great meeting is organized. The expectations are set, known, and communicated to everyone in advance so all are on the same page.
An agenda is the vehicle that accomplishes that. The structure an agenda provides to a meeting is important no matter the meeting size, though particularly important for large meetings when you need to keep many people on track.
Give participants a heads up
Best For: Any type of meeting.
How: No matter the type of meeting, as soon as you know you’re going to be running a meeting, give the participants a heads up that the meeting is coming. A quick conversation or verbal notification doesn’t hurt, but follow it up in writing. For example, your email could say:
Based on what happened recently with Product X, management has asked us to discuss ways to resolve similar future issues in a more timely manner.
I’ll be scheduling a mandatory meeting for our team to meet with Group Z late next week once I confirm everyone’s availability. I will put together an agenda and send it out by Wednesday.
Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.”
The example email above:
- lets everyone know participation is mandatory
- gives them a sense of when the meeting will occur
- explains who is involved
- gives content for what will be discussed.
If you already happen to know when/where the meeting is likely to take place, you could for example, include the following information instead: “I’ve put a hold on [date/time/room], but note that it’s still to be confirmed.” If that would help prepare and not confuse participants, go for it.
Create an agenda with a goal
Best For: Regular meetings and those that fall in the “other” category. For an urgent meeting, you may end up putting together a much more simplified quick agenda for the sake of efficiency, which is fine.
How: First, make a list of what needs to be discussed; what topics, questions, concerns, or issues are the focus of the meeting. Outline your draft agenda by utilizing headings and subheadings, including any notes or ideas you have. Once your outline is finalized, put together the agenda.
Ideally, you’ll have a template that you’ve developed and that can be tailored depending on the type of meeting. If not, create one to increase your efficiency and be better prepared for urgent meetings.
Great meetings agendas include information like:
- Who the meeting is called by
- The leader or facilitator, if there are others than yourself
- The type of meeting it is, e.g. monthly staff meeting
- Notetaker, if applicable
- Attendees, noting if anyone is calling in or participating virtually
- Date, time, and location
Agenda topic(s) section:
- Notes or action items from previous meeting that will be reviewed or updated, if applicable
- Space to take note of what is discussed
- Space for unresolved questions
- Space for action items, who is responsible for them, and any deadlines
Topic/Question/Issue 2, repeating as necessary
- Repeat spacing as necessary
Space for a summary or conclusion (you’ll fill this in at the end of the meeting)
- Actions to be taken: by whom, what deadline, etc
- Questions remaining to be answered? How will they be resolved?
Establish a clear and realistic start and end time
Best for: Any type of meeting
How: Making it clear when the meeting will start and end keeps people from guessing; everyone is busy and you want to be conscientious of their time. This requires taking into account what is going to be discussed and estimating how long different parts of the meeting will take.
It can be tricky to estimate, but in general, it’s better to err on the side of caution and build in more time rather than less. If you build in extra minutes, the worst that will happen is that you’ll conclude the meeting early; if not, then you’ll be thankful you had extra time to sort out those topics that unexpectedly needed more time.
Unless you’re tackling something really big and you’ve given your participants a lot of notice, no meeting should be scheduled for more than an hour. If you think you’ll need more time, figure out whether:
- this project/issue is big enough to require a longer meeting
- this meeting should be broken up into a few smaller meetings with smaller, more focused groups of people on more specific topics
Share the agenda
Best for: Regular meetings and those that fall in the “other” category. If you had time to create an agenda for an urgent meeting, you may be able to share it with participants, but if the meeting is the same day or in a few hours, it may not be worth it. Instead, print out copies or email the file before the meeting so people can take notes on paper or electronically.
How: A great meeting gives participants information in advance and clearly communicates what is going to be discussed and what your expectations are. If participation is required or you expect everyone to prepare something in advance, state that in the email.
Please see the attached agenda for our meeting next week regarding [topic]. I’m looking forward to hearing everyone’s ideas on ____; brainstorm a few in advance and come prepared to share.”
Ideally, you should email the agenda to participants a few days beforehand to give them time to review and prepare ideas without rushing. Don’t email it too much farther in advance than that, though, as that could cause it to get lost in the shuffle.
Another idea is to create an agenda that participants contribute directly to in advance. This is ideal for regular staff meetings where you want people to bring up concerns or questions they have.
It can be built out a week in advance, for example, by using a tool like Google Docs or Sheets. Everyone can collaborate and contribute to the agenda easily, adding their questions or topics to be covered; using a web based system ensures everyone has access to the most current draft.
This works best with smaller groups where everyone is on the same page. Don’t use this for a larger staff meeting, where everyone’s contributions can quickly cause chaos.
Alternatively, you can ask people to reply directly to a meeting invitation with questions or concerns, and you as the leader can add any you receive directly to the agenda. This gives you a little more control to edit items that may be better addressed one on one versus in a meeting setting.
Either way, sharing the agenda and setting expectations encourages participation and makes participants feel like their voices are heard and their concerns matter.
2. Recruit supporting roles
Sometimes you need help, especially if you’re leading an urgent meeting. In that case, it’s time to delegate and recruit help.
Ask for help or delegate a task
Best for: Any type of meeting
How: If you’re leading the meeting, you can’t do everything. You can’t listen to people’s ideas, consider the impact, make suggestions, and take notes or advance slides in a powerpoint all at the same time.
Give those around you an opportunity to help. If you don’t have a designated note taker or someone that can assist in setting up and keeping the technology running during the meeting, seek out a team member to be in charge of those tasks. (This person should not be a key stakeholder in the meeting, since you want those attendees focused on contributing.)
Encouraging and managing participation can be challenging, but it’s important. Everyone has ideas and as the leader you want to make sure everyone is comfortable sharing them.
Create an unbiased and welcoming environment
Best for: Any type of meeting
How: Through words, actions, and showing by example, you want to make participants feel that they’re respected equally and that one person’s ideas aren’t favored more than another’s.
This means, before the meeting, making sure that every participant has the same information.
You don’t want some people to show up with inside information that others don’t have yet; the people who have been excluded can feel defensive or embarrassed, which will hurt their ability to contribute effectively. Plus, a lack of consistent information means people are not on the same page, which slows things down.
At the beginning of the meeting, or during it if things are feeling tense, here are a few examples of things to say:
- I want everyone to feel like they can share their ideas today because this meeting is really important. How we decide to go forward will require everyone’s buy-in, so everyone’s thoughts and opinions are important.
- We’re all trying to work towards a solution that will improve this new process, so all ideas are welcomed and appreciated. We’re in this together.
- This meeting isn’t about pointing fingers or making accusations. I want everyone to be open to the ideas that are shared as we discuss and evaluate where we are right now and where we want to be in the future.
The goal is to set the tone of the meeting; one that is collaborative and open.
Especially in an urgent meeting — when you’re getting together because a big problem has occurred — emotions can be running very high. People are not thinking and speaking as objectively as they otherwise might, so it is your job to keep the tone neutral and productive.
As the leader, your meeting is only as good as you help the participants to be.
Have participants prepare ideas in advance to avoid a free-for-all
Best for: Regular meetings and those that fall in the “other” category. This may not be practical for urgent meetings.
How: As we discussed above, sending participants the agenda in advance increases the chances everyone will participate. When the leader doesn’t do this, people talk and throw out ideas or opinions without fully thinking through what they’re saying. Or, maybe even worse, people don’t know what to say and the discussion falters. It can make it challenging to accomplish the meeting’s goal in either situation.
Set the meeting up for success by setting up the participants for success; if everyone brings a thoughtful solution or idea, the meeting is more likely to go well and be productive.
Ask certain participants to contribute specifically
Best for: Any type of meeting
How: For example, if there’s a participant that is in a supportive role, asking them specifically to share the team updates or recent developments gives them an opportunity to participate. Yes, you as the leader could say these things, but delegating this task that allows someone else an opportunity to shine and show their potential.
You can also ask specific people to give updates to prevent doubled-up work. If two people from the same team are coming to the meeting, you can let them know in advance that you’d like one of them to speak up for their team. This gives them the opportunity to figure out the most important things to share, in advance, so they’re not improvising on the spot or both trying to contribute at once.
Bring in technology
Best for: Any type of meeting, though it may be harder to prepare in advance for an urgent meeting.
How: Apps like Mentimeter or iClickers get a discussion going without putting people on the spot. They can be a fun and interactive way to share ideas quickly and easily, and facilitate voting on next steps.
Powerpoint is controversial — sometimes visual aids can help a discussion, and sometimes they are a guaranteed way to put your audience to sleep. Be careful about the technology that you choose to bring in; make sure there is clear value being added by it.
4. Food and drinks?
Lastly, consider making light snacks or beverages available. Is the meeting early and you’re worried participants will arrive late? Have coffee/tea or fruit, muffins, yogurt, etc. available to not only encourage promptness, but give everyone a little motivation and sustenance. If the meeting is scheduled for late in the day, offer food or sweets and drinks that will keep people going through the afternoon.
Don’t go overboard on this part, unless you’re preparing for a longer workshop-type of meeting. Instead, keep it simple and light. The goal is to give people a little boost so they can better focus on the content of the meeting, not to give them a five-course meal.
Are you ready to run an amazing meeting?
A great meeting takes things one step farther. Running a great meeting requires effort up front, but it is worth it when you’re able to keep everyone organized and on task, generate ideas that will solve problems, and keep morale high.
Do you have well used tips that can improve the strategies we shared here? When have you been a part of a great meeting and wished they were all like that? We want to hear your ideas and experiences! Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or share them with everyone on our Facebook page!