How to Get a Meeting Back on Track

A table full of people in a meeting looking at computers

No one likes to sit through a meeting that goes off track.

Whether it’s people talking over each other or a lengthy discussion on an unrelated topic, a meeting that loses focus can feel unproductive and frustrating.

But there are steps you can take to get your meeting back on track. And regardless if you’re the meeting organizer or an attendee, you have the ability to steer the conversation and get the meeting back on its feet. 

Below are tips you can use to help ensure that your meeting stays on track.

Define the purpose of your meeting

Want to make sure that your meeting stays on topic? Then you need to lay the groundwork before the meeting even takes place. And an important item to consider is your meeting’s purpose

What is the main purpose of your meeting? Or, what do you hope to get out of it? Do you want to build consensus? Make a decision? Brainstorm ideas? Get a recap of the week?

It doesn’t matter if your meeting is a high-level panel or an informal gathering, you’ll want to make sure that you clearly define its purpose. Everyone’s time is precious and you don’t want to gather people in a room, without any clue as to why they’re involved. 

A purpose is like a north star for your meeting. It provides a much needed sense of direction. And if your meeting ever goes off track, or if a participant goes off on a tangent, you can then easily shift the meeting back to its original intent.  

Create an agenda

Now that you’ve defined the purpose, you can create an agenda for your meeting. 

It’s tempting to want to discuss everything under the sun but you’ll want your agenda to be focused and closely aligned with your meeting’s purpose. 

When creating your agenda, don’t forget to take into account the meeting length and the number of participants. So if you’re running a thirty minute meeting, you might want to stick to 3 agenda items to give yourself enough time. And if your meeting has a large number of participants, then you’ll also want to keep in mind that side conversations will occur and that people will want time to offer their opinion or ask questions. 

Agenda items. You can also ask your meeting participants to suggest some agenda items. Your participants will feel more invested in the meeting when they get to contribute to its development. Just make sure to narrow down the agenda items and only select the ones that connect to the meeting’s purpose.

Discussion points. You’ll also want to think about possible discussion points for each agenda item. For example, if your meeting is about Q4 marketing strategy, then possible discussion points can include:

  • Email newsletter
  • Calendar for instagram posts 
  • Influencer outreach

Identify who needs to be there 

Prior to the meeting, make a list of participants and define who exactly needs to be present. Do you want the meeting to be limited to the essential team members? Or do you want to meet with a diverse group? For instance, if it’s a brainstorming session, maybe you’ll want the entire team present so that you can get a variety of perspectives. Or if it’s to discuss your company’s goals, maybe you just need the relevant people.

When you’re more thoughtful and specific about your guest list, you’re guaranteed to have a meeting that is focused and engaging. 

Define roles and responsibilities 

In addition to a well thought-out guest list, you’ll want to let the participants know what they are responsible for during the meeting. Do you want them to summarize a panel they attended? Give you updates on a project? Offer ideas for a new strategy? Let them know in advance. This helps set expectations for your participants. They’ll understand their role and can prepare accordingly. 

Have a clear start and end time 

Everyone loves a meeting that starts and ends on time. So make sure to send out your invites in a timely manner and send out reminders the day before.

During the meeting itself, let people know how much time is remaining. For example: “We have about twenty minutes left, so let’s move onto the next topic.” Or, “A reminder that we have five minutes remaining so let’s wrap this up.” 

You can also designate a meeting time tracker to help manage the time and keep people aware of how much time is left.

Summarize and remind 

To ensure that your meeting is focused and also moving along, take notes and summarize information throughout the meeting. Either volunteer or designate someone to capture the salient points of the discussion. 

Use a whiteboard or flipchart to make sure that the main points or ideas are visible to everyone. People can see what’s been said and can avoid making a duplicate comment. 

Every now and then, chime in to summarize what’s been said so far. This helps crystallize the main talking points while also offering an opportunity to remind people to stay on topic.

For example, you can say something along the lines of, “You just brought up X, and that’s a really interesting point, but let’s save it for a future discussion.”

Have a meeting parking lot 

Sometimes tangential conversations can be a healthy sign of a successful meeting. People are feeling inspired and they’re eager to contribute.

So to encourage discussion while also staying on track, use a separate flip chart as a meeting parking lot. A meeting parking lot is a space reserved for off-topic ideas. This can include comments, questions, complaints, and points that aren’t directly related to the meeting. This helps you acknowledge what’s being said while also facilitating the meeting and ensuring that it’s moving along. 

If some of the parking lot ideas are worth looking into, then you can set up a separate meeting to have a deeper discussion. 

The preparation that you do before the meeting and the action you take during the meeting itself can ensure that it stays on track.

Written by JiJi Lee.

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