Recently a friend observed, "Sometimes all we do in a meeting planned to produce useful output is just talk". It reminded me of an article I wrote a long time ago on the subject with some specific pointers. They still sound useful after fifteen years.
Why Hold One at All?
Start with a planning mind map or list. The first branch to place on your map is the reason for holding the meeting in the first place. Imagine the meeting as a finished entity. What happened? What results were accomplished? What are the next steps? If you don’t find immediate answers to these questions, consider why you are holding the meeting at all. There may be better ways to deal with the issue at hand. Perhaps you need to speak to one person, not an entire group. Perhaps the meeting could be better accomplished by a telephone conference call or an online conference, particularly if the participants live in different cities. If your main purpose is to convey information, it might be better to simply send a memo. If you are making an important announcement, why not throw a party? Before you call the meeting, decide the appropriateness of holding it at all.
Set the Stage
If you are going to proceed, compare a meeting to a theatrical presentation. There is action in three parts of the theater, -- backstage, main stage and in the lobby following the show. The backstage effort, -- the gathering of the props, the rehearsal of the scene, the preparation of the program are going to determine the overall success of the performance. Start your visual map with a branch that includes the participants. Follow by mapping the agenda items. Put them down as fast as they come to you in random order and get them all down on the page. Look at which items are simple and straightforward, which are controversial, and which involve the whole group. Look at who should report on the various issues and who might present the topics.
Now it is time to order this raw material and put it into a clearer order and time frame. Decide on the duration of the meeting. Confirm who needs to attend. Decide on the order of the items on the agenda. It is well to warm up on non-controversial items and place the most contentious issue in the middle. It is also a good idea to follow the controversial issue with a neutral one, or deliberately delay decisions on the items following the controversial issues, so that opponents won’t use the remainder of the meeting to seek revenge for past action and kill each other off.
Decide on the resources that you will need for the meeting. Do you need a projector or flip chart? Do you need background papers or other references? Insofar as possible, send the agenda and its attached documents to the participants well in advance of the date. Encourage participants to read all reference materials in advance. Otherwise you are going to convene a meeting of readers, whose faces will never rise during the meeting because they are buried in reference documents. How can there possibly be any useful contribution on any issue if the meeting is the first time people know anything about it?
Now it is time to move to center stage. Choose your meeting room carefully. If possible, get a room with good natural light. Pay attention to ventilation and temperature because these are vital to the energy of the people attending the meeting. It is important to bar interruptions. Deactivate the phone in the room and ensure cell phones are in a bucket in the centre of the table.. Place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.
Provide the proper materials. Make sure that any additional printouts and reference materials are available for each participant. Have a flip chart with markers of the appropriate size at the ready. If you really want to stimulate the participants, provide them with bright markers and highlighters. If money is no object, equip the room with an electronic white board.
On With the Show
Start the meeting promptly. Don’t penalize those who arrived on time by waiting for the latecomers. Don’t interrupt the proceedings to acknowledge the latecomers and bring them up to date. You’re simply reinforcing their tardy behaviour and making it acceptable.
If you are the chairman, it is your responsibility to control the process. Your meeting agenda is a constant reminder of the material that you have to cover. You will need to worry less about the talkative participant who will have always plenty to say when you have the big picture in front of you. If you are smart, you may have already asked the most garrulous or the most bothersome member of the group to take notes. Balance participation by inviting the quieter ones to comment. Often their contributions will be more worthwhile than those of the chatty types. Summarize the proceedings as you go. Emphasize the positive and show appreciation for all contributions.
Map the Minutes
Use the briefest possible format outlining results - avoid summarizing the discussion unless points made will be useful at a later date. What is to be done? Who will do it? When will it be done? Don’t provide any more content than necessary. You want participants to spend their time on the necessary follow-up, not on reading.
Be Your Own Best Critic
Evaluate each meeting. What went right? What went wrong? Who participated? Who was silent throughout? What feedback did you receive? Be prepared to spend time following up with participants who have concerns arising from the meeting. Be prepared to hear from those who said little during the meeting because something was probably upsetting them.
Last, but not least, keep good records. Visual maps provide excellent recall of what happened and can be reviewed quickly. If you have a number of memos and minutes for an organization, a committee or a department, consider keeping the documents in a three ring binder rather than in flat files. That way it will be easier to retrieve the documents you need.
The Show Must Go On
The last meeting’s minutes always provide the starting point for the next. Start the cycle by reviewing your previous map agenda and minutes and see where you stand on the issues which were addressed. Some matters may have been delayed and need to get back on the agenda. Some need review. Some persons need to be commended for their achievements. Others need to be reminded of reports that should be made. Using this process as your planning tool will really get your show on the road.