Every single employee and/ or freelancer has had to sit through boring, unproductive and frustrating meetings. When organized and run properly, they are an essential component of any functional business relationship, yet most often, they turn out to be the biggest time wasters in the history of time wasters. Out of around 3 billion meetings held every year, around 67% have been rated as unproductive by execs.

Unfortunately, the consequences of a worthless meeting extend well beyond the time and energy invested, as those who take part in them can actually end up more confused and less motivated than when they started. So, how do you avoid having to stand around scratching your head in utter confusion after a 3 hour meeting?


Think ahead

Most meetings that get out of hand have one major flaw in common – no agenda. No, having an idea or an intention does not constitute an agenda. Holding a meeting based solely on wanting to discuss things will have everyone and their uncle chiming in and you’ll end up with a debate club rather than an actual business meeting.

Before you even think about setting up a meeting, decide on the topics you want to cover, with whom and why. Figure out what challenges have to be tackled, what kind of solution you’re looking for and who’s the best person to develop and implement it. It might seem way too simple but even jotting down things like – Get approval for the new header structure from Laura – to deliver the wireframe by next Monday can keep you organized and on point.

So far so good, based on the points you’ve jotted down create a meeting worksheet and share it only with the people you’ve determined to be an asset in solving the issues on your list. Tone down the narrative and keep the agenda factual but descriptive so people understand the points you want to cover. Make sure you email or send them the worksheet at least 24 hours before the meeting, so your team has plenty of time to prepare.

Stay on top of things

Once you’ve got the agenda, the people, the date and time, the real test of strength will be sticking to the plan. The number of potential distractions is directly proportional with the number of people attending the meeting; which is one reason why you should only invite whoever is relevant to finding a solution. If you need input from your sales team, invite your team leader not the entire team.

If you’ve prioritized your agenda properly, the topics you want to touch on will be relevant for everyone attending your meeting. If, however, the items on your list are only relevant for some of those invited, you’ve got yourself the perfect setup for an unproductive meeting. As they’re waiting for the one or two topics they’re there for, your team will get bored and either offer random input so they don’t seem disinterested or zone out and wait for their turns. Either way, they won’t be at their best and you won’t get the most out of what they have to offer.

Take a second, third and forth look at your agenda and figure out if every topic on it interest everyone you want to invite. Just because they’re all relevant to you, that doesn’t mean it’s relevant for everyone else. It’s much better to hold several, focused meetings with smaller groups or one on one than having people sit through a 4 hour-long meeting, for 15 minutes of actual involvement.

Adapt to your environment

Meetings don’t take place just in the office anymore, in fact, digital teams connect online far more than they do face to face. The availability that online tools and the improved level of accessibility afforded by having teams connected at all times, also increases the risk of having constant, unproductive meetings.

Compared to an offline meeting, where you go through the process of inviting people, comparing schedules, accounting for the actual distance from point A to point B, online tools are right there, all the time and the people you want to talk to are just a few clicks away. In this context, the probability of giving into the temptation of impromptu brainstorming sessions is quite high.

The essential planning process of a meeting in an office is no different than the one held through a VoIP. In fact, when communicating through VoIP, aside from the steps mentioned so far, you’ll have to make sure that everyone has the technical requirements to join your call and they show the same common courtesy as they would in a face to face meeting.

To keep people on the same page, it’s a good idea to have a meeting policy in place detailing what is and is not allowed or recommended during such meetings. You might think they’re self-explanatory but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent the better part of a meeting trying to get through slurping, loud TVs running in the background, 1000 miles an hour clearly audible typing and other such delightful distractions.

Account for distractions

If you ask anyone what the ideal environment for a business meeting is, one of the top things they’ll list is a quiet or distraction-free environment and while you won’t sit in a conference room where an exec is watching TV while another exec is talking about the forecast for the next quarter, the same courtesy and common sense is rarely afforded to online meetings.

As a rule of thumb, whatever you’d avoid in a face-to-face meeting, stay well away from in an online one as well. If you’re on a laptop, make sure you’re using headphones as arrays catch and amplify ambient sounds. From the clothes dryer to your furious typing, random sounds can often become louder than the person speaking on the other end, not to mention that sometimes you can even hear yourself twice making you start to slur your words and sound dumb as a rock.

I know we love to advertise ourselves as incredibly competent multi-taskers but the sad reality is that you’ll have a very hard time staying on top of your meeting’s agenda if you’re also assigning tasks, brewing coffee and jotting down notes for your next meeting. Stay focused on the meeting you’re running now and on getting out of it a minimum of 90% of what you set out to achieve. No, there is no happy place where you get everything, every single time.

Be goal-oriented

While it can also qualify as a distraction, I decided not to include chit-chat in this category, mainly because it’s probably the best icebreaker for new teams and can help people loosen up during tense meetings. Of course, you can have too much of a good thing, especially if you turn the entire meeting into an opinion exchange on the latest developments in world economy or the latest merman trend.

Know what you want to get out of your meeting and keep people focused by asking targeted questions rather than open-ended ones. If you’re looking for solutions on a particular issue, ask what people recommend rather than what they think, making sure you have a few options on hand to help people along in case you’re not getting enough input. If you’re looking for insight, ask people to motivate their choices, ensuring you’re not being given mere guesses.

Last, but by no means least, make sure you pair every single item on your agenda with an action and an ETA, yes that includes the all-too-familiar Let me get back to you.


© 2015 Shoestrings & Fancy Things. All Rights Reserved.