While large organisations scale best by emphasizing asynchronous communications, in-person or video meetings also have their place. As a manager who is involved in a lot of planning and coordination work I’ve noticed that I’ve spent the majority of my working time in meetings in past years. These are my 5 tips to make meetings as efficient as possible.
Have a written meeting agenda before and during the meeting
While a simple ‘hey we should chat’ works for small informal meetings, having an agenda always makes the meeting much more efficient – even if there are just two participants. Put an agenda in every meeting invite you send. Explain what is the purpose of the meeting, who is attending and what should be the outcome. It does not have to be formal. Even a tiny agenda summary is enough to show you’ve put some thought into why the meeting is taking place.
When the meeting starts, show the agenda to remind everyone what the purpose of the meeting is so that attendees can help make the meeting productive. When possible, I prefer to organize meetings with Google Calendar because Meet will automatically show the invite text (the agenda) in the video call as a small popup in the left lower corner.
Fall-back agenda if unprepared: WHOT
If you find yourself chairing a meeting unprepared, remember the acronym WHOT to improvise an agenda and meeting structure that works in most situations:
Why are we here - Explain why the thing that is the topic of the meeting matters, and briefly the context or perhaps latest developments around it.
How attendees relate to the topic - introduce participants if they have not met before, and even if they know each other, explain how they ended up being invited to the meeting or how they are expected to participate in the topic.
Opinions (or orders) - Ask attendees for opinions on the topic. If the purpose of the meeting was to get input from everyone, your duty as the chair of the meeting is to make sure everyone has a chance to talk. Most meetings about non-urgent topics are about collecting and aligning views. If the meeting is about an urgent topic such as an operational issue, the O in the acronym stands for orders and the main part of the meeting is to make sure all participants know what they should execute immediately after the meeting. Even when giving out orders you should still verify that the participants understood and agree with the ask and not assume too much.
Timeframe - Conclude the meeting with summarizing what is the timeframe of the agreed actions, or when the next event in the topic is expected to happen, or if a follow-up meeting is expected state the timeframe for it.
Be inclusive with open-ended questions and don’t fear silence
Don’t be afraid of moments of silence when running a meeting. In fact, you should ensure that there are some pauses so that people who need more time to formulate their thoughts have an opportunity to speak up. This is important in particular if many participants are not native speakers of the meeting language. The best ideas might not be the ones that are voiced first, but the ones that come after some pondering on the topic.
If some participants talk too much, ask them politely to give space to others. If everyone seems silent, ask open-ended questions. Maintain a welcoming environment for discussion where speakers or their opinions are not directly criticised as that might silence some participants from sharing their honest opinions. Make sure all discussion have a respectful tone and opinions are voiced in a constructive manner with focus on solutions, or when discussing problems encourage participants to put forward concrete data points instead of pure opinions. As a chair for the meeting strive to be kind, but firm.
Respect the people’s time
As the organizer you are responsible for allocating enough time. If the meeting is going overtime, end it, and schedule a follow-up meeting. If you think some participants talk too much or off-topic, steer the discussion back on-topic and remind about the time remaining. Even if there is allocated time left, don’t allow room for random mumblings. Respectful use of people’s time includes cutting the meeting short if the goal was met.
To keep meetings efficient, they should not take longer than one hour. When planning the meeting and thinking about the agenda, make sure there are not too many items for one meeting. Also make sure that there are not too many participants. If the intent is to discuss something for an hour, there should be max 12 participants (which means on average 5 minutes of speak time per person). If the meeting has 20 or more participants, it is not a meeting but mostly a one-way announcement to the audience.
One large meeting with 20+ people could alternatively also be a series of meetings where the same chair talks to groups of 5 at a time, and after all the meetings sends out summary of all of them with a final conclusion.
Send a summary after the meeting
People have a tendency to forget what was discussed or agreed after 2-3 weeks. Meetings are at risk of being wasted time unless the outcome is recorded at least in a small written summary. Writing formal meeting minutes is not an efficient use of time for everyday business meetings, but a 5 minute investment in a short summary is always worth it.
Formal meeting minutes are justified if the meeting is making decisions with ramifications in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Formal meeting minutes should record who was present, what the decision was, and why. For formal meetings it is important to agree to have some kind of approval mechanism for the minutes, and to not execute the decisions until the minutes have been approved with e.g. signatures.
If the meeting topic is very contentious, the meeting minutes should be written during the meeting and shared on-screen so participants can already during the meeting object in real-time if they see the decisions or their justifications not written down in the correctly.
Don’t have meetings if possible
The last tip is to take some time and think if a meeting really is needed? If you just want to have the opinion on one specific thing, perhaps the meeting could be replaced with a chat thread where your first message is the question followed with a bit of context. This might even work better, as people can take as much time as they want to formulate their best possible reply in writing and with exact data points and references. To ensure everybody participates, you can request everyone acknowledges the question with an 👀 emoji or a short reply. Such ‘meetings’ have the additional benefit that they don’t need a separate agenda or summary, as the chat was in recorded writing automatically.
As a replacement for a large 20+ participant meeting one could have a well written announcement email, or a video recording, since most of the participants in a large meeting will not have time to speak anyway, and they will mostly just be receiving information without participation.
If you feel that a meeting is needed for social cohesion, perhaps get the core decision done in an asynchronous chat or email discussion, and organize a breakfast or lunch separately to get the best social effect in a setting that is free from debating and just purely positive social time together.
If the meeting is a one-on-one between two people, it could be replaced with a walk in the park. That will make sure you both get some fresh air, and who knows, maybe also some fresh ideas?