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9 expert tips to hold meetings that don’t waste people’s time

There’s no easier way to get your coworkers to hate you than inviting them to a completely pointless, meandering meeting.

The kind of meeting that could have been replaced by a quick email update, and that takes people away from serious work that’s really moving the company forward.

That’s not to say that you should never hold a meeting. There are plenty of ways to make a group discussion efficient and effective.

We checked out The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, and a Quora thread on the topic, and highlighted the most creative strategies. Read on before sending out that calendar invitation for a weekly “catch-up” session.

1. Decide whether you really need to have a meeting

An hour-long, dozen-person meeting shouldn’t be the default every time there’s a question to be answered. Over on Quora, Ben Mordecai writes that the person in charge of the meeting should ask themselves:

  • Could this meeting be replaced with a group email?
  • Would it be OK for the majority of people present in the meeting to ignore the majority of the material?
  • Could I just make it people’s responsibilities to email me their weekly updates at a particular time, instead of this meeting?

2. Keep the meeting small

The Harvard Business Review reports that bigger meetings tend to be less effective. For one, it’s harder to pick up on people’s body language when there’s 20 people in the room. What’s more, as the size of the group increases, people feel less pressed to contribute.

As for specific numbers, one expert told HBR that limiting the meeting to four or five people is the only way to make sure everyone speaks in a 60-minute meeting.

Or, you can heed Jeff Bezos’ advice: Never hold meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group.

3. Use the 2/3 rule

One way to limit the size of the meeting? Quora user Nicolas Pattee recommends applying the “2/3 rule.”

He writes: “It is not always possible to involve everyone in every subject matter but at least make certain that everyone is involved in at least two out of three items on your list and rearrange [the] schedule so you can free some people or have them come later as useful. “

4. Make the agenda clear

The New York Times published a guide to running effective meetings, and the very first rule is that “everyone should know why they’ve gathered and what they’re supposed to be accomplishing.” You can distribute a document beforehand or discuss it at the beginning of the meeting.

As Annette Catino, chief executive of the QualCare Alliance Network, told The Times: “Give me an agenda or else I’m not going to sit there, because if I don’t know why we’re in the meeting, and you don’t know why we’re there, then there’s no reason for a meeting.”

coworkers talking office meeting
Standing meetings can be more efficient than meetings where everyone sits.
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock.com

5. Request that everyone stand

Quora user Nicholas D’hondt writes that stand-up meetings tend to go more quickly — but they’re just as productive. In fact, a 2014 study found that teams who stood during meetings were more creative than teams who sat in chairs.

6. Limit interrupting

Quora user Joseph Hsieh recommends designating a “conch shell” — i.e. a pen or a notepad — and making sure that only the person holding the conch shell can speak. That way, you’ll avoid people talking over each other and repeating the same information.

7. Make participation mandatory for everyone

This one sounds scarier than it is. HBR reports that “the people who hold back often have the best perspective on the conversation and definitely need to be drawn out.”

If you don’t want to cold-call people per se, HBR recommends talking to the quieter participants ahead of time and letting them know that you want them to contribute. That way, they won’t exactly be caught off-guard.

8. Project meeting notes on a screen

That’s a suggestion from Quora user Thomas Korte, who says it helps to avoid confusion, for example when two people hear the same conversation and write down two different action items.

9. End by assigning action items

The New York Times guide to meetings emphasizes the importance of creating a game plan: “Otherwise, all the time you spent on the meeting will be for naught.”

For example, Mark Toro, managing partner of North American Properties – Atlanta, a real estate operating company, told The Times that he uses the acronym “WWDWBW” to end meetings. It stands for “who will do what by when?” That way, everyone’s held accountable and everyone’s on the same page.



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