Did you know that the number of board meetings had risen by 117% just last year? And it’s all thanks to the majority of industries going virtual. While this isn’t in itself a bad thing, it’s a given that some (if not most) of these meetings were unproductive. With their frequency, virtual meetings have opened up a door to a world of ineffectively spent time. All because it’s easier and quicker than ever to organize a meeting. After all, it’s just one video call, right?
To avoid suddenly finding yourself absolutely drained after several meetings even before your lunch break, we’ve written a small guide on how to make more productive meetings. After all, in-office employees will likely continue to have in-person meetings and virtual meetings are evidently always growing in popularity. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t prevent the downsides they bring.
Table of contents:
- How to make meetings more productive
- What makes a productive meeting?
- The elements of a productive meeting
- In summary
What makes a productive meeting?
Attending meetings for over seven years in three different workplaces, I’ve learned how to tell if a meeting was going to be productive, or unproductive.
Unproductive meetings had a lot going on for them:
- People would whisper to each other, having conversations during sections boring to them — which meant that someone was always whispering;
- Personalities prone to conflicts waiting for an opportunity to challenge a topic they disagree with;
- Tangents where jokes were cracked, prolonging the meeting;
- Speakers who couldn’t empathize with the people in the room, making for long, awkward, PowerPoint-dependent meetings;
- Panic-summoned impromptu meetings by leads or managers, with no clear agenda, but to ease their concerns;
- Too much focus on unnecessary details that concern maybe 2 out of 15 people in the room;
- No one actually wanted to be there.
And, the list could really go on forever. On the other hand, the most productive meetings I’ve attended had few, albeit crucial elements:
- They were just long enough to discuss issues or ideas;
- Meeting organizers/speakers knew no one really liked meetings, and kept that in mind when setting times and dates, as well as when presenting;
- Our time was respected and valued;
- Present were only those necessary;
- We were all focused and engaged at the meeting;
- The meeting had a clear aim and goal.
We tend to overemphasize the importance of meetings when, in reality, all you need is a clear goal, the right players, a concise talking-points list, and by the end — an idea on how to move forward. Without those, you would have achieved the same effect with a casual lunch break, instead of a prolonged meeting.
The elements of a productive meeting
So, let’s break down those few elements discussed previously into the building blocks of a successful meeting. They are universal bite-sized tips to give you a starting idea. You can then adapt it to your industry, regardless of whether you’re managing a group of writers, construction workers, or teaching at an elementary school.
Hold a meeting only when it can’t be an email
“Most meetings are too long, too dull, too unproductive — and too much a part of corporate life to be abandoned.” — Lois Wyse, author, advertising executive
Most industries have grown accustomed to holding meetings for anything and everything. And after all these years, I’ve noticed that it’s usually due to the fear we won’t get our message across. Even in your personal life, how many times have people called you after exchanging a few messages, saying they’d rather talk because it’s easier than texting?
The same sentiment transfers to the workplace. Holding a meeting gives a certain kind of safety that everyone will get to hear all the (subjectively speaking) necessary information. But at the same time, they’ve become absolute messes loaded with information, and are only growing more ineffective.
So, to combat this, always assess whether or not what you have to say, discuss, or ask requires a meeting. Smaller fires can be handled through a chat communication app, a brief huddle at someone’s desk, or a very clear, directional email. Here’s a checklist to help you decide:
✅ Is this an issue that requires a quick solution, a brainstorming session, or all hands on deck?
✅ How much does the issue affect the rest of the company?
✅ How many people do I realistically need to solve this?
✅ Can I formulate the topic more precisely, so we find the solution quicker?
✅ What is the desired outcome?
✅ Is that outcome more important than the work everyone involved is doing right now?
✅ Do I have enough time to prepare?
Learn how to use every minute of a meeting wisely
While we consider it a practice long forgotten in elementary and high school, doing a mock meeting for yourself before the time comes can be extremely useful. And don’t forget to track your time.
Presenting out loud, in front of a mirror, your pet, or a plant will give you an idea of how much time it takes you to deliver your end of the information. Maybe you’ll notice tiny time-wasters, like digressions, filler words, or behavior patterns that stall your presentation time.
Invite only the necessary people
“Any committee that is the slightest use is composed of people who are too busy to want to sit on it for a second longer than they have to.” — Katharine Whitehorn, British journalist and radio presenter
When organizing a meeting, consider only those who are directly related to the topic. If you’re doing a project overview, then maybe you need only the team leads, since they can relay information to their teams later on. Or if you’re doing a progress report, you can cut down on time and energy by having people send in their briefs, which you can summarize.
Getting people who are only tangentially connected to the topic has several drawbacks:
- They rarely have/need anything significant to contribute;
- Their time and energy could be better used elsewhere during that time;
- Depending on personality, they can distract the meeting;
- They might feel pressured to pay attention to information that doesn’t really concern them, which will throw them off and add more stress.
When you decide on what type of meeting you’ll be holding, make a list of people who are absolutely necessary (because of their feedback, role, or direct influence on issues at hand). Everyone else can get a memo.
Make your agenda functional
“You have a meeting to make a decision, not to decide on the question.” — Bill Gates, Microsoft Co-founder
Whenever there’s a topic on meeting functionality and productivity, we all advise making a good agenda and sticking to it. Without one, you will have a string of conversations leading nowhere. However, having an “order of business” of this sort, is not enough.
To make an agenda that runs smoothly, moves from topic to topic, and leaves enough space for a discussion, you’ll need to check off a few boxes.
✅ Formulate each topic as a question, rather than a vague idea;
(ex. “How can we improve quarterly sales by 15%” instead of “Quarterly stats overview”)
✅ Place the important topics first;
(people lose focus as the meeting goes on, and you need their full attention)
✅ Keep introductions short (this includes informalities and “breaking the ice”);
✅ Prepare questions, in case there are none from the attendees;
✅ Keep discussions to 5, 10 minutes tops, if they are unprompted by you;
✅ End meetings with a summary, repeating what was agreed upon in very short points.
Don’t shy away from investing time in making the agenda as effective as possible. When done correctly, it’s a solid framework to rely on. You minimize chances of having the meeting derailed, it lasting too long, or making everyone fall asleep.
Know how to lead a meeting
“A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.” — Barnett Cocks
One of the worst things that can happen to a meeting is losing control of the conversation. Without proper guidance, people can take the topic and run with it, go off on tangents, and derail the whole meeting.
This kind of event is good in small doses, because, when in good hands, a creative mess can bring forth new ideas. Some could ask questions you might not have thought of, or get inspiration or motivation for further work. However, as a meeting organizer, you still need to steer the conversation to keep it as useful as possible for everyone involved. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of time.
Set yourself up as a figure of authority by leading the dialogue with the right questions, listening to people, and letting them speak — but paying attention to when they need to be stopped. Nip those tangents in the bud, so the meeting doesn’t go on for longer than it should.
Name different types of meetings
“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’” — Dave Barry, author, former Miami Herald humor columnist
Elise Keith, author of Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization, wrote a short piece on what makes an effective meeting. Among her tips, one that seriously stood out as an excellent idea was to stop calling meetings just that, and give each type a specific name that describes it perfectly.
When someone calls you in for a “meeting about the new project”, can you immediately tell what it will be about? Or who’s invited, and how long it will last? No.
But, call in a “project progress briefing”, and those three words alone can carry so much information. For example, you’ll immediately know it’s for team leads and managers, that you’ll need to prepare a short progress report, and that it usually lasts around 45 minutes.
Think of Agile development, and its coining of the term “stand up”. This is a 10-15 minute meeting, usually at someone’s desk (to avoid overstaying in an office) — everyone says in a sentence or two what they’ll be doing for the day, or the week.
Note what types of meetings you usually hold, and then see what names you can give them, so that the attendees can immediately tell what to expect. It resolves a lot of misunderstandings and sets up expectations.
Learn from and build on previous meetings
Make notes during and after the meetings, even if you write down just one word or a phrase.
Mark down questions that were redundant, observe how people reacted to your presentation, and jot down anything in your agenda that gave positive or negative results. Pay attention to what worked and what didn’t. Maybe the topics weren’t clear enough, or the direction of your list of topics wasn’t fluent enough.
This is simply to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes twice. Self-awareness is especially useful when holding meetings, especially because it labels you as a speaker willing to improve. Additionally, you can always ask for feedback after the meeting, by sending the attendees an email, or asking one-on-one.
Meetings don’t have to be the bane of the workplace. After all, their core purpose is to gather relevant people to solve a problem or come up with ideas. So, as long as you prepare an agenda that clearly outlines what you want to achieve, ask for a specific input, and direct conversations and comments, you’ll have a successful meeting.
What tips and tricks do you have when hosting a meeting (in person or virtual)? Do you have any advice as someone who often attends them? Send us your comments and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we might feature your examples in one of our future articles.