“We bring together the best ideas" Jack Welch said, "turning the meetings of our top managers into intellectual orgies.” How many businesses can say the same about the meetings they hold? In a study of meeting behavior, over 90 percent of respondents admit to daydreaming, missing parts of a meeting or missing the meeting altogether. Over 70 percent say they've brought other work to meetings, and almost 40 percent admit to having dozed off during meetings. Another study shows that disorganized, rambling meetings top the list of what we most hate about meetings.
Starting a meeting the right way is a crucial first step in preventing disorganization and rambling on. Making mistakes at the start of the meeting has a way of casting a shadow on the entire meeting. It often fortifies people's attitude that they're in for another run-of-the-mill, wasteful, poorly run meeting. It sets the wrong tone.
How can you run the most productive meeting ever? For starters, avoid these 9 crucial mistakes.
1. Not starting on time.
Research shows that nearly 40 percent of meetings don't start on time. Not respecting the announced starting time frustrates those who are punctual. They have to waste their time waiting for others while they have pressing work to do. Not only do most people become justifiably annoyed, but the longer people wait, the more the initial energy dissipates. Don't wait for late arrivals; simply close the door and start the meeting.
Another common reason why meetings don't start on time is because people spend the first 10 minutes or so grabbing a refreshment and socializing. Allowing time for schmoozing is important but not if it means starting the meeting late. An idea on how to get around this comes from Jon Petz in Boring Meetings Suck: Get More Out of Your Meetings, or Get Out of More Meetings. Petz advises scheduling social time in the meeting agenda. For example, note the start time as 10:50 a.m. for bagels, conversation and networking, with the meeting proper beginning at 11:01 a.m. sharp. Then get started at exactly that time. Another incentive to discourage latecomers is to get the person who arrives the latest to have to produce notes. "Likely," Petz says, "you'll have that favorite yellow legal pad shifted from one person to another as latecomers arrive and previous note takers heave a sigh of relief."
2. Skimping on refreshments.
Providing coffee is an easy social lubricant that's likely to put people in a better frame of mind. Scientists at Yale University studied the effect of holding a warm cup of coffee in one's hand. It turns out that the physical warmth can make us not only see others as warmer people, but also causes us to be friendlier, more generous and trusting. You may enhance the level of camaraderie when you offer coffee and snacks to start a meeting off. It sets a good tone for the rest of the meeting. Social rituals should never be neglected.
3. Not articulating the three most important items.
The three key items at the start of the meeting are stating the purpose or objective of the meeting, the benefits of attending and the desired outcomes. Even though you have circulated a detailed agenda prior to the meeting, don't assume everyone has read the agenda, or arrives on the day of the meeting, remembering the central reason for the meeting and what's expected of them. Don't hedge on the desired outcomes. For a brainstorming session, for example, your statement might be: "I'd like to see if we can produce five good ideas on improving XYZ." If you don't remind attendees why everyone is there, why it's important and what you're expecting, you may end up having a few people who are just warming the seats.
Research by the American Psychological Association shows that meetings are frustrating to accomplishment-oriented employees. Starting strong will be of particular appeal to your most stellar employees.
4. Neglecting to define what kind of meeting it is.
There are many types of meetings: brainstorming, decision-making, problem-solving, information gathering, planning sessions and project reviews, to name a few. It's important to define at the very start what kind of meeting it is, as this sets the right expectations of everyone present and is more likely to ensure the right participation.
5. Failing to clearly define roles.
Assigning meeting roles haphazardly as the meeting is underway signals disorganization and lack of care in preparing for the meeting. Announce who is the designated note taker and who is the time keeper, if one is needed. Quickly remind the group who will speak on each agenda item and how much time is allotted for each item.
6. Omitting to explain how a decision will be made.
If you're chairing a decision-making or problem-solving brainstorming session, you need to announce at the start of the meeting how the final decision will be made. As the leader, you may decide that you'll make the decision yourself. If this is the case, you need to make it clear to those attending that you're seeking their input and that you'll make the decision yourself. If you're seeking consensus, what would happen if consensus isn't reached by the end of the meeting? To deal with this possibility, make a simple statement such as: "If we don't reach consensus at the end of the meeting, I'll make the decision but I will have received your valuable input." On some issues, you may choose to decide through voting by majority. Just let them know so you avoid confusion.
7. Forgetting to reinforce the ground rules.
People have a way of discounting ground rules and falling back into bad habits such as having their cell phones on, or checking emails while someone is presenting during a meeting. Reminding others of a few ground rules or meeting etiquette is a good practice especially for those who aren't used to attending your meetings.
If you're holding a brainstorming session, you can take an inspiration from IDEO's 7 rules for better brainstorming, which include one conversation at a time, deferring judgment and staying focused on the topic.
8. Not getting to the point quickly.
This is particularly crucial when the meeting includes C-level clients, a group that's often impatient. Get to the main point quickly or you risk being interrupted. Worse still, they may start to tune you out as they focus on their email messages. It's also not unusual for a senior person to even leave the room while you're talking. So make sure you preempt any of this from happening by getting to the bottom line without wasting anyone's time.
9. Not getting attendees involved immediately.
Michael Wilkinson, author of The Secrets of Masterful Meetings: Ignite A Meeting Revolution!, suggests you get employees involved immediately through an engagement question that furthers the meeting's purpose. Here's an example of an engaging start: "Let's assume this meeting was highly successful. Think about the things that resulted, the outcomes that occurred and the things that would make you say, "This was a great meeting."
Your Next Meeting's Checklist
Start meeting on time
State the purpose, benefits and desired outcomes
Mention the type of meeting it is
Explain the decision-making process
Reinforce ground rules
Start with your bottom line to keep the attention of C-Level executives
Captivate your audience by starting with an engaging question
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
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