How do you feel when a meeting has been canceled? Matt Abrahams believes nearly everybody is thrilled.
“Most people feel meetings are not as effective as they could be,” says Abrahams, a lecturer in organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and host of Think Fast Talk Smart: The Podcast. “However, it is possible to have well-run meetings that are productive, that you look forward to, and that good things come from.”
Effective meetings require thoughtful consideration beforehand of what you want to accomplish, he says, which also helps you determine whether a meeting is even necessary or if the goal could be achieved another way—such as via email or Slack.
“People often use meetings as Band-Aids for deeper communication issues. So when communication isn’t clear and consistent, people either put more meetings on the calendar, or more people show up for meetings because it’s the only avenue for direct communication.”
When you really do need to call a meeting, these six tips from Abrahams will help you make it worthwhile.
Send an inviting invitation
A good meeting invitation engages attendees from the beginning and sets the tone for successful collaboration, Abrahams says, and it all begins with the name of your meeting.
“Don’t put the word ‘meeting’ or any synonym for it in the title; rather, include an action specific to your purpose. For example, instead of ‘Update Meeting’ or ‘Process Improvement Summit,’ take a marketing mindset and have the meeting title be ‘App Launch’ or ‘Catalyzing Research Effectiveness.’ ”
In the description, briefly state the purpose of the meeting and link to the agenda, if there is one. “I also often include a task or question or challenge that I want people to work on prior,” he says. “And if we’re using tools such as Zoom, I put a link to a tutorial for those tools. It conveys that I care that everyone can be successful in the meeting.”
Be mindful of timing
Most of us tend to set meetings that suit our own schedules, without considering how refreshed, rushed, or tired the attendees may be, Abrahams says.
“It’s not about what’s convenient for you. It’s about what’s best for your participants so that they can be more productive,” Abrahams says. “If your participants had three meetings prior to yours, you may want to move your meeting to another, better time.”
Another trick? Match the length of the meeting to the tasks involved. “It’s OK to have a 22-minute meeting if that’s all the time you need. Some research shows that when you truncate the time of a meeting, people are more efficient. You needn’t just accept the 30- or 60-minute meeting times provided in most calendaring tools,” he says.
Set your agenda
If your meeting will cover more than one or two orders of business, Abrahams says, an agenda will help: List the items to be covered, who the item’s owner is, how long the item is expected to take, and whether the item is up for discussion, informational only, or requires action. And, for best results, be strategic about the order.
“We often list items in the order that comes to mind or maybe the order of people’s seniority, but research suggests the complexity or the challenge involved should be considered,” he says.
“If the group already knows how to work with each other, start with the middle-intensity issue, then move to the most challenging, and end with the easiest. If people don’t know each other, starting with the easiest gives you a quick win and builds a sense of camaraderie.”
Open with action
Abrahams says he’s on a personal mission to change the way presentations and meetings start. “Most people start meetings by stating the purpose and reviewing what happened in the previous meeting. It’s ludicrous since we are often just reminding people of the previous meeting they did not enjoy!”
Better, he says, is to begin with an action, such as answering a question or doing a collaborative task. “I would much rather participants get engaged and involved in something, and then we can tell them what the meeting is about and review the previous meetings.”
All meeting facilitators need to be concerned about contribution equity, Abrahams says, so it’s critical to help all participants feel comfortable sharing their input. “For example, in the midst of a virtual meeting where some folks have yet to participate, I may send you a chat and say, ‘I recall you shared some ideas on this topic in the past, might you want to share some now?’ ”
In hybrid meetings where some people are remote and some are in the room, Abrahams says, starting with whichever group contains fewer people when seeking input invites more equal contributions.
And, be sure to acknowledge those who contribute, either in the meeting, outside the meeting, or in chat. “For example, you could say, ‘That was really useful when you brought that point back up because we’d lost track of it.’ This acknowledgment encourages folks to share more.”
For recurring meetings with the same group, Abrahams suggests having various members rotate through roles like facilitator and note taker. “This way, everyone comes to understand why it is important to pay attention and participate—along with how hard it is to run the meeting.”