Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, published an article recently with his one rule to eliminate useless meetings: No presentations. I get what he means by that, but it's an absolutist statement and I can't say I agree with it in 100 per cent of all circumstances.
The way to hold better meetings, I believe, is to first understand what kind of meeting you intend to hold, and then organise yourself and prepare for it accordingly. Taking a few simple steps in the planning phase of a meeting goes a long way towards making it more productive for everyone.
4 kinds of meetings
In my mind, there are four kinds of meetings. If you've never thought about the kind of meeting you intend to hold, that could be half your problem.
Informational meeting. An informational meeting is exactly that: A meeting used to disseminate information. Semi-annual town hall meetings are typically informational. A PR briefing is also usually informational. Usually, only one party has information to share. The attendees are there to absorb it.
Discussion/collaboration meeting. Brainstorming meetings are examples of discussion or collaboration meetings. In this kind of meeting, one or more of the parties involved might work on the agenda. Information is meant to come from multiple people. Collaborative meetings are often problem-solving meetings, as well.
Check-in meeting. The check-in is a regularly scheduled meeting, usually around a particular project, which could be ongoing or have an anticipated completion date. Daily scrums are an example of check-ins. Check-ins are good for making sure all the involved parties are kept up to date on problems, solutions, changes, progress, etc. One benefit of regular check-in meetings is that they can often be very short.
Working meeting. Working meetings are a personal favourite. In a working meeting, you do work that needs to be completed. It's as simple as that. Working meetings nip procrastination in the bud. They are often collaborative. One example of what can be accomplished in a working meeting would be programmers and stakeholders getting together to implement changes in code (say, to a website or other interactive product) that the two parties can only truly verify accurately in the presence of one another.
How to make meetings more productive
1. Schedule quickly. Except in the case of managing an ongoing or long-term project, I hate meetings that are scheduled more than two or three weeks out. Often before scheduling a meeting, there are conversations among all the parties, by email, phone, or in person, and I much prefer to have those conversations fresh in my mind before the meeting. Schedule too far out, and the pertinent info will be long gone from my head.
When trying to find a time that's suitable for a number of people who don't make their calendars available, you can use a free site called Doodle, which lets you create a poll in which people can indicate the times they're free.
2. Use a clear subject line. In a meeting invitation, having a clear subject line is key to everyone's productivity. The subject line should succinctly indicate the general purpose of the meeting. It helps people know what they should expect before they show up or dial into the meeting.
A clearly written subject line can also tip off certain parties as to what they need to prepare in advance of the meeting.
3. Have an agenda or goals. Every meeting needs an agenda or list of goals. Depending on the complexity of the meeting, you might not need it to be explicit, in which case it should be implicitly stated in the subject line. An example is "Subject: Set line-up for October issue of magazine" — the goal is to complete that task in a working meeting.
The purpose of a check-in meeting is to check in, review progress, and raise concerns, so you likely won't need an explicit agenda for those kinds of meetings.
Discussion meetings really benefit from having an agenda. Everyone should receive the agenda in advance of the meeting. I recommend including it in the notes field of the meeting request.
When the meeting leader takes the time to write an agenda or basic list of goals, it also helps her solidify in her own mind the purpose of the meeting and how she will direct it.
4. Define the meeting leader. Every meeting needs a leader or co-leaders. In most cases, the meeting leader is implicitly known: It's whoever called the meeting or has something to share, in the case of an informational meeting. In phone and video chat meetings (such as Webex), it's often the person who initiates the call.
The absolute worst meeting I ever attended had no leader, and about halfway through the meeting, I realised several parties involved thought I was supposed to be driving the meeting. It was at once infuriating and mortifying, not to mention completely unproductive. In another reckless scene, I once called a meeting, scheduled it, and fully intended to run it, only to have another colleague completely take it over — which was also irritating.
5. Lose the technology, but do the demo. Yes, this article is meant to cover topics related to technology, and yes, I'm telling you to lose at least some of your technology in order to hold more productive meetings. Before you waste your own time creating a PowerPoint deck, ask yourself: "Do I really need a presentation at all?"
If the answer is yes, remember that slides should be used to keep people engaged and reinforce your points — not to make them for you. No one is impressed by star wipes, and no one wants to watch a video when they've come to hear you speak or have a discussion with you.
If you have a product or service to show off, demonstrate how it works! Don't show pictures or videos of it. Give them the real McCoy.
If you want to give certain information to every person at the meeting, including photos and videos, send it to them before the meeting so they can become familiar with the material, which will be more productive for everyone anyway. Then you can spend your time getting to the heart of the matter, probably taking much less time to do so.
Recommended tools and services
Here's a short list of tools and services you might find useful when it comes to your meetings: