Meetings. Ugh. The dreaded time suck of work life. Everyone complains about them, yet very few of us do anything to make them better. In fact, most of us are complicit in maintaining the status quo. We’re bystanders, quietly allowing long, tedious, pointless meetings to perpetuate.
Sure, there are some widely known recommendations for improving meetings – e.g., set an agenda, start on time, invite the right people, hold standing meetings (where participants are more likely to hustle through their material). However, these are simply bandaids. While experts in time management and leadership skills spin their wheels offering advice to cure the common meeting, I’d like to propose that we look at the root cause: communication.
I believe communication skills and practices are key to organizational effectiveness, and most definitely to the (in)effectiveness of meetings. What are meetings if not a venue for people with common interests and issues to come out of their metaphorical cubbies and gather to communicate? Meetings are the purest and most ubiquitous venue for communicating face to face about business matters.
That said, what can be done to improve meeting communications? I recommend four strategies to help break the cycle of monotony, mediocrity and misery in meetings:
1. Articulate Your Desired Outcome
This is different from setting an agenda, which you should do also. This is also more definitive than stating a purpose. Articulating your desired outcome is the context- and expectation-setting that most meetings lack. It is stating – in the first 10-30 seconds (or less, ideally) – exactly what you want to happen by the end of the meeting. For example, “By the end of this meeting, I would like to …” get everyone up to speed, come to a consensus or decision, get approval, confirm next-step assignments, etc.
Articulating your desired outcome is not a restatement of the topic of the meeting, it’s a directive or call to action. I call it a “focal point.” It’s something you state at the very beginning of the meeting, reinforce in the wrap-up, and utilize throughout to dial back the inevitable digressions and diversions.
2. Include Only Necessary Detail
From where I sit, the cancer that eats away at an otherwise healthy meeting is too much information, too much detail. There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is the presence of participants who feel the need to prove their competence or worth by sharing everything they know. However, too much detail is inefficient and, frankly, not at all helpful unless the info is packaged inside of a point.
Simply put, a point would be a summary statement that captures the importance, significance, or value of the info. Detail on its own is not memorable or meaningful. It requires packaging inside of a point in order for other people to understand and retain it.
Communicating effectively is all about prioritizing, and this is especially essential in a meeting when participants are contributing the scarce resources of their time and attention. Consider that prioritization implies a hierarchy. If you picture a pyramid, then what we’re talking about is putting your point at the top of the pyramid with the detail underneath, appearing in descending order of importance. That way, you know to deliver the most important pieces first – and maybe only.
3. Be Prepared or Call It Off
Let’s face it: People come unprepared to meetings, which is not helpful. A room full of people who plan to wing it for an hour or more? That’s not very nice, nor is it very effective.
Communication isn’t like breathing, i.e., “it just happens.” It requires preparation in order to be useful. Preparation shows respect – for your work, your organization, and your colleagues. If you’re the meeting leader, you want to have an agenda prepared, and you want to know your focal point. What is your directive or call to action? If you’re a meeting participant, prepare your point/detail hierarchy ahead if you know you’re on the agenda. If you’re not sure you’ll be speaking, you should still be prepared with succinct questions you might want to ask or with a brief statement on your area of responsibility.
If you find that you or other participants are not prepared, reschedule the meeting. If you find that people are meandering or “processing out loud” in the meeting because they didn’t prepare ahead, then cut the meeting short. This is not punishment; it’s an acknowledgment of reality and perhaps a little bit of behavior modification.
4. Set Organizational Standards
Not just for internal meetings, but for external meetings as well. I’ve had several clients come to me for communication skills training because they want their teams to be sharp in new business presentations. They jump right on board as soon as I raise the question, “Well, what about regular meetings? Don’t you want your people to give clients a good experience in regular meetings, too?”
A starter set of standards would begin with principles like always being prepared, containing detail, and articulating a desired outcome. Those alone would raise the level of meeting effectiveness simply by not letting people ramble.
Communication is the currency of success. It’s how we get things done. It’s how we achieve goals. Meetings are meant to provide a venue for collaboration and communication so that things get done and goals are achieved. I’m an evangelist for better communication skills in any setting, but there’s no question that holding ourselves and others accountable for better communication skills in meetings would go a long way toward curing the common meeting.
Beth Noymer Levine is the Pprincipal of SmartMouth Communications and author of Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World.