How to Turn Boring Meetings into Productive Discussions
Pretend with me for a minute. Let’s say you called a status meeting at work, and invited your team. You scheduled the meeting for Tuesday at 3pm. Like a good project manager, you gave your team the agenda, explained what the meeting would be about, and prepared your slide deck.
And then you told your staff it was optional.
What would happen? Only 46% of your team would show up.
That is nearly half of your workforce who would rather be anywhere or do anything but attend a meeting.
In fact, some of your team members would rather suffer through a root canal, agonize in a DMV waiting room, or even get a mullet than sit through your status meeting.
Why do so many employees hate meetings?
Because they are mind-numbingly boring. So boring in fact that employees will use any means necessary to sneak out of meetings or avoid them altogether.
Yet meetings remain one of the most effective means of fostering innovation in the workplace today. Meetings are still important enough for workplace pioneers like Google have set up entire departments to understand and improve meeting effectiveness.
So if we’re going to get together, why not figure out how to do it right? Maybe we can even have a little fun along the way.
Cue all the Dilbert strips you’ve ever read.
Research shows that most meetings are boring not because they are contextually so, but rather because most meeting moderators and leaders have no formal training on how to conduct a meeting.
You don't need to go to “meeting” conferences or pay for expensive management training. Just practice these 13 techniques in your own meetings and observe the results.
These are tactics you can implement immediately to turn those loathsome meetings fruitful discussions that everyone looks forward to, rather than avoids.
First off, I want to emphasize one overarching principle: Be prepared.
The best way to drive your team into an eyeball-gouging bout of boredom is to waltz in with no clue about what’s up. The entire meeting devolves into a hemming and hawing session, and a a Snapchat frenzy going on underneath the table.
If you want to run productive meetings, plan ahead. Proper preparation is the ace up your sleeve to run great meetings, even when the cards are stacked against you.
- You could be new on the job and a bit unsure of yourself...
- You might not know what you’re talking about...
- You may even be the least charismatic manager on earth...
But if you do your homework ahead of time, you’ve won half the battle against boredom. What exactly should you do to prepare? Start by following these steps:
Step #1: Outline and share the meeting agenda ahead of time.
Ken Norton, a partner at Google Ventures, recommends sharing the purpose of the meeting and agenda ahead of time so everyone is on the same page.
Structure your agenda in order to highlight the goals you want to achieve. Be sure to include expectations in terms what every participant should contribute.
A specific agenda ensures you hold a meeting to meet a need and not just serve a norm. Agendas also improve the outcome of every meeting, because a clear agenda is easy to discuss.
Studies also show that meeting participants are more active if they know they are contributing ideas that solve real life workplace issues. When people believe in what they do, they engage fully in the work and are far more productive.
How do you go about creating a meeting agenda? Here’s typically what I do.
I create a Google Drive document with the name of the meeting, the date, the attendees, and the main points I plan to cover.
I share the Drive document with the team. During the meeting, I take notes directly within the document I’ve created.
The important thing to remember is keep it simple. You don’t need to create a full-blown dissertation for your agenda. Simplicity wins.
Step #2: Highlight the purpose of the meeting.
We all know the importance of starting with why, but it’s important to share that why with meeting attendees. Sending the participants an invite with a solid agenda is great, but doesn’t show them the bigger picture.
Keep Simon Sinek’s handy diagram in your head:
The why is the purpose of the meeting.
Along with the agenda, highlight the exact results you hope to achieve in the meeting. Include the timelines within which you hope to achieve this. Your team needs to know exactly why they are there? Is it to get feedback, resolve outstanding issues, start a new project?
Remind the participants of the meeting goals when beginning the meeting.
Step #3: Encourage your team to prepare as well.
Just as you’re preparing for the meeting, encourage your team to do the same.
Explain exactly what they should do before the meeting, and what they will be expected to do in the meeting.
Setting clear expectations makes the meeting far more effective than just winging it, “going around the table,” or having a “brainstorm session.”
Step #4: Remind your team about the meeting.
Perhaps you’re the kind of manager whose employees are 100% intrinsically motivated all the time and never forget a meeting. No? Me neither.
While those teams may exist, they would be the exception. In reality, people are forgetful. Even with today’s constantly-connected apps and calendars, we lose track of important appointments.
Sending out meeting reminders keeps everyone in the loop and ensures that the meetings tarts on time. Moreover, sending reminders is effective in encouraging participant’s preparation. Timed properly, reminders can encourage team preparation.
Remote work is becoming ever-more-popular as companies seek top talent abroad. One of the challenges involved in managing globally-distributed teams is simply bringing people together at a reasonable hour.
When it comes to remote work virtual meetings, make sure to send meeting reminders far enough in advance that people in different time zones will see the reminder and have time to prepare.
I work with a clients and employees in far-flung corners of the globe. I use TimeAndDate.com to plan out meeting times.
So far, we’ve dealt with meeting preparation.
And we’re halfway through the article.
Proper preparation is essential for running productive meetings, but it’s only half the battle.
To escape the quagmire of boring meetings, you need to know exactly how to run meetings smoothly.
Excellent meetings tick each of the following boxes:
- Clear expression of meeting points and adherence to the agenda
- Acknowledging each attendee and their contribution to the meeting
- Setting the right tone for the meeting.
Let’s dive into each.
Step #5: Show up on time, always.
Tardiness—especially from the meeting leader—is inexcusable.
When you come to the meeting late, your team will follow suit.
Do not hold your breath to accommodate people walking in after the meeting start time. Doing so only encourages their bad behavior and sets a weak precedent for the rest of the team.
When the meeting is scheduled to start, go ahead and start.
Step #6: Set a friendly tone.
Your main goal at the meeting venue is to get the team's attention and encourage their contribution to the agenda.
To achieve this, create a comfortable environment right away. Casual conversations before the meeting starts are great for creating comfort.
Pre-meeting chats offer a window into other aspects of the lives of your staff. The conversations are also perfect icebreakers that let the team slip comfortably into idea-contribution mode. Handled well, they will turn a stressed, tongue-tied team into a free flowing forum of smart ideas.
Step #7: Keep the meeting on task.
Start the meeting by stating clearly the reasons of the meeting (the same reasons you sent to your team prior to the meeting).
This further crystallizes the purpose of the meeting in everyone’s mind, and lays out the topics you will cover.
Ensure topics of discussion do not veer off the targeted points. It’s okay to be strict about this. If you get too far off track you won’t be able to get back on. Staying on task is also essential for keeping the meeting within the allotted time.
If it’s clear that a particular unplanned topic needs extensive discussion, then you should plan a follow up meeting. Often times, if you let those “important” topics sit for a few days before resurfacing, you’ll find that they weren’t so important after all.
Step #8: Grab and hold attention.
Your meetings might be boring because you’re not sure how to make them fun. Is that even okay?
Here’s an easy way to change that: never settle into a routine.
Variety is the spice of life, and this is equally true for your work life as it is for your personal life. Keep changing and improving your aspects of your presentation style, mode of soliciting feedback, and the different icebreaking activities throughout the meeting.
You may want to go all Silicon Valley and try a planking meeting. (Yes, it’s a thing. Google it.)
For example, try one of the following to spice up your meetings:
- Add question and answer sessions into the agenda
- Introduce a panel discussion and break the meeting into small action groups
- Introduce games and gamification.
- Let pairs or teams present together.
- Vote on high priority issues.
- Have a walking meeting.
One of the most effective leaders I’ve worked with would run meetings using the socratic method, usually when he was trying to communicate a new concept or introduce a business pivot.
He would generally start with a few broad questions, elicit feedback, and then dive deeper in with more questions. By the time the meeting was underway, everyone was hooked — paying attention to every question, every answer, and every movement towards the solution.
It was a brilliant technique, and one that required him to thoroughly prepare for each meeting.
Any activities that cut down on the monotony of conversation will keep attendees engaged. Give it a try for your team and think up a few fun activities.
Step #9: Address the meeting respectfully.
A great meeting fosters productive conversations and elicits opinions from the members, encouraging a healthy and productive dialogue.
Refrain from “pumping” your participants with information overload. And, ensure the agenda you set cut out completely, the notion of one-way information dumps.
Addressing participants respectfully and encouraging conversations among them keeps them engaged and attentive. When discussions get technical or contentious, it’s especially important to maintain an objective and respectful tone.
Acknowledging participants open for their accomplishments also improves participation from everyone on the team. Think of your role as nurturing the meeting attendees to bring forth useful ideas. A little well-placed praise is very encouraging.
Step #10: Balance personality types.
If a meeting turns out to be boring and soul drenching, moderators tend to shoulder the blame. However, clashing personalities types in a meeting can make the entire room uncomfortable for everyone.
For example, a meeting with one A-Type extrovert at four introverts will feel lopsided. To lead great meetings, start by reminding every participant of the goals of the meeting and the role of each participant.
While at it, stress the importance of concluding all discussions within the allotted time so that everyone can get back to work. This keeps each member engaged and gives everyone a clear picture of where they fit into the group.
Step #11: Handle difficult meeting attendees with tact.
Continuing the meeting respectfully brings a friendly vibe to the meeting, making it less stressful and easier to focus on the agenda. Negative energy has a tough time finding its way into the meeting if you maintain a kind and professional decorum.
Inevitably though, problems will come up. People can be difficult just for the sake of it, and arguments will arise between different team members - so it's important to know how to resolve project disagreements. As a meeting leader, the most important thing is that you don’t react to the situation.
Maintain a sense of calm. Let each member have their say, acknowledge their viewpoint, then immediately get back to the agenda at hand.
Tip: call impromptu breaks to give people room to breathe. Not only does this diffuse tension, but science shows us that taking breaks helps improve our focus and even make new neural connections.
Step #12: Ban all distractions.
Beep! Beep! Bzzz!
To maintain discipline and stay on task, simply ban the use of gadgets. They are nothing more than a distraction, a way for someone else’s agenda to take priority of the meeting agenda.
Phone vibrations and text message beeps throw off concentration. Further, anyone using a phone is incredibly distracting and annoying to team members who try to stay on task. Lastly, eliminating distractions saves time because no one needs to repeat him or herself.
This one’s a no brainer -- turn the cell phones off and keep them out of meetings.
Step #13: Take amazing notes.
Each meeting eats up precious work hours available in a given day. It’s crucial, then, that they achieve their set goals. Make them even more effective by providing each participant with a copy of meeting notes.
Efficient meeting notes are simple, clear, and spell out the specific actions required. They indicate the various team members tasked with completing the specified actions.
Create a plan of action after each meeting, outlining exactly what was discussed and the tasks required to accomplish it. Instead of sending a regular email with action items, try switching it up by creating a simple timeline in powerpoint and sharing it will the team to give them a quick snapshot of next steps. These meeting “plans of attack” build on the momentum generated in the meeting and ensure that progress is made on meeting action items.
Meetings can be something to dread or to get excited about. If you’re like the vast majority of companies, chances are your meetings are doing more harm than good.
However, if you’re ready to make meetings fun, then you and your staff will walk away from each meeting feeling empowered and ready to get to work.
You don’t need to implement all 13 tips here to run great meetings. Even one or two can have a huge impact. Implement them in your next meeting, and see the results for yourself.