How to Run Effective Meetings

According to a recent study, 55 per cent of Australian professionals spend a quarter of their day in meetings. The general consensus seems to be that meetings happen too frequently, last for too long, and don’t accomplish enough. However, meetings, when done correctly, ensure communication and foster collaboration. Keeping meetings short and productive takes quite a bit of effort, but your colleagues and employees will thank you. Those who work in large companies could save up to 30,000 hours per year by changing the culture of meetings in their workplace. Here’s how to keep your meetings as productive - and painless - as possible.

Keep Meetings Infrequent and Small

If you’re simply sharing information or giving instructions, you probably don’t need to call a meeting and can send an email instead. While weekly check-ins and other recurring meetings seem to be the norm, many of these are unnecessary. In high-functioning teams, there’s no need to hold meetings for the sake of making sure everyone is doing their job - that should be a given.

If a meeting is necessary, keep it as small as possible. Smaller groups of ideally no more than 5 people are most effective at decision-making. When you bring 6 or more people into the room, you increase the number of possible social interactions and group management problems will present themselves. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs was ruthless in his goal to keep meetings as small as possible, and as a result he was famous for keeping meetings productive.

Schedule Meetings in 15-minute Increments

Most people can pay attention in meetings for 10 to 18 minutes before their minds start to wander - that’s why TED talks are limited to 18 minutes. When our brains process new information, our bodies require large amounts of glucose, oxygen, and blood flow, which causes us to feel physically fatigued after the 18 minute mark. While 30-minute meetings might be the default within some organisations, it’s been shown that 15-minute meetings are 50% more productive than longer meetings.

Of course, it’s not always possible to accomplish everything on our agenda within a 15-minute time frame. In those cases, try to add as few 15-minute increments as possible. In addition to making us feel tired and bored, longer meetings deplete cognitive resources which are necessary for decision-making. If a meeting lasts too long, it could actually be counter-productive. One way to keep meeting lengths down is to hold separate meetings for different types of work. Don’t mix the administrative, tactical, and the strategic - our brains aren’t great at switching gears so quickly anyway.

Provide an Agenda Well in Advance

At least a few days before each meeting, you should determine the following details:

  • Title - Make this as accurate and descriptive as possible.

  • Purpose - What is the goal of this meeting?

  • Trigger - Why is this meeting important today or this week?

  • Outcome -  What should be accomplished by the end of this meeting?

  • Practicalities - When and where is the meeting? How long will it last?

  • Preparation - What do participants need to do to prepare for the meeting? Is there anything they should bring with them?

Then, send an invitation to all participants with the above details. Include your agenda, which should indicate how long you plan to spend on each topic. Let participants know what they need to bring to the meeting, and whenever possible, give them the opportunity to brainstorm ideas and solutions prior to the meeting.

Run Effective and Engaging Meetings

It’s one thing to come up with an agenda, and another thing entirely to stick to it. Be sure to start on time, otherwise you won’t be able to end on time. Choose a moderator to keep track of time and (tactfully) point out when the group is off-topic. If something comes up that isn’t on the agenda, decide immediately whether it’s important enough to take the place of another agenda item. If it’s not, table it for another time and move back to the agenda.

To minimise distractions and maximise the information retained by participants, instate a no-laptops rule - even for note-taking. Research shows that those who take notes by hand have a better conceptual understanding of new material than those who take notes on a laptop. For longer meetings, consider having multiple speakers, as engagement is 20% higher when people other than the presenter do most of the talking. Spend the last few minutes of the meeting recapping decisions and assigning action items to responsible parties.

Following Up

When meeting attendees promise to forward materials to the group, only 1 out of 7 actually end up doing so. Get back in touch with attendees within 1 day of the meeting to request any follow-up items. Send a summary of what was accomplished, along with a list of action items and who is responsible for each item. Then, check back with the appropriate parties to make sure the necessary work was done.

It might seem counterintuitive to have fewer and shorter meetings in order to get more done. But with proper planning, a 15-minute strategy session might accomplish more than a 4-hour all-hands meeting. Remember to keep the attendee list small and the agenda concise - your colleagues will stop dreading meetings and will start showing up prepared and staying engaged.