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There’s one simple secret to effective meetings: set an agenda and stick to it. The agenda drives the content and outcomes of the meeting and, where appropriate, should reflect the needs of all attendees so everyone has a buy-in and an interest in the outcomes. Follow these simple steps for planning and running meetings and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve. And, just in case not everyone in your organisation is following these steps to great meetings, I’ve included some key questions you should ask before you accept any meeting invitation…yes, you do have an option and you can say no if joining in the meeting is not the most effective use of your time.

Before the Meeting

Circulate an agenda.

Never schedule a meeting without making it clear to your attendees what the purpose, timeframe and outcomes of the meeting will be. Send out a draft agenda to everyone who will be attending. If appropriate, ask for their input to refine, add or delete agenda items. Revise and re-send the final agenda the day before the meeting to everyone planning to attend. This way everyone has notice of the meeting content, the opportunity to put their own issues and interests on the table, and time to prepare.

Phone ahead.

Call the meeting attendees (or your key contact) the day before to confirm the meeting time, location, number of people attending (and their names and titles) and availability of any resources you might need for your presentation.

Who’s in charge?

Find out who the decision makers are – this will help you to direct your attention toward the key players as well as to get a feel for the progress of the meeting based on their input and responses.

During the Meeting

Start with the agenda.

Before you open your laptop or launch into your presentation, take a few minutes to write up an agenda that everyone can see. This is far more appropriate in creative or free-flowing meeting environments as opposed to formal meetings where last minute additions to the agenda may not be at all welcomed.

Use your pre-meeting agenda as a base and give people the opportunity to suggest any last minute topic areas or refinements.

Write their responses on a whiteboard or piece of paper taped to a wall, using different coloured pens or initials to indicate which input belongs to which person. This allows you to quickly identify what is important to different individuals – and if you’ve identified the decision makers – what they’re particularly interested in. Some people may be surprised at the opportunity to contribute in this way, so allow time for people to consider their responses.

Keep asking.

You may need to continue asking, “Is there anything else?” If everyone says no, and you suspect there may be something that has remained unsaid, ask, “If there was something else, what would it be?” This gives everyone permission to think laterally, to ‘imagine’ other items which they might not have yet thought of, or wanted to suggest.

Hidden agendas.

In most meetings there are many agendas – the stated agenda and the hidden agendas of the individuals attending – what is it that they want to get out of the meeting for themselves? It’s quite simple to find out – just ask the question – “What other agendas are there for this meeting?” Alternatively you might state, “There always seems to be another agenda with most meetings I attend, is there another agenda today?” It is important to find out if there are other drivers, decision-making criteria or concerns before you begin the meeting.

Global vs local.

Review the agenda to identify global (strategic) and local (specific) items. Make note of whom they belong to and address these issues to their ‘owners’ throughout the meeting.

This agenda-setting process may seem long, but it is so valuable. Setting effective agendas for meetings shows that you value the attendees’ time and that you want to cover information and content that is relevant to them. Once your agenda is set you can speed up the meeting by addressing each item, focusing your presentation on the aspects most important to your audience and demonstrating respect for their issues, concerns and feelings.

Check the time.

Make sure you always begin (regardless of whether everyone has arrived) and finish meetings on time and at the start of the meeting confirm the amount of time available with the attendees, “Do we have until 1.00pm together today?” This gives everyone the opportunity to confirm their availability for the duration of the meeting, or to alert you if they need to leave early. This can be crucial information – it allows you to prioritise your agenda items to ensure you spend time on the right topics, while the right people are still in the room. By always starting and finishing on time people will learn what to expect and make an extra effort to also be on time, rather than risk missing out on content or the embarrassment of coming in once the meeting has started.

How are you feeling?

It is important to get a sense of how people are feeling about the meeting – including their investment of time, anticipation about what will be discussed or what the outcomes might be as well as their concerns about issues affecting them. You can achieve this simply by asking, “How is everyone feeling about today’s meeting? Are there any issues or concerns?” In business we don’t always take time to acknowledge the feelings that enter a meeting, but feelings affect decision-making.

Take note.

Ensure that someone has been given the task of taking minutes, notes, or simply recording action items during the meeting – and make sure these are distributed promptly, within 24-hours of the meeting is ideal. If the meeting is fairly informal it might even be appropriate to photocopy the minute-taker’s notes as the meeting is winding-up and give a copy to everyone before they leave. Avoid the extra work of typing minutes unless it is absolutely necessary.

Questions to ask before accepting a meeting

What are we doing? What is the agenda for the meeting?

Avoid time-wasting meetings by not accepting invitations to meetings that don’t have a clear agenda.

Who else is coming?

Ask this question to ensure that the meeting is set at the right level for you and that the appropriate people are involved.

What can I do?

Find out why you’re being invited to the meeting. Make sure there is a good reason for you to attend.

What time?

Be strict with your time. Find out what time the meeting is set to start and finish. Make sure you are on time and if the meeting looks like going over, let people know that you’ll be leaving at the allocated finishing time.

Is it necessary?

Where possible, only attend for your section of the agenda. Don’t sit through unnecessary meeting discussions waiting to get to the part that concerns you.

What’s required?

Find out what you need to prepare beforehand. If you don’t need to prepare anything, be sure you are clear about why your presence is necessary.

Where is it?

Ask for clear instructions including the address, floor number and meeting room number to avoid wasting time looking for the meeting venue. If possible, get a contact phone number you can call if you are delayed or having trouble finding the location.

Can we teleconference?

It’s not always necessary to be there in person – could you save the travel time and teleconference instead?

What’s next?

At the end of the meeting (or at the end of the section you’re staying for) find out when minutes and action plans will be available.

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