How to Run a Meeting

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 17, 2009 · 41 comments

in Money & Career


Have you ever been at a meeting where all you can think about is how much more productive you’d be working alone at your desk? And how much of the company’s money is swirling down the drain while your co-workers surreptitiously check their Blackberries under the table? And how you wish you had made like the crew of the Enola Gay and carried a cyanide capsule with you?

People hate meetings. But it’s not the meetings themselves that are inherently pencil-in-eye inducing, it’s how meetings are run. Without a real leader, meetings can become unproductive and inefficient, not only wasting time and money, but sapping office morale. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

A man knows how to lead. He knows how to run a meeting that starts on time, ends on time, and gets things done. Here’s how.

Establish whether the meeting is absolutely necessary. Before you even think about scheduling a meeting, figure out if you really and truly need one. You should only call for a meeting if:

  • The information to be discussed could not be disseminated via telephone or email. Meetings should never be called when only a one-way information exchange is needed.
  • There are clear benefits to having everyone together in one room.

Set an agenda. This is crucial for a productive meeting. Without a clear, pre-set agenda, a meeting will drift off-topic and interminably drag on. And then when you’re done and everyone has dispersed, you’ll suddenly remember an important point you forgot to bring up, thus necessitating another meeting.

Type up an agenda for the meeting with a specific list of what items will be discussed and in what order.
Email everyone a copy a day or two before the meeting to give them a heads up about what to expect and some time to start thinking about the issues and what they’d like to contribute. People can also make additions and objections to the agenda before the meeting instead of at the meeting. Make it clear in your message that if it’s not on the agenda, it can’t be discussed at the meeting. Paste the agenda into the body of the email. People don’t open attachments.

Make sure key people will be in attendance.
If you call a meeting when you know key people can’t come, you’ll basically spend the meeting trying to talk around them and saying, “Well, we’ll have to wait to see what Mike has to say before we can start on that for sure.” Decisions get deferred, more meetings are necessitated, and you waste time afterwards bringing the MIA people up to speed. Arrange a meeting for when you know key people can make it.

Talk one on one with people to resolve pet issues before the meeting. Even if you make it clear that only agenda items can be discussed during the meeting, there are always people who try to break this rule and bring up their favorite pet issue. These people can get the meeting way off track. If you know someone has an issue that doesn’t really affect the group, talk to them one on one before the meeting to preemptively resolve the problem and nip their meeting interruption in the bud.

Bring bagels or donuts. The only thing that makes meetings a bit more palatable is something for the palate. Bring something for people to munch on.

Set up the chairs in a U-shape.
There are 3 different ways to set up a meeting room: the U-shape, a circle, or lecture style. Lecture style, with everyone sitting side by side and facing the front, gives the leader complete control, but doesn’t allow for any collaboration. The circle lends itself to a feeling of equality and plenty of group-think, but with no clear leader, the discussion can easily devolve into a bunch of flapdoodle. The U-shape is the best compromise; it gives people a chance to share and collaborate, but the guy at the top of the U is recognized as the leader and can keep things on track.

The circular, uber-democratic, let’s hug it out style has been in vogue for awhile now, and it makes everyone feel important, but it’s also the reason meetings get off-track and become totally unproductive. The truth is that not everyone does have something important to say, and a leader is crucial in keeping things focused on the things that matter.

Start on time. And don’t recap for late people. Doing so legitimizes lateness and disrespects those who made an effort to show up on time.

Begin with what was accomplished since the last meeting. “Last time we talked about x and here’s how it’s been implemented.” If you don’t want people to feel like meetings are pointless, you have to offer some proof that they’re not.

Get to the heart of the matter. Remember, meetings are not for the one-way exchange of information. If there’s background information people need to know in order to engage the issues, circulate this information in a flier or email before the meeting so everyone is up to speed and you can skip the milk and jump right into the meat. At the meeting, succinctly describe the issue or problem and quickly move into coming up with a solution or course of action.

If people haven’t prepared for the meeting by reading up on the background information or otherwise, then dissolve the meeting. Moving forward will just be a waste of time. This takes some balls, but people will come ready next time.

Come up with a tangible solution. Many times during a meeting when people are unable to attain a consensus, the issue is tabled for the time being, which means of course, that there will inevitably be another meeting in the future to again address the problem. So whenever possible, preempt these future meetings by coming up with a concrete solution and specific actions for people to take. This is where your quality as a leader is tested-can you break through the stalemate, broker a compromise, and come up with a solution?

Control the discussion. Perhaps a leader’s most important job is keeping the discussion productive and on topic. There are several ways to do this:

  • Get feedback from everyone. Having a clear leader in a meeting does not stifle feedback and collaboration, it ensures it. Without a leader, the opinionated loudmouths, who do not necessarily have the best ideas, will dominate the discussion, while the more reticent can’t get a word in edgewise. Draw out the quiet people by asking questions like, “Jane, you’ve had a lot of experience with that company, what is your opinion of their proposal? Of course, some people are quiet because they have nothing insightful to offer. A good leader knows which is which.
  • Ask good questions. Sometimes people can’t come up with the right solution simply because the leader isn’t asking the right questions. Ask questions that will really make people think and look at something from another angle.
  • Shut down disruptions. It’s perhaps the hardest part of the job, but a leader must tactfully shut down people who are getting off-track, whether they’re simply going on and on or they’re just way off-topic. Wait for the bloviator to take a breath and then say something like:
    • “That might be a good subject to discuss another time, but let’s get back to talking about X.”
    • “Why don’t the two of us discuss that after the meeting.”
    • “Good point but we need to get back to agenda.”
    • “Let’s table that for now but we can put it on the agenda for next time.”
    • “I’ve just signaled for Tom to render you unconscious with a blow dart to the neck.”

You don’t want to come off as a jerk and cut them off, but it’s best to err on the side of having a firm hand. While the windbag may be a bit chastised, everyone else in the meeting will inwardly be  applauding you.

Summarize the meeting. At the end of the meeting, quickly tick off a list of everything you have accomplished and resolved to do. Delegate tasks and make sure everyone is absolutely clear on what their individual responsibilities are. Don’t ask for “other business.” You’re just opening a can of worms. Remember, if it’s not on the agenda, it’s not going to be discussed.

End on time. If you want people’s attitude towards meetings to change, then they have to know they can trust them to start and end at the specified time. Your task as the leader is to set the pace and keep things moving so you accomplish your goals within the set time.

Follow up and make sure things gets done. This is just as important as the meeting itself. Remember, at the start of the next meeting, you’re going to have to summarize what was accomplished since the last one. You better have something to say.

Of course, if you’re not the leader, than there isn’t much you can do to curb meeting inanity. But meetings are a great place to show your potential leadership skills. Come on time, be prepared with good ideas, and hopefully you’ll soon be the guy standing at the top of the U.

What are some of your tips on the do’s and don’ts of running an effective and productive meeting? Share them with us in the comments!

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Will November 17, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Excellent, excellent advice.

The best person to lead a meeting is the one who wants it over with quickly!

2 Joe Proctor November 17, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Don’t you worry about X. Let me worry about X.

3 Jason Y November 17, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Great advice!

I find that circles are not too democratic for some groups.

4 Hayley November 17, 2009 at 9:59 pm

How about video conferencing so no one has to drive over!

5 Scott November 17, 2009 at 10:02 pm

The very few really well-run meetings I’ve been a part of have had one element in common from the leadership/meeting planners – they act like sheep dogs, a little nip here and a little bark there and pretty soon the herd is marching right where it needs to be. Always subtle but always assertive and always moving – this requires good situational awareness on the part of the meeting leader (hence the rarity of it) and a good deal of practice.

6 Sir Lancelot November 18, 2009 at 1:47 am

Sorry, but bagels and donuts? No wonder America has a serious obesity problem. Free donuts while you get your car serviced, free donuts at the meeting… You now, you don’t need to be eating ALL THE TIME.

As for setting an agenda in stone I can see when you’re coming from but sometimes meetings are the only chance to discuss issues that couldn’t otherwise be discussed collectively as they’re not big enough to deserve their own meetings. I do agree that some people like to kidnap meetings to suit their own personal agendas though.

7 Shannon November 18, 2009 at 3:46 am

I think the paragraph you gave called, “Summarize the meeting,” is crucial. Make sure everyone knows their part in the big picture, and hold them accountable to get it done. The team only works when everyone does their job. Great post.

8 Greatful Dane November 18, 2009 at 7:22 am

It is important to realize that not all meetings have a goal of coming up with a solution. Worthwile meetings may be held to brainstorm or to evaluate the results of a brainstorm. It is therefore important to let all participants know what the purpose of the meeting is – discussion, evaluation, or decision. It is a natural reaction of just about everybody to attempt to solve a given problem as soon as possible, but trying to solve a problem before it has been thoroughly discussed and all options evaluated is usually counterproductive.

As for ending on time, I once worked for a British officer at a NATO HQ in southern Europe; he shut off the air condition at the beginning of every meeting. It kept people wonderfully focused.

9 Brian Escamilla November 18, 2009 at 8:31 am

Definitely some great advice. I’ve been on both the giving (leader) and receiving (attendde) ends of the spectrum and I have to agree with all of it. Bottom line, everyone’s time is valuable so it should be clear to all that the meeting is the best use of everyone’s time. If not, don’t have the meeting.

10 Den November 18, 2009 at 8:56 am

Great topic!

I hate meetings, hate ‘em, hate ‘em, hate ‘em! I only call them if I have no alternative, and I only invite people who can or will have a direct impact on the topic; anyone else receives a followup e-mail. I’ve been in way too many meetings where everybody under the sun is invited so that “we’re all on the same page.” Those kinds of meetings always seem to go on for hours with endless . I think that’s just a big waste of people’s time. I prefer the focus of meetings to be action, not information. Get in, get it done, get out; no more or less time than necessary.

Also, I make a log of action items and distribute it after the fact. In the next meeting, I make that the first item on the agenda. People seem to get stuff done if they know they’re going to be called out in front of others.

11 KevinJ November 18, 2009 at 8:56 am

Thank you for this. I’ll be sending it to the chair of my PTA. Half those people seem to never have attended a meeting before, and the problem of setting expectations starts at the top.

12 Rick Scoutmaster November 18, 2009 at 9:49 am

This is brilliant! I found some of this info a few years ago, and it made a huge difference. Attendees noticed, they gave unsolicitaed accolades about a meeting!? This article more comprehensive than anything I’ve read before.
BTW, (just in case) where do you get knock out darts?

Will (at the top) is so right, people who have meetings to so they can remind the others who is in charge, don’t want it to end. The leader needs to be the one who wants it over as soon as the key topics can be handled.

13 Loris November 18, 2009 at 9:53 am

@ Joe Proctor. I soooo love you for that. Blank? Blank!

14 Adam Rogge November 18, 2009 at 10:41 am

The point about not recapping what has happened for the late arrival is VERY important! Being late for a meeting (habitually) shows disrespect for not only the meeting organizer, but all the attendants as well. When they come in an apologize for being late, ignore them. When they ask for a recap of what happened, don’t give it to them and tell them to show up on time next time. This could be one of my biggest pet peeves.

15 Luis Q November 18, 2009 at 11:06 am

Awesome topic, thanks Brett/Kate! I think this will be very helpful in my near future.

16 Luke November 18, 2009 at 11:14 am

I would say unless people come away with a list of action tasks, the meeting was a waste. It should be emphasized to list the action tasks either as they are discussed or at the end of the meeting, be sure everyone knows what they have to do, and then follow up. Based upon your responses to the follow up will determine if you (ever) need to meet again.

17 Steven November 18, 2009 at 12:19 pm

I need to print this out and call a meeting here to run over this. Meetings turn into gripe-fests, and nothing ever gets decided.

18 The Innkeeper November 18, 2009 at 12:21 pm

I agree with the ideas of “making sure there is a point”, but also to make sure that the meeting agenda is condensed into something that can be addressed in a relatively short meeting – in my experience meetings that last more than an hour are too broad in scope and can probably be handled in a different way.

(I think by the time you approach an hour, creative juices are shot, half the people are looking at the clock thinking of what they need to get done before lunch or leaving for the day, concentrating on how badly they need to use the restroom after drinking that 20 oz. coffee mug in the first 1/2 hour, etc.)

The other thing to avoid is the “culture of meetings” – I worked for a company that seemed utterly fascinated with frequent status meetings on the umpteen different projects that people were responsible for that were scheduled for that “full hour”. The end result is employees who have to stay late just to do the work that they had to give the ‘status’ on during an entire days worth of meetings. (Which made management wonder why they always struggled with finding ‘productive employees’.)

Plus, anyone who schedules meetings that are either outside of “normal working hours” or to start or end within the 1/2 within normal working hours needs to be taken outside and beaten with rubber hoses. Seriously – no one is ever prepared for an 8:00 AM meeting unless they showed up at 7:30 AM just to prepare, print out what they need to, etc. – which causes people to have to rearrange their personal schedules (kids to daycare?) for some illusion of promptness. The end result is people scattering in late, not being prepared or being totally distracted by the chaos of the interruption of a ‘normal’ daily routine.

(My favorite questions at an 8:00 AM meeting: “did everyone read the e-mail I sent this morning?”… which is never the case because no one has read their e-mail yet, so another 10 minutes goes down the drain ‘recapping’ the preparation….)

19 Jack McGowan November 18, 2009 at 12:58 pm

I am a general contractor/project superintendent building tracts of homes, apartments and condos over the last 30+ years. Every project is the same but different. The same mechanical ABCs to putting it together with a whole bunch of new problems.
Every project has a group of subcontractors cosisting of at least 27 subcontractors, suppliers and vendors depending on the project. The trick is to get and keep all of these people on the same page and working together in harmony, like an orchastra.
The only way to do this is to get everyone together (the foreman and supervisors), at the jobsite for a Jobsite meeting once a week.
What day of the week? What time of the day to get the best results? Simple questions.
The answer is not Monday AM to get this bunch of supervisors together. Mondays are bad because these manangers of people need their Monday to get the week going. They just do not have the time to break away for a jobsite meeting on the other side of town or in another city. I have found that Tuesdays at 10am are best for me and getting my agenda tuned up with last minute 411. 10am also gives the people micromanagers enough time in the morning to get their people out the door, in a car and make my meeting on time and ready to participate.
I do the coffee and donuts thing and the U shaped formation of people.
I hand out an agenda so each subcontractor/supplier can follow me/us. I address each sub individually and encourage people who have common problems to get together after the meeting and work them out. we, as a group also take a field trip, weather permitting through the project and look at the job in real life together.
We all walk back to the field office and I cut them loose from there.
I attribute my many years of success in the building industry to these meetings and could never build the same quality living units on tight time frame schedules without them.

20 Rev. Thomas Extejt November 18, 2009 at 3:23 pm

At a church, most meetings are evening meetings. When I run meetings, I do new business right after the e-mailed minutes have been approved. That way, the really heavy agenda items get discussed while everybody is still fresh. Any committee reports come last, when people’s energy level is starting to sink. And I always promise people to get them out the door in 1 1/2 hours. Any meeting that is much longer than that is spinning its wheels anyway, unless perhaps you are planning the invasion of Normandy.

21 Brian November 18, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Consider action items when concluding a meeting. These should be clearly defined tasks with clear instructions as to who is responsible. These action items will help drive the agenda for future meetings.

22 David Crandall November 18, 2009 at 10:56 pm

I’ve been a victim of corporate world meetings for the better half of a decade. Few meetings I have ever attended even had as many as three of the qualities you mentioned; none of them had all or most. Because of that, I’ve always felt that meetings were nothing more than a corporately acceptable way for codependent people to collectively waste time while at work.

While I 100% agree with everything written and wish that was the way meetings were handled, unfortunately in my experience a lot of the offenders were higher-ups. Most of the repeat late attenders and off-topic-ers were people higher on the chain. I’d love to see an addendum to this post with advice on how to handle/respond to bosses whose habits are perhaps less than productive (especially in meetings!)

Great post!!!

23 Kelvin Kao November 19, 2009 at 4:42 am

I think some of these can be observed and learned by listening to those radio call-in shows. It has a clear leader (the host) and you can see how they get answers out of quieter guests and sometimes cut off the callers that just ramble on.

24 Mr Miyagi November 19, 2009 at 10:36 am

I have been in both very productive meetings and very wasteful meetings where I am currently employed. I think a lot of a meetings success depends on who is speaking/leading the meeting and how prepared they came into the meeting room. The U-shape chair setup actually does work. It encourages discussion, and good conference rooms have tables set up this way. To the person who suggested video conferencing, we have tried this on several events. It is best if used for one-on-one meetings. If too many people are involved with video, realistically there will be hardware and network issues from at least a few and it slows us down. I would rather skype on phone conference.

25 Will Ramirez November 19, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Everyone who knows me well knows how much I detest meetings. This is some great advice to ensure I never be the culprit of a “pencil in the eye” inducing meeting

26 Living with Balls November 19, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Meetings: Where the minutes are kept and the hours are wasted.

27 jack November 19, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Don’t forget about what you’re wearing. Makes a the difference between people listening to your ideas or just looking at your gross stained shirt.

28 Andy Leach November 19, 2009 at 5:50 pm

this is a FANTASTIC post!

I’ve printed this and i’m going to leave it on my boss’ desk (i’m the store manager, but any meetings are the CFOs idea) she doesn’t realize that I’M the loudmouth, and her dealing with ME would help the meeting run smoother!

also, a point on circles. you can use things like obvious opulence and height to imply status. we don’t have a conference room, just one retail location, and i always sit on a counter instead of in a chair, so people have to look up at me when i speak. when i worked in a more traditional office setting, the group leader had a huge, wing back leather affair and everyone else had your standard stacking chairs. we sat in a circle but there was NO debate over who the man was.

29 Dustin | Engaged Marriage November 20, 2009 at 4:50 pm

I just forwarded this to my boss. Hopefully, he won’t be offended but will take these suggestions and make them happen. Most meetings suck for the very reasons you’ve cited.

30 Nik November 21, 2009 at 11:31 am

I work in a culture of meetings and perennial lateness. It is nearly to start a meeting on time because 75% of the people arrive 2-5 minutes late. Further, the assumption is that most of them just arrived from another meeting that let out late or exactly on the hour. I have no idea how one could enforce punctuality in that environment, unless you want to read the agenda to yourself for the first five minutes and then tell everyone when they arrive that you already covered those items.

31 Bob November 22, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Excellent article!

I pride myself on running well-organized meetings, and i am always amazed at how people forget that the purpose of a meeting is never to get together and chat… it’s to achieve a purpose that cannot be completed unless the key players are all gathered to discuss the issues.

My advice to anyone that runs a meeting is this: remember that you take on a specific responsibility by holding the meeting, and your peers will respect you if you take that responsibility seriously. By organizing ahead of time, managing the discussion, and working with an agenda you show respect for everyone’s time and input. And even the most unruly group will respond positively to that.

One other trick that I learned years ago: ask for permission to manage the meeting. Whenever I start a meeting, I always address the group and let them know how I will run the meeting, how the agenda will be followed, and how I will handle distractions or sidebars. I basically ask for their permission to stop idle chatter and give equal time where appropriate. If you do this respectfully, you can not only command the respect and attention of your peers but your managers/senior staff as well.

32 James December 8, 2009 at 11:23 am

All good stuff.

Also, when (my) meetings do finish on time with all points covered, I make it a point to say to everyone “well done, everything covered and on schedule”. Just reminds people that hitting milestones IS important.

33 Adam December 8, 2009 at 7:44 pm

Great and informative post, I used to go to so many meetings whilst working for Tesco, and I now realise how many of them were actually pointless, most of the time it was the store manager telling us to keep our backs up and push sales, thats not a meeting it’s a bloody lecture! Nice post.

34 Legal Marketting December 10, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Great post! This has lots of useful relevant tips on running a proficient meeting. I also was looking at other posts and having a well put together appearance is always helpful in a conference setting and video conferencing is always a good idea!

35 Travis December 23, 2009 at 6:21 pm

The best way to end a meeting that I have ever personally heard came from my last boss. Once a meeting had met it’s resolution, and once the redundant recap and rehash of the meeting was beginning, he’d say, “If you will all excuse me, I’ve got shit to do.” He would then shake hands with everyone, and walk out the door.

36 Leon December 25, 2009 at 1:38 am

What I’ve found to work is to set ground rules for those attending the meeting. If people aren’t willing to accept them, then they have no business being there. Additionally, use or adapt some form of Robert’s Rules (or Parliamentary Procedure) to keep the meeting on topic and in order. Enact penalties or fines for those coming in late or being on their Blackberry.

One of the biggest wastes of time is during discussion when people just rehash others comments/opinions on a topic just to hear their own voice. With Robert’s Rules they can be cut short so that the meeting can be moved forward.

37 VJ March 17, 2010 at 5:23 pm

When I first glanced at the title I thought it read How to Ruin a Meeting. and then I said to myself “Wait a minute. I already know how to do that!”

38 Derrick May 22, 2010 at 6:01 pm

M father used to sit on the boards of a number of companies. His number-one rule was that ALL issues discussed at the meeting must be sorted out ahead of time. This is much like the rule above about settling pet issues, but in this case, the outcome of the meeting should be already known before it begins. Seems odd, but this is the only way meetings ever accomplish anything. He would go and meet with every board member ahead of the meeting and sort out every issue that was to be discussed. Then, come meeting time, things went very smoothly. It helped he was a hard-ass business man who could bend people to his will……

39 hitesh sahni June 9, 2010 at 8:06 am

I think I’ll soon run a meeting on how to run a meeting. :-) Great Article. Thanks!

40 Malik February 27, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Well, depending on the context of a meeting I expect there is no a standard template for opening and running a successful meeting. However, the above mentioned descriptions adds to ones quick mindedness to follow and steer the meeting (discussion) in a fruitful result.
personally, as an organizer, I will add some friendly sentences in the start up of a meeting, and then adopt the principle of ping-pong game.

41 Lilliam Minissale December 8, 2013 at 2:00 am

My dream retirement would involve a great log cabin in the mountains. Who needs a beach?

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