The magical formula for meetings that ‘don’t suck’

Any questions? Anyone? Anyone? It’s kind of a joke based on popular movies (at least, popular for my generation) but if you’ve ever led a meeting you know how it feels to try desperately to encourage interaction, only to be met with blank stares (or if you’re on a conference call not even that). I’ve seen meetings that were inspiring, awesome and trajectory-changing as well as meetings that gave a new definition to the word interminable. Having sat through and (unfortunately) led the bad as well as the good and researched the topic extensively, I’ve developed somewhat of a magic formula for fun and effective meetings (and that’s saying a lot for a confirmed introvert, let me tell you!)

It is all centered around the golden rule of meetings, which is that people remember what they say, not what you say. The more involved they are in the meeting, the more effective it will be. Period. It doesn’t matter what the purpose is of the meeting, or what information you have that they don’t. They will remember what engages them and they will be engaged when they are participating.

It took me a long time to a) learn this and b) use it effectively in most situations. In some cases, it’s obvious. If I’m gathering a group of managers together to discuss why sales are down then clearly I’m going to want a participative meeting, but what if I want to share they monthly financials? Or roll out a new incentive plan? Or discuss a current problem we’re facing? Or train folks on a new system or piece of equipment? Obviously in those cases, a lecture or presentation is most effective, with time for questions at the end, right?

Actually no. I’ve found that any time I’m lecturing or presenting info to people they are tuning out if they’re not talking, no matter how important the information is. The good news is that it’s possible to hold engaging, fun and participative meetings on even the most ‘boring’ of topics. Here’s my magic formula for engaging meetings:

1)      Develop a meeting intent

2)      Carefully balance an agenda to include participation, exercises and input

3)      Provide a specific expectation of meeting roles ahead of time

4)      Elicit and not just solicit input

5)      Employ brevity and humor (it’s a tie)

Regarding meeting intent, it’s important to be clear on the purpose of your meeting. If you’re just gathering people together because it’s been a while since you had a meeting (don’t laugh, I’ve heard this a lot) then you need to do a bit more prep. Don’t confuse the subject of the meeting with the purpose. There are all sorts of meeting subjects; sharing top down info, gaining bottom up info, training, financial review, policy implementations, etc.  To transition your mindset from subject to purpose, just keep asking why, and what do you want to be different as a result of this meeting? WHY do you want people to know the monthly financials? WHY are you training people? WHY do you want to tell them this info? It’s never just to give people more facts, but to help people do more or less or something different as a result of the facts. THAT is your meeting intent and THAT is what you need to keep front and center.

Balancing your agenda: Once you have your meeting purpose, it’s a lot easier to decide what should be on the agenda and how to present it. If you are reviewing financials, for example, your intent might be to have your managers take ownership of their departments, suggest ways to improve revenue and/or profit, or to account for the variances. OR, you might want to share a particular success with the intent of adopting it throughout the company, or continuing great progress. Alternatively, you may have identified a problem that needs quick resolution.  Knowing your intent allows you to decide how to deliver the info and what to ask of the participants. This will ensure that if you do decide to present the information in the meeting (rather than ahead of time) you can balance that part out with audience participation.

After you have an agenda that is balanced (or even better, weighted in favor of audience participation), it’s a good idea to share it ahead of time. For example, let your managers know that the purpose of the meeting will be to review their department’s financials and each manager will be delivering a five-minute presentation explaining their variance to plan (positive or negative). Or that you will be reviewing a decline in sales and asking each participant to review their contingency plan with the team. This will avoid your unduly embarrassing participants by ‘catching’ them being unprepared, and will also ensure people are actively engaged, knowing they will be playing a part in the meeting.

Fourth is to elicit and not just solicit input. This means you make sure everyone talks in your meeting. Because the point is not to catch people not paying attention but to ensure they are paying attention in the first place, make it clear at the outset that you WILL be calling on people. This is even more critical on conference calls where (like it or not) most people are muting the call and doing other things. Tell people that this is an interactive meeting and that each person on the call will be addressed directly at least once because you want to hear from them.

I couldn’t decide between humor and brevity for the final point. They both play critical roles in engaging people in meetings. As an act of human kindness, try to make your meetings as short as possible. Most people are just too busy to be able to stay engaged for very long. If you do require a long meeting do everything in your power as the leader to reduce other workload so as to keep people’s attention on the task at hand. And wherever you can, use humor. If you’re not funny, harness the funny person in the room for good, because otherwise they will derail your meeting for their own distracting purposes.  People can definitely laugh and learn at the same time and if they are enjoying themselves, they will not be doing other things during the meeting.

So there you have it…the magic formula for meeting preparation. If this was helpful to you, please let me know and happy planning!

By Carrie Maldonado

Carrie Maldonado, is an organizational development consultant, author, and speaker. Carrie's eclectic mix of professional interests include writing, speaking, coaching, and consulting on topics ranging from organizational behavior management to spiritual transformation in and out of the workplace. Carrie lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with her patient and long-suffering husband and their three children.

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