Here is your guide to planning effective meetings and what role to play in those conversations.
It’s popular to criticize meetings as a waste of time.
They’re boring, they’re too long, they’re ineffective – those are all standard complaints. To address this, there are plenty of guidelines on making meetings more effective. I’ve worked at companies that even posted a list of those in every conference room.
You probably know the list:
- Start on time.
- Have an agenda.
- Listen to others.
These lists are great on meeting fundamentals, but they tend to leave out how prepared and engaged the participants are.
After all, if the meetings are a waste of time, it’s logical that we’ll treat them that way. We won’t be fully present at the meeting, we’ll be busy “multitasking,” and we won’t do our best.
Conferencing Tools Aid in Meeting Planning
I’ve been using a particular conferencing tool for a number of meetings lately, and I noticed that it has a really
interesting feature that happens to relate to this. After the call, it sends you an email that says who was on the call, and how long everyone spoke.
Maybe that doesn’t immediately strike you as one of the most interesting tidbits of information you could get in an email. But try looking at it this way: I had a recent call that ran for 35 minutes (including the five minutes of dead time when I was the only person on the phone), and I was speaking for 20 of them. That could be some pretty good feedback about my effectiveness in the meeting. Depending on the nature of the meeting, that might mean I was doing too much of the talking, or it might have been just about right. Was I doing my best for this meeting?
The answer is to be deliberate in the meeting planning phase:
- What is the purpose of the meeting? Is information being presented, a decision being made, or questions being asked? If you’re the organizer, make sure everyone attending knows the purpose, and appropriately push the conversation to keep it on track.
- What is the format and style of this meeting? Is this a facilitated brainstorming session, a walk-through of a status report, or a document review?
- What information (i.e., documents) does everyone need to have to make the meeting more effective?
- What is your role in the meeting? How are you going to play that role?
If you’re the organizer, you should design the meeting with these questions in mind, aligning the plan with the desired outcome. If you’re a participant, you should be thinking especially about how to best play your role in the meeting. Essentially, you need to make a meeting plan.
Every morning, I go over my calendar and write down a meeting plan for every appointment. What questions do I have? What action items do I want to check on? What do I want to make sure I communicate? After I’ve spent a couple of minutes on that, I can go through my schedule of back to back meetings, ready for everything.
Role-Playing in Meetings
Let’s think just a little bit more about meeting roles. This might seem odd to think about.
A meeting’s just a conversation, right? We don’t play a role in a conversation – we’re ourselves. Right?
Not really. If you’re a parent, you probably have noticed when you use the “mom voice” or the “dad voice”. Or your kids notice when you use your business voice on the phone. That’s playing a role. You’re approaching those conversations with a point of view based on your role, saying different things in different ways.
Here are a few of the roles common in meetings. Note that not every meeting has every role, and you may sometimes play more than one role at a time, which can be a bit of a balancing act.
- Facilitator/organizer – you’re driving the meeting to an objective, facilitating contributions to the discussion, doing a time check, and making sure the agenda items are getting checked off. You need to know when to steer and when to let the conversation go where it needs to.
- Presenter – you’re presenting information for approval, information, or review; you’re the expert on the material. You’re responsible for crafting a coherent message to tell your story. You’ll want to push through your content, but need to recognize when an important tangent has come up.
- Interviewer – you’re trying to learn from your fellow meeting-goers; you’ve got questions, and need to balance diving into detail versus covering the breadth of your scope.
- Subject expert – you’re the person answering the questions in an interview style meeting, or a key voice in a brainstorming session. You need to provide clear answers as well as understanding where the interviewer is going. You might need to answer the questions they don’t know enough to ask.
- Audience – you’re one of the people there to learn from a presenter. You should be listening actively, as appropriate to the context, and ready with questions.
- Contributor – you’re not the primary presenter, interviewer, or subject expert, but you’re ready to supplement the discussion; you may have specialized knowledge that the primary presenter or interviewer has less detail on. During the call, you’ll want to let the primary do most of the talking, looking for places to jump in to clarify a point or help your teammate out of a jam. Like the color commentator in a sports broadcast, you especially need to know when to stop talking!
Spending time on meeting planning, knowing your role, and knowing what you want to achieve are all key to putting your best into a meeting and getting the most out of it.