The 10 Commandments of a Meeting
March 27, 2018
So let’s talk about everyone’s favorite subject: meetings. In lieu of springtime, let’s do a little spring training and brush up on some proper meeting etiquette. Lock enough people in a room for long enough and things start to get weird. Meetings are both highly focused times and huge opportunities for distractions. I’m sure we all could use a little refresher. In particular let’s address more of the behavioral best practices of a good meeting, rather than the structure of the meeting itself.
There are two sides to the coin when it comes to meetings: First is the host, second is the participants. I will periodically switch between both perspectives to better illustrate the impact each can have on the other.
Commandment #1: Have an Agenda
AKA: “Get your shit together Carol!”
The first thing to think about is: do you even need to have this meeting? In the world of instantaneous mass communication, every question you may have is literally a click away. Do you really need to gather a group of people in a room? If the answer is yes, then by all means set up a meeting. First things first though, know what you need to discuss. You should easily be able to bullet out the main points of your meeting so invited participants know what it’s about. Do not try and cram your agenda in the subject line of the meeting; this is lazy and you know it. The agenda allows you to set the stage of the meeting, keep things on track, and indirectly nudges participants to be prepared. Hell, you should even note that specifically on the agenda, if someone needs to be ready to speak or share something it should be called out.
Ok, participants your turn. Read the damn agenda prior to the meeting! We all have uttered the words “what is this meeting about again” as we sit down in a meeting. Not a great way to show people you are prepared; plus it is disrespectful and you’re better than that.
Commandment #2: Book a Room
AKA: “Do you have a reservation?”
This one is so simple I am not going to spend a lot of time on it. Don’t bank on just jumping into an open room. Other people need to book meetings too, and it’s courteous to let them know you are gonna be in a room. Meeting rooms are scarce. Some seat 5 and some seat 25. Pick a room/location that fits your needs and participant size. You wouldn’t show up to dinner on Valentine’s Day without a reservation, so don’t book a meeting without a room. Simple.
Commandment #3 Accept/Decline Invites
AKA: “Will you be mine?”
Participants, this one is all you! Your presence is being requested, what an honor. Please click accept or decline. It’s simple. You just need to let them know. Just as the organizer took time out to specifically request a chunk of your time, you should return that courtesy by letting them know if you can attend or not. Declining a meeting is not a terrible thing. Don’t let that meeting invite sit in your inbox for 3 days before you figure out what you are gonna do. Accept/decline as quickly as possible and don’t you dare change your response 5 mins before the meeting starts… If you have ever been stood up on a date you know how this feels, it hurts. No, I am not over it Becky!
Commandment #4: Only Invite Relevant People
AKA: “I don’t belong here.”
Meetings can be a big waste of time, especially if you don’t need to be there! It is completely disrespectful to waste someone’s time by asking them to be somewhere they don’t actually need to be. If you add someone to a meeting as “optional,” you should seriously reconsider inviting them. You are already saying “look you really don’t need to be here.” Think of it as invites to your wedding and dinner cost $150 a head…. Sorry cousin Cindy, we just aren’t that close. You’ll get over it. But seriously, don’t invite people who don’t need to be there; they have better things to do and you don’t need them zoning out in your meeting.
Commandment #5: Start and End on Time
AKA: “Bueller…. Bueller… Bueller”
If you are hosting a meeting, make sure you manage it. Arrive early if necessary, be prepared, and make sure it kicks-off on time. Same goes for end times. Your guests have other commitments; therefore, you need to be respectful of their time. Make sure when booking a meeting you allocate enough time to get what you need but not too much time where a one-hour meeting ends up only needing 15 mins. As a host be mindful of time management. If you get to the last 5 mins of your meeting and feel like things have the potential to go longer, announce to your group that there are only 5 mins left. Encourage people to wrap up their comments; push through what you can and end on time.
Participant, how can I be as clear as possible here? Show up on time! Seriously! Just be on time! Get it? Good. It’s that easy. In all seriousness, tardiness is something only elementary school teachers should be policing. Be on time, be ready to participate, and be present. When the meeting is over, leave. Most people have busy schedules. If the meeting was supposed to end at 3pm and it’s 3:05 and you gotta go then do so. Politely excuse yourself and head out. The host can easily schedule a follow-up meeting if necessary. Easy stuff right? Did I mention arrive on time?
Commandment #6 Know your Audience
AKA: “Hello Detroit!” (we are in Lansing)
Hosts, this is mostly you. You wrote an agenda, you invited the right people, you booked the room, and everyone arrived on time. Now the show begins. You need to know who you are addressing and what you are talking about. If you are hosting a brainstorming session, maybe it will be more informal than if you are speaking to your executive team. Prepare accordingly. Have any necessary documents or slides ready to go. If you are printing out documents, make sure to print enough for everyone attending. If you are reading off slides don’t get too wordy; people will read the slides instead of listening to you.
Participants, really this is easy for you. Show up ready for the setting you are walking into. The way you talk to your roommate is different than the way you talk to your grandma (hopefully). If you are participating in a meeting be ready to conduct yourself in the level of professionalism that is required.
Commandment #7 Keep it Short
AKA: “Remember when Snapchats were only 10 seconds long?”
There is no reason for your meeting to take longer than necessary. Keep it on-track and concise. Get to the point. Short and straightforward.
Commandment #8 Don’t Hijack the Meeting
AKA: “Wait, what are we talking about again?”
The meeting is there for a reason. Stay on topic. I get that you had a cool weekend floating down the Chattahoochee Jerry, but we are trying to have a meeting about TPS reports. As a host, you need to make sure the meeting stays on topic. If things seem to be getting off track, it’s your job to jump in there and redirect everyone’s attention.
Participants, you can really help here. No sidebar conversations, stay focused on the topic at hand and be engaged. If you recognize the conversation going off topic, by all means, help call it out.
Commandment #9 Listen
AKA: “I’m sorry, can you repeat the question?”
Stop thinking about what you are going to say next and listen to the person speaking. Don’t fiddle with your phone, don’t click or type on your computer (unless it’s necessary), and don’t distract other people. Bad behavior is contagious in meetings. Be respectful and engaged. This one is for hosts and participants alike. The great Ernest Hemingway put it like this, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
Commandment #10 Do Everything Else
AKA: These didn’t warrant individual commandments.
These are some general thoughts and suggestions that didn’t fit into a particular section but are still worth noting.
Having just two people in one room still is a meeting: Sometimes when we are in more intimate settings, we forget that. We tend to fudge on the requirements. We tend to find it easier to apologize to one person for walking in late versus a room full of people. Whether it’s one person or 50, maintain your integrity.
If it’s an online meeting get connected early: With so many options for hosting an online meeting it can sometimes be a bit finicky to get connected. If you are unfamiliar with the platform, be proactive and get yourself set up ahead of time. Nothing derails a meeting like spending the first 10 mins trying to get connected.
Put away the devices: We get it, you work in tech, but if you don’t need it for this meeting, put it away. I can see you reading your text on your Apple watch. People tend to hide behind their computer in meetings; it makes them feel comfortable. Close the lid, direct your gaze at the host/participant, and be engaged.
Reiterate action items: Give yourself and others detailed, actionable takeaways. Call out people by name, give them expected dates and times, and get verbal confirmation from them. “Who wants to go first?” nobody stands up… “Jerry, please go first”… Jerry stands up and goes first. Don’t expect things to happen without explicitly asking for them.
There are countless good behaviors that we should all practice in our meetings. Above are just a few, but even by following these above commandments, you’ll get better, more productive meetings. Find out what works for both you and your team; encourage others to brush up on their behavior.