Meetings suck – Here’s how to have an effective meeting

By April 2, 2015Leadership

If you work in an office you know that meetings suck. They are the least productive part of the  workday and have become the most despised part of working in an office. This can’t continue. To fix this problem I put together some steps on how to to lead an effective meeting.

But, before we dive into fixing meetings let’s a closer look at meetings. They are an important yet hapless part of doing business. I think that so few people enjoy them because they are huge waste of time that could be spent on actual work. In fact, in his book REWORK Jason Fried (founder of 37Signals) has an entire chapter titled “Meetings Are Toxic”. “They’re usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things” and “They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute”, says Fried. I couldn’t agree more.

But, I am convinced that this doesn’t have to be the case. Keep reading if you are ready to host effective meeting. The following info will help you host meetings that suck considerably less.

Prepping for an effective meeting

Prepping for an effective meetingMeetings cost Money and Time. Depending on the people involved one of those two is more valuable than the other. The first thing you should do before setting up a meeting is decide if you need to have one at all. Ask yourself “Does a decision need to be made or am I just relaying information?” If you’re just going to be sharing updates then you could just give them via email. Trust me: People will come to appreciate this. If a decision does need to be made, think if it really requires discussion. If no discussion is required then to do it over email.

Now, if you have done the above still need to have a meeting that’s perfectly fine.  The following points will help you with the quest of keeping your meeting efficient and effective.

Invite the right people

This is the first important step. Keep the guest list small. Only invite the people that are essential to the decision making process, or have a stake in the topic because it affects them. When in doubt, invite less people.

Only make it as long as you need it to be

Every meeting I’ve ever been to is scheduled  for a minimum of 30 minutes.  I’ve always wondered why. We all know that a standard 30 minute meeting contains lots to wasted time. Ten minutes of useless banter, ten minutes of waiting for people show up, and then ten actual minutes of discussion.  If you only need ten minutes then schedule the meeting for ten minutes. A short meeting creates a sense of urgency and helps people stay on point. It will be difficult to adapt to such a short meeting at first. But, once they see how it frees up their day they will thank you. I have started to have fifteen minute meetings as a default. To achieve this I  make sure that people are up to speed via email before the meeting even starts. I see it as mandatory homework for all attendees.

There will be an occasional need for multi-hour meetings. But, that should be the clear exception. Any meeting over 45 minutes requires a built in break to keep everyone fresh. Testament to this is that school periods are capped at 45 minutes in Germany – with a mandatory 5 minute break.

Time of day makes all the difference

Always avoid scheduling meetings within the first 30 minutes or the last hour of the day. Trust me.

If your meeting starts too early, people won’t be in work mode yet. They’ll still have all the morning chitchat in them. This means it will take much longer for your meeting to get actually get started.

I have been part of many morning meetings that were scheduled to start at 8 a.m. But, the participants that set up the meeting were not even in the office until 7:59 a.m.

On the flip side, the last hour of the day is a terrible time slot for a meeting. If the work day ends at 5 p.m., people always start to mentally checking out around 4:15 p.m.  We all do it: We think of the last minute items that need to be completed before we leave. Or, about the things that we need to do after we leave the office. I like to call these parts of the day “Distracted Time”.  People are distracted in meetings no matter what time it is. Yet, these two times are when people are the most distracted with something else.

Create an effective agenda

Who hasn’t  walked into a meeting and discovered that it’s about something completely different? This is due to a poor agenda. A good agenda will list all topics to be discussed, a one to two sentence overview of each, and the time set aside for each topic. Including a short overview allows attendees to prepare for the meeting. Also, include the meeting’s objective (see below). This will save time at the beginning of a meeting. Make sure to attach the agenda to the meeting invite.  This allows participants to know if they need to invite someone with more expertise to the meeting.

Have clear objectives

This is the important factor of how to have an effective meeting. The best way to achieve great results is to make everyone aware of what the objective. When you send out your agenda, include a clear objective statement in the invite. An objective statement is exactly what it sounds like. It shares the hosts expectations for the meeting with all attendees. It can be as informal as: “We will go over a the recent complaints about the app, find a solution, and setup an implementation schedule”.  This lets everyone know how to prepare for the meeting.

Game Day

Effective meeting Game DayNow that you have finished pre-gaming by sending out the agenda it’s time to prepare for the actual meeting. If you will be presenting be sure to practice your presentation. This is a pet peeve of mine. Just ask any of my former students. Being in a meeting where the presenter is not prepared is like watching a train wreck. Always remember that the meeting attendees want and needs you to be successful. Don’t let your nerves get the better of you.

Maintaining Control

A major difference between a good and bad meeting is how well it stays on target. Seriously. Maintaining control doesn’t mean ruling with an iron fist. But, being the host of a meeting requires a level of confidence and assertiveness. As I said earlier, meetings are a breeding ground for distractions. The best way to avoid them is to have a solid agenda to fall back on (see above). As mentioned above, scheduling a short meeting creates a sense of urgency which will keep attendees on track.

Please Hold All Questions Until the End?

If you’re presenting and ask patrician to hold their questions until the end, stick to it. Allow one or two questions, and the next thing you know the floodgates will be open and your meeting will derail.

In contrast, I invite and encourage questions during a meeting for two reasons: (1) Being interactive keeps people engaged and (2) it keeps the presentation (especially a dry topic) from becoming too boring. I think it works, but only if you are ready for it.

Keep Attendees Engaged

If a purpose of the meeting is to get feedback then ask direct questions. Let’s say Jackie is a designer and you need her to create an info graphic. Then address her directly: “So, this is what we’ve got so far Jackie.  I’m hoping you and your team can help us out. We need something that will pop.” This is only an example, as I would never tell Jackie to create something that will pop.

Another way of keeping attendees engaged is by inviting questions during the meeting. As mentioned above, encouraging questions will help keep attendees engaged. Especially during a dry topic


From the first moment I heard about bike shedding I became fascinated. Bikeshedding is also known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. It states that discussions more involved and take more time than they need to. It’s an argument that organizations give too much weight to trivial issues. A typical statement that accompanies discussions on bike shedding is: “the amount of noise generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change”.

Bikesheeding is near impossible to control. People will feel that the topic is genuinely something that needs discussion. Your only weapon here is to have a good agenda. That will you can fall back on it and cut the effect of bikeshedding on your meeting.

To learn more about bike shedding check out the Wikipedia article. It does a great job of explaining the concept.

Closing Out the Meeting

Closing Out an Effective MeetingYou’ve done it. You’ve made it to the end of your short and successful meeting. But before you end the meeting, ensure that all attendees know what needs to be done after they leave. These are called the next steps. If you held a meeting over 60 minutes be sure to recap everything using the agenda. Otherwise you can skip straight to the action items section below.

Action Items create Accountability

To create a sense of accountability among everyone I always close a meeting with Action Items. These will sum up the next steps. I do this by saving a few minutes at the end of the meeting to recap each action item and the owner. This can be a quick: “Just so we’re all on the same page:

  • James, you are going to speak with legal about using a Game of Thrones reference in next month’s blog posts..
  • Mike, you are going to research new coffee mugs and send an email to everyone with price points and suggestions.
  • Everyone clear on their tasks?”

Make sure everyone acknowledges their individual action item(s), because that is what creates accountability.  Everyone knows what is expected of them and they will be held to it.

A previous boss ensured that every action item has a clear owner. And  now I do the same. The owner will not always be able to complete the task, but they are responsible of the completion. Using the design example from earlier: an account manager  might “own” the design action item but Jackie will still design the infographic. This allows prioritization of tasks and creates a touchpoint for others within the organization.

Follow-up via email

Here, the Agenda that you created earlier will come in handy again. Use it to create a recap of the meeting. Be sure to include all Action Items, their respective owners, and expected delivery dates. This type of follow-up creates a final touch point for everyone and illustrates that achievements of the meeting.

That’s all folks! Go forth and use this knowledge to turn meetings that suck into effective meetings.

Have any questions? Want to share your own meeting stories, frustrations, or suggestions on how to have an effective meeting? Share it in a comments below!


P.S. Thanks to Vince Vaughn and his co-stars for creating some amazing Stock Photos and giving them away for free.