Recently, I was in an annual budget meeting for an organization that uses volunteers to manage its various committees. It turned out to be a classic example, in its way. There were about thirty people (half men, half women) there, half of whom knew each other. As they sat down, all were handed a three-ring binder filled with statistics and facts. We all flipped through the binders, but couldn't make much sense of the numbers and information that lay within, so we simply relaxed and waited to hear what the leaders of the organization would tell us.
About ten minutes after the published start time of the meeting, the person "in charge" cleared his throat rather loudly. The rest of us obediently stopped talking (some even closed the binders), since we recognized the clue to do so.
I heard a story the other day I would like to share with you. A not-so-bright woman dressed in a large fur coat recently got on an airplane and took a seat in first class. The flight attendant looked at her ticket and said gently, "Miss, I believe your seat is 22A. That is back there on the left next to a window.''
The woman looked up and said, "I know. But I couldn't possibly sit back there because it would ruin my coat. There is not nearly enough room in those seats."
The flight attendant continued to explain. "I'm afraid I can't let you sit in this seat. It is assigned to someone else. I'll be happy to show you exactly where 22A is."
The woman continued to refuse to move, so, in frustration, the flight attendant went in to talk to the captain about the situation. The captain said, "I'll take care of it." He then walked over to the woman in the big fur coat and whispered in her ear.
Then, like magic, the woman stood up, said, "Oh. OK" and walked back to seat 22A.
The flight attendant was bewildered. She stood with her mouth open as she watched the woman go to seat 22A. Once that was taken care of she went back up to the captain and asked how he was able to get her to move?
The captain said, "Oh, that was easy. I just told her that first class was not going to Chicago.'"
The meeting chairman rested his mustache back on his lower lip, but the ends began to turn up as his smile grew from underneath. He waited for a roaring response from his funny story. But it didn't come. There were some half laughs, some chuckles, but mostly steely stares.
It was an ugly moment. Half the committee chairs were women, and they didn't laugh. Most of the others knew better than to laugh at a joke that put down half the population in the room.
As you might imagine, this meeting was now tension-filled. The chairman was uncomfortable. The committee chairpeople were uncomfortable, and many of the participants were darn right mad! How dare he? How dare he insult people as a way to show how warm, friendly, and funny he was? Most of the audience did not think he was funny. In fact, most people in that room no longer thought he was very smart. Credibility for our handle-barred friend was at its nadir, and no one in the room wanted to jump in and rescue him for fear they would be tarnished also.
Things did not get better. Our handle-barred friend started the official meeting content by saying, "Well, I don't really have anything to say. [We already guessed that of course!] Mr. Hawthorne, can you go over the budget guidelines?"
We didn't know who Mr. Hawthorne was until he started talking, because Handlebar had left out the part of the meeting where speakers are introduced. We looked and listened while Mr. Hawthorne told us how to get things approved, and what he needed from each of the committee chairs. Many of us flipped through the binder to find the location of the information that related to what Mr. Hawthorne was saying. Abruptly, it seemed, Mr. Hawthorne stopped talking. The room was silent.
Our handle-barred chairman started again. "Sean, why don't you explain the improvements that have been made in the last few months?"
Sean looked startled. "Well, I guess I could, but I hadn't really prepared anything to say."
Handlebar seemed surprised, perhaps annoyed. He retorted, "Well, you should always come prepared to present at my meetings, Sean, you know that." The rest of us didn't breathe. We felt sorry for Sean. That wasn't fair. If Handlebar hadn't prepared him, how would he know he was expected to speak? We gave encouraging smiles to Sean.
Again we searched through our binders to find the applicable pages. Sean was done. Silence.
"Melanie is now going to tell you about how we have updated our website." We all looked to see which mouth would move next. We could narrow it down to only half of the audience, guessing Melanie was probably a woman. We were all praying Melanie was prepared to say something. We couldn't stand another Sean episode.
If Melanie wasn't prepared, she faked it well. Melanie talked for ten minutes or so. Unfortunately, we heard very little. We continued to try and find our way in the binders. For those of us who were new, we now knew the names and approximate responsibilities of four people in the room other than ourselves. Melanie stopped talking.
Handlebar started again. "Well, that is all I can think of to discuss. Anyone have any questions?" There was silence.
One committee chair ventured, "How much notice do we have to give if we need more money for our committee?" It seemed like a reasonable question. After all, this was a budget meeting.
"Well, I am sure Mr. Hawthorne addressed that earlier, but I'll have him speak to that again if you weren't paying attention." Yikes! What a putdown. Then Mr. Hawthorne calmly answered the question.
"Any other questions?" asked Handlebar. Silence. No one wanted to risk another insult.
He asked another question. I had to hold back my gasp when I heard what it was. "Well, does anyone know any other good jokes then?" Another silence. Amazingly, the meeting was ending as badly as it had begun. No questions were asked. No comments were made. Just a handlebar-mustached man pointing to people in the room and asking them to talk about certain things.
We were done a full forty-five minutes before the scheduled end time. Lunch had been ordered, but it was only 11:15. There had never been introductions. Very few people in the room even knew each other, so only seven out of thirty stayed for lunch.
The first mistake wasn't the bad joke - it was the fact that no main speakers had been introduced, and meeting participants were not given a chance to introduce themselves. At the outset, everyone's identity remained hidden; we knew we were all chairpersons, but we didn't know who was who.
As for the joke, those who were angry about it were disenchanted and heard very little about the budget and processes they needed to follow. Those who were embarrassed by it also heard very little. The remaining few who thought the joke was funny (there are always a few) probably spent the whole meeting trying to figure out why everyone seemed so tense. So, they didn't get much out of the meeting either.
The Handlebar example is a horror story. But it is true. Each of you has probably lived through a similar experience. We hope it didn't happen in a meeting you ran.
A well-run meeting makes it possible to disseminate valuable information, share ideas, get consensus, and solve problems. It is also true that meetings provide visibility. Running an effective meeting provides the kind of visibility you want.
Success in a meeting starts well before the meeting begins. It starts with the planning process. A few minutes of preparation can change the dynamics. You'll be more comfortable and the meeting stands a much better chance of being successful.
"Every meeting is a better meeting if, at the beginning of the meeting, we all know why we are meeting," says friend Kent Reilly, a successful consultant who has spent the last twenty years helping groups of people accomplish their meeting objectives.
It seems so simple, so why doesn't it happen? Maybe people assume that task force members would all know the objectives? Or that a training program would, of course, have participants who knew why they were there.
The original thought is that when people are together, they can accomplish more than they might be able to alone. Is this always the case for your meetings? Can you accomplish more as a result of meeting?
The best place to start is by clarifying the purpose of the meeting. In its simplest form, the purpose answers the question, "What do I want people to do or think differently at the end of this time together?"
Take the Handlebar example. He had stated, in a letter to all of us, the purpose of the meeting - to review each committee's annual budget guidelines and answer questions the committee chairs had. Nicely done. Unfortunately, once the meeting began, he seemed to forget all that and didn't carry through on his well-stated purpose.
Clarifying the purpose will automatically force your meeting to be part of a solution to something, and that's better than people feeling that having to go to the meeting is just another sign that the organization itself is "not too organized."
Purpose statements are active. They use verbs. They are moving in a direction. They help us accomplish the organization's goals. They are not a list of topics to cover. When the purpose is well-stated, it allows us, as meeting leaders, facilitators, or participants, to make sure our meeting helps us make progress.
Here are some sample purpose statements:
This meeting will address what our department's role will be in the restructured organization.
This meeting will help us to identify sales opportunities to develop proactively in the next quarter.
This meeting will help us plan individual business strategies, using the results of our recent customer survey.
This meeting is necessary to resolve outstanding issues from our last meeting.
The purpose of this meeting is self-education so that we can prepare ourselves for events that may impact us.
Once you've established the purpose, stick to it. That is the direction people prepare for. They will be better participants in your meeting if they are prepared. Your meeting will accomplish more, and you will build your credibility with the participants and within the organization.
Some meetings are meant to be informational; others will need to be more interactive. It is not always necessary to have a full-fledged, detailed agenda; some meetings are deliberately designed for the freewheeling give-and-take of ideas. But when you begin, your very first words should describe the expected results of the meeting. This is your agenda and your end point. This gives you and other participants a way to measure the meeting's success. These expected results may be tangible, as in a written report; or intangible, such as new knowledge, motivation, or commitment.
If Handlebar had done this for our budget meeting, it might have sounded like this: "At the end of our time together, all committee chairs will understand their budget and procedures, know each other, know what their responsibilities are, and recognize who their resources are in the organization."
Would you believe that at least 50 percent of all attendees come to a meeting not knowing why they are there? They look around and say to themselves, "Well, I know why John might be here, and Karen. And I can guess at why I might be here, though I don't know for sure. But why the heck would they invite Heather?" Not good. Often the person running the meeting looks around and thinks the same thing.
Whom should you invite? Invite those who can make a unique contribution to the meeting, or who have special expertise, or who carry official responsibility. Invite your decision makers. Also, since a meeting is a tool to help you accomplish something, you should invite a few of your own cheerleaders - those who can foster a positive attitude. People who can help you make progress - action people. You may want to invite those who would be responsible for implementing the decisions that are made in the meeting. Next steps will be easier to implement because these people will feel they have participated and been given an opportunity to provide some input.
Invite the right people and the meeting will "hum."
The number of people that attend a meeting should be carefully considered, because it does impact your success. If you are holding a problem-solving meeting, then as few as five people will do. Your job is to be sure it's the right five. Select them with an eye toward their ability to generate a diversity of ideas and their skill in troubleshooting.
If your goal is to review or present information and you want interaction, you should limit the group size to fewer than thirty. Once a group goes beyond thirty, the attendees feel relatively unconnected and, therefore, unimportant. Because of that, there will be very little participation.
There is only one type of meeting that truly benefits from the masses attending. When your objective is to motivate or inspire, the bigger the audience, the better! (See Chapter 16.) A larger group creates a special energy in conjunction with the speaker that can magnify the impact of the meeting.
We need to tell people why they are invited, but also what their roles are to be in the meeting. We should also give attendees enough of a sense of what we expect to accomplish. They should be apprised of the attendance list so that they will pretty much understand why all the invitees are there. When everyone knows who will be there and why they are meeting, participants can focus on accomplishing the purpose of the meeting and not spend all their time there trying to figure out the political ramifications.
Aim to have no bench sitters in your meetings - each participant should expect to have a specific role - even your "cheerleaders."
Follow this principle: "Participation is the prerequisite to commitment." It will save you time and help you to achieve your meeting objectives.
Additionally, you may need to assign logistical roles. Prepare your participants. Tell them if you expect them to speak on a particular topic. Ask someone to be the scribe or note-taker if necessary, or request that someone do a product demonstration. The key is using your resources; in a meeting, your resources are the people in the room with you!
I would strongly suggest sending out a meeting agenda beforehand, at least to the people who will be giving presentations. You will run a better meeting if you have worked out beforehand what the content is, how the content of the meeting will be discussed, and in what order. Announce who will be in attendance, the time, date, duration, and what preparation needs to be done before you get started.
Set ground rules for participation. Because not every meeting is the same, participants need to understand the expectations of them during this meeting. Develop them as a group, or prepare them ahead of time. The ground rules help guide the group toward your desired results. They become the commandments for participant behavior. They are a vehicle for the meeting chairperson to use to gently adjust behaviors back in a direction that works. Here are some sample ground rules:
Only one person talks at a time.
Avoid side conversations.
Write down questions to ask after the speaker has finished.
Set aside last fifteen minutes for next steps and responsibilities.
Depending on the organization and the event, ground rules might be more formal. In very large groups, parliamentary rules can be extremely useful to maintain order and keep the participants on track. If you plan to have formal rules, it is a good idea to post them, or include them in a handout, as it allows you, the chairperson, to refer back to them for control.
The length of the meeting should always decrease as the number of your attendees increases. Let's look at the dynamics of this. The larger the audience, the less the members can actively participate in the meeting. They are mostly listening, and listening efficiency drops dramatically over time. So the rule is: With big audiences, hold short meetings.
Small "problem-solving" meetings can be longer. When the participants know why they are there, how they are expected to participate, and what the goal of the meeting is, longer meetings can actually accomplish more. Because problem-solving meetings are small, and, hence, more intimate, people stay involved and build off of each other's ideas.
Albert Einstein, a brilliant thinker by anyone's standards, says this about problem solving:
In a problem-solving meeting, ideas need to evolve into solutions, and that takes time. This is time well-spent if the participants can come up with a satisfactory solution to a difficult issue. And, guess who gets credit for that solution? Yes, the participants, but also the talented meeting leader who ran the meeting so well!
Use visuals whenever you can to manage the attention and understanding of the audience. People remember visuals. Visualize the problem, visualize the results, visualize your vision and goals of the meeting. Help people "see" what they are working on, and they are much more likely to remember it.
Now that I've talked about the importance of visualization, let me issue a caution. Don't give the group a copy of your PowerPoint slides or a written report while trying to present an idea from the front of the room.
Why not? Because people are human, and humans who can read can't help but dig in immediately. If you put letters in front of them, they start sounding them out. Think about when you drive down a highway. You can't help but read the billboards. The same is true in a meeting. If you distribute written material, you will be up front talking about whatever you think is important, and they will be flipping through the pages of what you gave them and not paying the least bit of attention to you.
Now that is fine if you don't mind playing second fiddle to a handout. But the presenter should always be the star of the show. Only in an art gallery should the visuals get center stage. Never let it happen to you.
So here is the handout rule that works best. If you want your listeners to read something, give it to them well before the meeting, or give them time to read it without you or anyone else talking. You may also give them a copy of material (such as your PowerPoint slides) as they are leaving to complement whatever notes they took.
In professional situations the program chairman often asks for copies of the visuals from each speaker so that these materials can be duplicated and put into a folder for attendees. The idea is that the perfect way to take notes is to scribble them on the relevant handout page. Sometimes we lose that battle and have to supply the visuals. So what to do? Make sure your visuals are simple. Make sure they are pertinent, arresting, and interesting. Make sure they are eye-catching. Make sure they dramatize a point you want to make.
But make doubly sure the visuals don't tell the whole story. You tell the story. You are the creator of the news, not the visuals. The story must come from you, not the visuals. You are the source of life, of creativity, of ideas, of intelligence, of all that is interesting, not the visuals. The visuals can't hold a candle to you. The visuals should aid you - that is why they are called visual aids. They should help you make a thought clearer, more dramatic. But it's your thought, not the visuals, that should hold your audience's attention. Don't ever create visuals that contain the whole talk. You would be doing a disservice to the audience as well as to yourself.
Now - if you can create that kind of visual - one that doesn't compete with you - you can distribute it to the audience.
The facility can impact the climate of your meeting, which in turn impacts the level of success you have. Consider all the items that are important to you as a meeting participant, and assume they are important to others as well. Consider the size of the room, the acoustics, the ventilation, the lighting, and pick your site accordingly. People will rarely comment on the comfort of the room, but believe me, they will complain if it is not right. And they will complain while the meeting is going on, sotto voce. It will detract from your success.
Pick a time that doesn't predictably disrupt people's schedules. For example, you might steer away from 9 a.m. on Monday mornings, as well as any time after 3 p.m. on Friday afternoons. Also, keep in mind that the first hour or so after lunch, half of people's brains are in their stomach while they digest their food. And while a brain is in the stomach, it doesn't think very well.
If the meeting will occur during a conference that includes many social events, don't pick a time that's too close to the banquet luncheon, or might bleed into the trade show cocktail hour. Participants will have their minds on the party, not the issue at hand.
An effective way of picking a starting time is to start with the end time. Determine when your meeting has to be over, how long it will be, and from that calculate the starting time. That will help you control the length of the meeting and demonstrate your respect for the participants' other commitments.
Once the time is scheduled, make sure you abide by it. In your announcement, state that the meeting will start on time and end on time. And then, do your part. Start on the minute. It doesn't matter how many attendees are missing. Don't punish the punctual. Begin.
Do yourself a favor, a BIG favor! If it's a longer meeting - more than an hour - allocate time periods for each subject to be covered. Appoint a timekeeper. Introduce that person to the group and announce, "The timekeeper will notify us all when we get to the halfway point of each segment. He will also signal when there is only a half hour remaining, and fifteen minutes remaining."
Now, from the beginning, everyone will be aware that you understand the importance of time. This makes them confident the meeting won't drag on or run over. It also encourages the participants to be time-conscious; most will cooperate with you to move the agenda in line with the timing guidelines.
At the fifteen-minute point, bring the discussion to a close, as you've promised. Then, end the meeting like a professional. Nothing is so impressive as a meeting that is run well, accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish, and ends on time.
That doesn't mean that you should let time itself end the meeting. There is nothing worse than the meeting leader who has stated that the meeting will end at noon. The magic hour arrives. The meeting is in full swing, but our noble leader looks at his watch and says, "Oh my goodness, it's 12 o'clock. OK. Thanks everyone. I'll get back to you."
He stands up and shuffles papers. Everyone else stands and does the same. People begin to leave. There is a feeling of emptiness in the room. The participants are looking for a wrap up: agreements reached, next steps, a word of gratitude for the hard thinking that has taken place, a commitment to get back to them, something.
Ending on time is important. As a matter of fact, it's very important, because it reeks of professionalism. But a meeting should never end without these four things:
A statement of heartfelt gratitude by the leader
A summary of what has been accomplished
Agreement on "next steps" and who's responsible
An indication of what happens next
If you work at it, you can run the meeting so well your participants will applaud!
Start when you said you would. Don't punish the punctual.
Establish the meeting's purpose. Communicate it to all. Let the purpose statement be your roadmap.
Tell attendees what is expected of them and why. They are responsible, too.
Time each segment. Appoint a timekeeper. Work within the timing guidelines.
Open with a joke; they often fail. (And what a hole to dig out of!)
Invite even one unnecessary person. Everyone should have a role and a responsibility.
Hold a meeting without every attendee understanding his or her specific role and the meeting's purpose.
End a meeting late. You blow it all if you run over the time scheduled for the meeting to end. Professionals finish on time.