Meetings, when done properly, should be to the point, smooth,
and only as long as they have to be. Having a good and
efficient meeting takes planning and firm execution. While
there are not too many ways to have a great meeting, there are
plenty of ways to have a bad one. Some potential pitfalls are
inflated agendas, having a meeting when an email would suffice,
and inviting the wrong people. If you have a necessary,
well-planned meeting with the right people and it’s going well,
what do you do when it gets derailed? How can you prevent that
1. Preventing a meeting from being sidetracked actually begins
well before start time. By using an agenda, you provide the
structure upon which the meeting is built. The more detailed
and planned the agenda, the smoother the meeting. Another way
to use the agenda is while passing it out. When you communicate
with each participant about the meeting, make sure to tell them
that it will begin and end exactly as scheduled. Once you have
set the stage, however, you have to follow the agenda exactly.
If you don’t respect the schedule, no one else will.
2. At the beginning of the meeting, clearly state that your
time – and everyone else’s – is valuable and that you only have
enough time for the meeting as scheduled. If the meeting runs
over, you will have to leave. This subtly leads your fellow
participants to stick to the schedule.
3. Often when beginning meetings, we pass out materials that
will help to guide our participants and reemphasize certain
points. The tendency is to simply hand over everything so as
not to disrupt the flow later. However, people’s instincts in
these situations dictate that they rifle through the handouts,
pulling their attention away from your opening remarks. The
best course is to hand out materials as needed.
4. A major potential derailment of your meeting comes from your
speakers. The can ramble on and on, they can get bogged down in
questions, or they could simply go off topic for who knows how
long. There are several ways you can combat errant speakers.
First, make sure they know how long they have to speak and have
them submit their lecture or notes ahead of time. If you see
any potential split-away points, bring them to their attention
so they can avoid going off-topic in the meeting. If they do
split anyway, a gentle reminder of their previous or next point
can set them aright.
5. If your speaker knows their specific time to speak, they are
less prone to go over. However, unless you provide a clock or
timer of some kind, their best intentions will be for naught.
If a timer isn’t feasible, work out a system of cues ahead of
time. For example, you could put a blue pen in front of you for
the “five minutes left” signal and a red pen for “one minute
6. You can help your speaker with Q&A by stepping in as
their personal moderator. If you are the one to pick who is to
ask a question, then you can easily step in after questions
have gone on too long. Simply say “that’s enough questions for
now,” instead of picking the next person. Also, you can suggest
that the speakers will be able to personally answer questions
after the meeting.
7. Another big detractor from an efficient meeting is
excellent, important discussion topics… that are not on the
agenda. These topics can derail a meeting faster than anything
else. The difficult part is that usually these discussions need
to happen, but you don’t have to let them ruin your meeting.
First, acknowledge that the topic is a good one. Then you can
derail the derailment in several ways. You could tell the major
players in the discussion to table it for now and meet amongst
themselves after your meeting. You could announce that your
meeting will go on, but there will be another meeting after
this one to discuss the new topic.
8. If the off-topic point is a good one, but not worthy enough
for the solutions above, create a “bin list.” This list holds
all points that need to be discussed, but not right then. You
can schedule meetings for each one, or all at once. You can
also take the two most invested people in the discussion and
assign them to work out the details and take care of it
personally. The point is that you don’t have it interfering
with your meeting.
9. There are times that a meeting gets off track, but not for a
good reason like an important off-topic point. Often, the
problem is simply rude participants that slow down a meeting.
Taking care of these situations falls almost completely on you,
but it doesn’t have to be too big a chore. Start at the
beginning of the meeting with confidence. Keep your posture
straight throughout the meeting. Monitor your body language and
make sure your voice is solid and carrying. Make them want to
listen to you. Watch your participants’ body language as well.
If you see slumping or boredom, jump in with a request for
their opinion to get them mentally back into the meeting. If
the distracted are wide spread, call for a quick five minute
break. Your participants will return refreshed and rejuvenated.
If you have people talking amongst themselves instead of
listening, simply smile politely and wait until they are done
or have noticed that the entire meeting is waiting on them.
They will quickly come to task.
10. A good strategy for keeping your meetings on track is to
schedule them to end right before lunch or quitting time.
However, these particular end times can cause hazardous
derailments, because your participants are beginning to think
about what they will be doing after the meeting. This is the
point in the agenda where you should place all of the
controversial topics. Not only will it liven up the meeting and
banish daydreaming, it will prevent the subjects from being
discussed too long as lunch is just over the horizon.
If you craft a good plan and tight agenda you are prepared to
have an efficient meeting. All it takes after that is to have a
firm hand, stick to the schedule, and take care of your
For other conference call questions, visit David Byrd at
June 18, 2008
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