Make Meetings Meaningful

Meetings are the Rodney Dangerfield of the business world, and that lack of respect has legitimate justification. We’ve all attended (and if we’re honest, orchestrated) meetings that lacked focus, devolved into a forum for one or two people’s input, and concluded with no real resolution or action plans for each attendee. The good news is there are steps we can take to transform meetings into a means to generate ideas, provide direction, and foster a sense of community. Read on to learn how to make the most of each meeting you are a part of.

Before the meeting

While few things are less rock and roll than a business meeting, there are advance strategies you can use to transform a meeting from an endless drum solo to a collaborative jam session.

  • Know your rights: How often do you get invited to a meeting without having a clear sense of what will be discussed and what your role in the conversation will be? Well, as meeting attendees, we have rights too! And one of our inalienable rights is to know what’s expected of us before we walk into a meeting. So, the next time a calendar invite without enough detail hits your inbox, don’t hesitate to ask the meeting organizer “what’s this all about?” before submitting your reply.
  • Prepare proactively: Once you know the purpose and structure of the meeting, take a minute to think about what role you can play in the conversation. Do you have expertise or a point of view on one of the agenda items? Do you think the other participants will want to hear your thoughts? If yes, get ready. Spend some time—even if only a few minutes—thinking about your potential contribution. You might even let the meeting organizer know you’ll be prepared to make a few remarks.
  • Get focused: Minimize distractions for yourself so you can give it your all during the meeting. Leave your smartphone behind, turn off your computer, and select a spot that makes it easy for you to pay attention.
  • Own your style: In a meeting, how can someone get the best out of you as an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert? Talk to the meeting leader in advance about how you’d like to participate to be your best self. For example, you might be quiet in the meeting, which is perfectly fine! Assure the planner that quiet can still mean engaged and that you’ll plan to share your ideas in an email afterwards. Or if you hate being put on the spot, plan to offer some of your ideas either before the meeting or early in the conversation.

During the meeting

Diderot coined the phrase l’esprit d’escalier (staircase wit) to describe the frustration of thinking up the perfect response after it’s too late to say it. Now’s the time to put your careful preparation into practice so there are no post-meeting regrets.

  • Be a critic. In a way, a meeting is like a short improvised play. There’s a producer (the person who organized the meeting), a director (the person who’s running the meeting), and actors (the meeting attendees). The next meeting you’re in, take particular note of the different roles the “actors” play and whether they strengthen or weaken the experience as a whole. Use what you observe to improve your own performance.
  • Speak up early. If you’re an introvert, this advice might give you hives. But early talkers tend to set the tone for a conversation. This is known as anchoring or first mover advantage. Extroverts—who are more comfortable jumping right into conversation and think as they speak—often establish themselves as the anchor early in a meeting, and all ideas flow from there. Introverts, who think before they speak and therefore wait to join the conversation, struggle to steer the discussion in any other direction. If you are the first to express an idea or opinion, the conversation quickly anchors around that topic and flows from there. And if you need to steer a conversation in another direction, practice interjecting with a thoughtful question rather than an assertion.
  • Practice your presence. Harvard Business professor Amy Cuddy has conducted intriguing research on the relationship between nonverbal behavior and our self-perceptions. For example, your posture directly influences your level of confidence during a given experience. So, sit up straight and lean forward, as opposed to slumping or huddling in your chair. To deflect an interruption, raise your hand and your decibel level slightly. And when you’re on a conference call, try standing instead of sitting. This will make you feel stronger and more confident.

After the meeting

Ah, the sweet, sweet sound of adjournment… The meeting’s over, and if it was productive, you have work to do in some form or another. Before you take your victory lap, it’s a good idea to make sure you understand where you stand and what you need to do.

  • Review meeting minutes. Take a look at the meeting minutes as soon as you receive them, and compare them to your notes to make sure they align. If you spot any inconsistencies, follow up with the meeting leader right away to get clarification.
  • Confirm expectations. Make sure you understand precisely which (if any) action items are your responsibility and what you’re expected to accomplish. That means deadlines, focus, and the names and roles of any other team members who share that responsibility with you. It only takes a few minutes, but that clarification can save a lot of time in the long run.
  • Ask for a one-on-one post-meeting. Did you experience something during the meeting that elicited an internal “Oh, YES!” or “What the heck?” response? If you didn’t address it right away, do it soon after the meeting. It can be a pat on the back to someone who impressed you, a voiced concern or new idea to the meeting leader, or a quick follow-up with a team member. The longer you wait, the less likely you’ll remember the exact details and the more likely you’ll be to not speak up at all.

Love them or hate them, meetings are (and will always be) an integral part of just about any job. By thinking ahead and then taking action, you can rise to the challenge of making meetings meaningful.