How to run a meeting that is useful, enjoyable, and effective

run a meeting

I have to give a shoutout to my mentor, Luke Altendorf, for teaching me how to run a meeting effectively.  As a senior at Texas A&M University, I served under Luke as the Chief Operating Officer of the Memorial Student Center.  Among the many skills he taught me was how to run a meeting.  I hope this helps you do the same.

Have you ever sat in a meeting that was dragging on and on endlessly?  Did you wonder, “Where did this person learn how to run a meeting?”

In all likelihood, you probably didn’t wonder that at all.  You probably just thought, “Wow, this is such a huge waste of my time!  I could have gotten all this in an email.”

It’s not easy to run a meeting that is useful and enjoyable.  Trust me, it’s not innate.  It’s definitely a learned skill.

How did I learn how to run a meeting?

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When I was in college, I served a year as Chief Operating Officer for my college’s student union.

In that capacity, I learned a lot of incredibly valuable skills that have served me well.  One of the most unexpected skills I picked up was how to effectively and efficiently run a meeting.

This was a surprisingly difficult skill to master.  There are a lot of factors that go into running a meeting effectively. 

Let’s take a look at some things you should do if you want your next meeting to be smooth and useful.

Decide the purpose of the meeting ahead of time

There are lots of reasons to have a meeting:

  • Provide information
  • Brainstorm ideas for upcoming projects
  • Develop specific plans for specific calls to action
  • Plan for upcoming events
  • Q&A or town hall-style discussion

If you’re conducting the meeting, decide ahead of time what you want the meeting to accomplish.  Then, before the meeting starts, inform attendees of the meeting’s purpose.

Get everyone on the same page from the start or risk having the entire meeting derailed by irrelevant interruptions.

Be prepared to run a meeting.  Have an agenda.

If you’re baking a cake, you don’t just wander aimlessly through the kitchen grabbing random ingredients from cabinets.  Likewise, you need a plan when you run a meeting.

A written agenda keeps the meeting organized.  It also keeps you from adding unplanned topics of conversation that make meetings seem interminably long.

I recommend keeping a meeting agenda to 3-4 items per hour.  Sometimes the items are very quick, like approving the previous meetings’ minutes.  In that case, you might be able to accommodate 5-6 items per hour.

It is very easy for agenda items to take longer than you anticipate to resolve, so don’t overload the agenda.

If you need to schedule a separate meeting to resolve additional issues, do that.  Alternatively, you can probably solve some agenda items by email or one-on-one conversations during the week.

Embrace the phrase, “Let’s take that conversation off-line.”

During the course of a conversation, you may recognize that you won’t be able to come to a resolution quickly.  When that happens, end the conversation.

“Let’s take that conversation off-line” is a great phrase to use to move the agenda forward.  Acknowledge everyone’s contributions and announce that you’re moving on.

Maybe it’s something that requires additional discussion before it comes back to the meeting.  If so, you can assign team members to have that conversation and report on it at the next meeting.

You may also realize that you or your leadership team need to do some more work on it before it comes back to the group.

The point is, don’t just allow endless discussion without action.  After adequate discussion, move it to a resolution, or table the discussion until the next time.

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To run a meeting effectively, you MUST limit the conversation

If it’s a meeting you have regularly, say with your staff or leadership team, coach them on how to participate in a meeting.

The hardest thing to do in a meeting is to prevent it from devolving into endless conversation.

Everyone wants to contribute something.  Everyone wants to be heard.  However, it’s not important that everyone says something if they’re just restating what someone else said.

Coach your team members on this.  Be deliberate and direct about it.  Tell them that everyone’s opinion is valuable, but each should only speak up to contribute new information or offer an alternate perspective.

A head nod or a quiet, “I agree” will show the group that you agree with someone’s point.  You don’t need five people stating the exact same point five times.

Be careful how you coach people on this.  You don’t want to discourage people from voicing their opinions.  Kindly but directly tell them how to conduct their conversation.

Even better, tell them “why” you want them to limit their conversation.  The goal of the meeting is to produce something useful.  If everyone dreads the meeting every week because they know it’ll be a waste of time, you need to coach the attendees.

Keep order

You need a process by which to run the meeting.  Most meetings run under the guidance of Robert’s Rules of Order.

If you’re a leader or if you conduct meetings often, buy a copy of this book and read it this week.

This book is the standard for how to take votes, how to acknowledge people who wish to speak, and how to conduct meetings in a fair, balanced, and effective manner.

The book outlines procedures that may feel a little too formal for some meetings that you have.  For example, an open brainstorming session probably doesn’t need “motions” and “seconds” for every discussion.

For more formal meetings, however, Robert’s Rules can really help you conduct an efficient meeting.  I highly recommend you get proficient with using Robert’s Rules of Order.

Start/end all meetings on time

It drives me crazy when a meeting starts ten minutes late and then ends ten minutes late.  I’ve got way too much to do to spend ten minutes waiting on people to arrive for a meeting.

Get people used to starting on time, and promise that you’ll end the meeting on time.  If you get to the end of the meeting time and you didn’t get to the end of the agenda, end it anyway.

When you set a hard and fast ending time for yourself, you’ll conduct the meeting more efficiently.  If you don’t stick to that ending time, you tend to allow conversations to wander aimlessly.

Everyone should put cell phones away or turn them off, including you.

When people don’t pay attention because they’re distracted on their phones, you often end up repeating things for them when they snap back to reality.  That wastes a lot of time.

Also, if people are on their phone, they’re not materially contributing to the discussion.

Set a rule that phone calls and texts can wait until after the meeting is over.  Honestly, how many texts are really that emergent?

The one exception would be if someone is on call for the hospital.  Obviously, if it’s the emergency room calling, it’s an emergency.  Otherwise, phones should stay off.

Get to a “call to action”

Discussion is fine in meetings, but only if it leads to action.  Discussion for discussion’s sake is ineffective.

This is where setting the tone of the meeting (brainstorming, strategizing, etc.) up front is really helpful.

The art of calling for action at the right time is a subtle art.  You don’t want to quash discussion by calling for action too early.  On the other hand, you don’t want to just let the conversation go on forever and never lead to anything purposeful.

Decide ahead of time using your agenda how long you think you want to allot to each item.

Allow conversation to proceed naturally.  Once you think you’ve got enough consensus or have all the relevant viewpoints, call for a vote or declare some specific course of action.

At the end of the meeting, you should have specific courses of action for each agenda item.  You should also assign specific team members responsibility for each course of action and have a plan to follow up with them.

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Final thoughts

Running a meeting is a critically important skill for any leader, especially if you lead a team of executives or professionals.

I’ve distilled my knowledge into this brief post, but there’s no substitute for experience.  If you’ve never run a meeting before, ask your leader to let you try your hand at it and critique you.

Like any acquired skill, you’ll improve with time.  If your first meeting completely derails, don’t despair!  Learn from your mistakes and improve your proficiency.

Trust me, if you can learn to run a meeting effectively, your team members will appreciate it and you won’t feel like you’re just wasting your time.

Further Reading

Leave a comment below and tell us your tips for running a meeting effectively. 

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