Tips and tricks for turning meeting pain into meeting gain.
Meeting pain is real and it is rampant
I’ve had an interesting run, career-wise, over the last 11 years — non-profit recruitment, tech consulting, product management and now product design.
Along the way, I’ve participated in and facilitated many, many meetings (including design workshops and other group activities) and have come to the conclusion that, regardless of discipline or industry, poorly executed meetings are the bane of our professional existence.
These kinds of meetings can be painful experiences for all involved. You’re likely intimately familiar them, but if you’re not, here are some telltale signs:
Attendees show up late or not at all.
Nobody seems to know what, exactly, you’re meeting about or who is running the meeting.
Instead of getting efficiently from point A to point B you jump the tracks and end up somewhere near Õ (if you end up anywhere at all) …
… or you actually reach point B (hooray!) but have the room for 20 more minutes so people just … keep … talking …
… until at some point you realize you have no idea what’s going on and just want to run away.
These meetings are the worst. THE WORST. Not only are they confusing, often leaving it unclear what was discussed or what happens next, but they can be costly (so many people! so much collective time spent!), unproductive (what did we even do? I can’t recall!), and — worst of all —the same topic is usually covered again a few weeks later.
Breaking the cycle
I firmly believe that one of the most important skills any professional can have (and any product designer must have) is the ability to smoothly and flexibly facilitate a meeting.
When done especially well, strong meeting facilitation puts participants at ease, reaches a goal, clearly identifies next steps, and does all of this in a way that feels fun, necessary, and productive. It effectively breaks the cycle, allowing you and your colleagues to walk away from your meetings ready to tackle your organization’s biggest challenges in a meaningful way.
So how, exactly, does one do this?
There are many things a facilitator can do to make a meeting successful, but I believe paying heed to the following five steps can turn any meeting into a success.
1. Plan logistics in advance
If you read this and said “um, duh” you’re right — I categorize this step as “something people think is so obvious that it almost never gets done correctly, if it gets done at all”.
I don’t know how many meetings I’ve attended where we: started late because it wasn’t clear which room we had booked; fought with technology (“is it HDMI 1 or HDMI 2??”); or had no idea why we’d been invited.
So, obvious as it is, get to planning:
Book that room as soon as possible
I work in an office with limited conference space (even more limited for large groups). So the moment I have a vague sense that I’ll need to facilitate a meeting on a particular day, I immediately seek out an appropriate room — does it have enough seats? is there A/V equipment? — and lock it down.
Send out your invite well in advance
I aim for 5 business days at the very minimum, especially for large workshops, even if the agenda isn’t finalized. To circumvent the agenda question, I add “agenda to come” in the invite body and then I actually follow-up with an agenda before the day of the meeting. Crazy, right? More on agendas in the next section.
Anticipate how things might go wrong
“That’s impossible!” I hear you thinking. Not so! If you have a sense of what you’re hoping to accomplish in your meeting — and an idea of how your attendees may behave — you can absolutely forecast points at which the train, as they say, may go off the rails.
I like to have at least a high-level Plan B sketched out for every agenda item so that I can seamlessly pivot if needed. For example:
- IF I plan to facilitate a brainstorming session in which each attendee has time to independently ideate before we come together to synthesize
- AND I’m worried about how long the preceding activity may take to complete (i.e. it could run long and eat up brainstorming synthesis time)
- THEN I will plan out how I’d switch to brainstorming in pairs or small groups in order to reduce volume (but not quality) of ideas to synthesize
This is a really easy step for people to skip because, full disclosure, it requires a fair amount of time and thought. To this I say: skip it at your own risk. The moment your group turns left instead of right and you’re caught without a way to gracefully “right the ship” (pun very intended) is the moment they disengage.
2. Share out your goals & accompanying agenda
As I mentioned in Step 1, it’s not a hard and fast requirement to have your agenda fully fleshed when you invite your attendees; you’re allowed to play around with activities and ordering to achieve the best flow.
The same cannot be said for goals.
Make a clear goal and socialize it early
Your meeting needs a goal. It cries out for one. A meeting without a goal is just a very expensive place for two people to argue while the rest play on their phones. As such, I urge you to formulate a meeting goal early and share it prominently in the meeting invite.
I like using the SMART criteria and the WBAT (“will be able to …”) framing often used by teachers to write my goals because they force me to think critically about what I want us to walk away with at the end of the meeting.
In the meeting itself, make sure you re-state that goal so that everyone has the same expectations. I often write it on the whiteboard, a large poster paper, or embed it early in a presentation deck.
Make your agenda equally as clear and very visible
As I’ve mentioned a time or two, you have more freedom to play with the agenda before the meeting to ensure it has optimal flow. However, remember that if you promised a copy to your attendees you must honor that promise — it helps establish trust you’ll need to make the meeting successful.
Elements of a strong agenda include:
- Clear steps, ideally starting with a verb to prompt action (e.g. “Review outcomes”, “Decide on X”, “Discuss next steps”)
- Rough timing in order to give people a sense of how long any one step is projected to last (more on timing in Step 4)
- Labelled breaks! You’d be surprised how infrequently breaks are considered in agendas.
In the meeting itself, make that agenda super visible and refer to it frequently as you move through it. I prefer writing each step on a whiteboard or poster and literally crossing out each step as we complete it. Not only is it incredibly satisfying to do, it helps visualize our progress and lets anyone who’s stepped out to quietly catch-up with the rest of the group.
3. Make the conversation visual whenever possible
One of the worst afflictions to befall a meeting is when the conversation starts well but you reach a point at which it’s either (a) not at all clear what you should be doing or (b) very clear that everyone in the room is speaking past each other.
There are a couple of ways to resolve these issues.
Write prompts clearly and visibly
If you’re planning to run interactive activities that let your attendees work on their own, make all key prompts clear and visible. For example, if I’m asking people to brainstorm assumptions and write each idea on a different Post-It, I’ll write …
Assumptions are things that we believe to be true BUT which are not based on facts or evidence.
Brainstorm assumptions you have about [x topic] and write one idea per Post-It.
… on the board so everyone can reference it as they work quietly. This way, there’s no confusion as to what we’re doing and and how we’re doing it.
Make like a teacher and visualize information using graphic organizers
One of my favorite things to do is keep a marker nearby at all times so that I can quickly visualize whatever we’re talking about. Whether it’s creating a rough sketch of a flow or a bulleted list of the key concerns a stakeholder has about a project, visualizing information makes it:
- explicit, so the entire room has a common understanding
- possible for the speaker to correct any mistakes
- easy to reference at future points in the conversation
I sometimes go one step farther and create a customized graphic organizer in advance so that I can steer the conversation visually. Some graphic organizers I’ve used in the past include:
- Service blueprints (e.g. create rows; define end goal & fill in steps and backend services together)
- Flow charts (e.g. label the start and end; fill in steps together)
- Tables (e.g. define columns; fill in rows together)
- Venn diagrams (e.g. identify three roles; fill in segments together)
Think of it as creating a container into which meeting attendees are pouring their knowledge. If you can define the starting shape (and iterate it as needed during the meeting) based on the meeting goals in order to create boundaries, your meeting has a better chance of reaching success.
4. Be a kind but firm time cop
One of the most crucial roles you’ll have as a facilitator is to keep the meeting moving forward. If left to their own devices, groups of people tend to (a) talk way too much, wandering into so many overlapping tangents you’ll feel sure you’re in the movie Inception and the dream will collapse at any moment, or (b) not talk at all, sitting quietly and staring blankly while all of your prompts go un-heeded.
In either case, you run the risk of not reaching your goal. To that end …
ABWC: always be watching the clock
As I mentioned earlier when discussing agendas, mapping out a clear timeline for the meeting will go a long way toward helping you stay on track — but not if you neglect the clock. Make sure you have a clock in your line of sight and be sure to keep an eye on it throughout the meeting.
If you’re giving your attendees a specific amount of time to finish a task — 4 minutes, for example — start a timer (your smartphone almost certainly has one) and let people know when there’s about a minute remaining so they can wrap up the task unhurriedly.
Bonus: if your timed task is done silently, play some instrumental music to help people concentrate on the task and avoid any out-of-meeting distractions. I love to use Spotify’s “Mellow Beats” playlist for this purpose.
Use kind redirection
If the timers and clock-watching aren’t enough, you’ll need to step in for what I call kind redirection. This essentially means finding ways to steer your group away from a tangent that don’t make them feel embarrassed or you feel like a tyrant.
This becomes exponentially easier if you do one tiny thing at the start of your meeting: set the expectation that you’ll be responsible for moving the group to its goal and this may require you to interrupt and switch topics.
I cannot overstate how much this helps.
When people know why you’re redirecting them, they’re much more amenable to moving on.
Anyway, here are a few of my favorite kind redirection methods:
- Use a phrase like “this is a great discussion, but for the sake of time I’d like to move us on to [the next activity]”
- Reiterate the meeting goals and briefly describe how the tangent is moving us away from them
- Restate the tangent’s essential question/theme to ensure you understand it then place it in a parking lot (i.e. a spot on the board; a Post-It; your notebook) to be reviewed and addressed in an action item
If the tangent or conversation is especially contentious or unrelenting, you may need to step beyond kind redirection and actively de-escalate. Some methods for de-escalation:
- Inject a little humor to lighten the mood
- Make a self-deprecating comment to redirect the focus back to you
- Write something on the board about the next topic you know is partly inaccurate to (a) prep a little bit and (b) begin to shift people’s thinking from arguing to editing
- Jump into the fray and suggest a break; before people leave, give a clear time limit and return time, and state kindly but firmly that you’ll move to a new topic when you return
5. Wrap up the meeting clearly
With luck (plus planning, goal-setting, agenda-writing, visualization, and time-copping) you’ll have just run a successful meeting! What next?
Wrapping up well is as (if not more) important than the meeting itself. If you don’t document some of your learnings (in some way) and set clear actions with owners, then all your new knowledge could disappear.
To avoid this, I recommend you take three simple actions before anyone leaves the room or ends the conference call.
Take pictures of any physical sketches or notes
As the kids say, “pics or it didn’t happen”. Throughout a meeting (and especially at its conclusion), I take pictures of the attendees in action and their output. This is quick, painless, and allows me to keep a record of the meeting that I can refer to later (e.g. in a recap presentation where action shots are especially meaningful).
We use Google Drive a lot so I already have the app installed on my phone. The moment I’m done with a meeting I’ll upload all of its photos to Drive so (a) I don’t lose them and (b) I’m not a bottleneck for any next steps.
Note: there are many fancy apps out there that take whiteboard notes and make them very legible (largely by increasing the contrast), but I find that if you’re sure to take a wide shot (for context) and a series of close-ups you’ll be fine. Just make sure the image’s text is legible before you erase anything on the wall!
List out next steps & assign owners
This should be a no-brainer, but the best way to ensure any next steps don’t get forgotten is to explicitly list them out and assign ownership. This way, there’s no confusion as to what’s going to get done and who is going to shepherd it forward.
Key elements to include in a next step:
- The next step, framed in active voice (e.g. “Reach out to X person to get Y document”)
- The owner, whose responsibility is to make sure the next step happens, not necessarily to do the next step all by him or herself
- A due date, if appropriate (e.g. “by end of next week”)
Share your next steps & findings
The very last thing you can do to be successful in your meeting is recap it well and share out with appropriate parties in some format. This is important because it keeps you from losing the knowledge you gained or shared.
I’ve done this in many formats:
- Written notes and next steps in the Google Calendar “email participant” feature and immediately click “Send” at the conclusion of a meeting
- Kept a Google Site for a project and added notes, findings, and photos to a new summary page
- Hand-written next steps on Post-It notes and put them on a wall near our project area
The format is completely up to you, but make sure you include a clear summary and recap any next steps.
If there’s one thing I want you to walk away from this article with it’s that the power to reduce meeting pain is in your hands. Facilitate like a pro and watch as your meeting productivity increases.
Your colleagues, clients, and bosses will thank you.
If you liked this article or found it helpful in any way, please consider recommending it. I’d also love to hear any tips & tricks you use to keep your meetings pain-free. Tell me about them in the comments!