by Neil Harris
We've all had them. Boring meetings! Meetings that go on for far too long yet fail to make decisions. Hard chairs and piles of agenda. The higher up the hierarchy we are promoted the more of these we have to attend and the more we have to chair. Does it need to be like this? How can we make meetings shorter, more productive, decisive, and resulting in action?
Often there is no choice of venue because it is dictated by circumstances. It can vary from a small office for a one-to-one meeting to a large hall for bigger events. The chosen venue may be quite grand if it is important to impress clients, shareholders or suppliers. But if there is a desire for a very short meeting an uncomfortable venue may be purposefully chosen. Usually the venue should be comfortable and meet the needs of the numbers who will attend. It will be booked in advance and measures taken to ensure that interruptions are minimised. Organisers should provide sound equipment or visual aids if they will be required.
Choosing the time and place is very important and is it involves being able to include or exclude people.
The time of the meeting is also significant. Electronic diaries are very useful for choosing mutually convenient times for colleagues to attend. Meetings may be called to discuss what is due to happen during the ensuing week and arranged for first thing on Mondays. If the organiser wants it to be a very short discussion they may decide to hold it at the end of the day when no-one wants to stay long. If people are coming a distance to attend, their travel arrangements should be taken into consideration and it would be best to hold the meeting at a suitable time of day.
If a meeting is going to last for a long period, refreshments and comfort breaks will be necessary and should be planned.
It is often wise to ask the participants for items they wish to include on the agenda. If you're a manager it is good practice to involve your team in what is to be discussed because it makes everyone a stakeholder in the meeting. Long meetings can be shortened if those with topics to raise are asked to write a synopsis about it and circulate the details beforehand.
If the meeting is one of a regular series there will inevitably be minutes available from the previous meeting. Reminding people of these may spur them on to complete the actions they agreed to do on that previous occasion.
Every meeting should have a clear purpose and those attending should be given the time, date, location and details of what will be discussed. Some topics will always appear on the agenda of formal meetings including:
- who attended
- apologies for non-attendance
- the minutes of the last meeting
- approval of the previous minutes
The final items are often:
- any other business
- date, time and location of the next meeting.
Having sought proposals for the agenda it is an easy task to prepare it and distribute it to everyone who is invited to attend. It is wise to order the discussion so that related topics are close to one another. If a decision on one topic will influence discussion on another, these must naturally be placed in the right order.
Who should attend?
Formal meeting often have a list of people who have the right or duty to attend. At board meetings and annual general meetings there is a legal obligation to invite specified people. Some may have the right to send a proxy/ substitute to attend on their behalf. It may be necessary, though not an absolute requirement, to invite people whose specialist knowledge is needed for a particular item. You may need someone to advise, provide additional information or authorise the actions that may be agreed upon. Such people facilitate the progress of a meeting and ensure that everyone is as fully informed as they can be. The organiser (often the secretary) should ask the chairperson which people should be invited for the entire meeting or just for a particular item. This decision is often dependent on the confidentiality of what will be discussed.
Groups and body language
If the number of people attending is six or less it is relatively easy to chair the meeting but when there are larger numbers it is inevitable that two or more people will start chatting amongst themselves. It is important in such circumstances for the chair to maintain discipline so that contributors to the debate are listened to.
Eye contact is also a significant factor. Ideally the seating should be such that everyone has eye contact with each other. Often this is difficult to achieve and those sitting at the corners of a large table may feel less involved that their colleagues. The chairperson and anyone presenting a proposal needs to be able to see and be seen by all present.
Chairing a meeting
The chairperson should sit in a prominent position and appoint someone to take the minutes. Don't attempt to be both chair and minute taker. In formal meetings the chair must decide if the meeting is quorate and has the power to make certain decisions.
If there are two competing points of view the chair should allow both to be expressed and debated. If a manager chairs the meeting they may listen to the views and arguments and make the decisions. In formal meetings motions may be proposed and voted on. Then amendments are voted on first and the chair has the casting vote.
In long meetings the chair should decide how the time is to be allocated between items on the agenda. Discussion on those taking an excessive time may be stopped and recalled at a subsequent meeting.
The minute taker should record only the subject discussed, the decisions, by whom action is to be taken and the timescale by which it is agreed to be achieved. These are circulated to all concerned, including those who were unable to attend.