Do you spend lots of time in meetings? Here are some tips and techniques to make meetings work for you.
1. What type of meeting is it?
How many people are attending? Is the meeting a formal committee, an informal working group, or a one-to-one meeting? Will you know everyone there, or will there be people you haven’t yet met?
Is it formal, informal, or something in between? Is there a chairperson, or other leader, or is it a meeting of equals? Has an agenda been produced?
How long will it take? Is it open-ended, or is there a time limit? How much time will you have for your issue?
What is the purpose? Is the meeting to share information, to discuss various options, or to make decisions? If the latter, do the people at the meeting have the authority to implement the decisions?
Will you attend the full meeting, or just part of it? University committees – particularly high-level committees – often ask staff to attend only for the relevant agenda item(s). Don’t be offended if this happens to you.
2. What do you want to achieve?
Do you want to inform people, to seek their advice or funding, or to gain their approval for a course of action? Make sure that your purpose matches the type of meeting you are attending. A meeting with Finance Office colleagues may not be the best place to give details of your latest research findings, however interesting they may be to you. And if you want funding to attend a conference, asking your head of department directly may well be more successful than raising the issue at a lunchtime research seminar.
3. Make notes before the meeting
These don’t need to be detailed – just an aide-memoire so you don’t miss anything. If a formal agenda is circulated beforehand, write some brief notes on the agenda. What are the key points you want to get across at the meeting?
If people at the meeting don’t know each other well, the chairperson should ask attendees to introduce themselves at the start of the meeting. Don’t let this take you by surprise. Have two or three brief points prepared. ‘I’m Isaac Newton, Professor of Mathematics, my main interests are mechanics and planetary motion and I’m working to get my book Principia published before the REF deadline’, or whatever.
4. Think about handouts
Do you want to use handouts at the meeting? If so, check with the chairperson that this is acceptable. They are unlikely to object to a one or two-page handout, but anything more substantial should normally be circulated before the meeting so people have time to read it.
Some formal committees will require written submissions a week before the meeting. This may be reduced ‘at the chairperson’s discretion’, but it is unwise to abuse this discretion. In particular, if you are introducing anything controversial, those opposing your plans can easily suggest that your proposal should be delayed until the next meeting, on the grounds that they haven’t had chance to study it.
5. Brief potential supporters before the meeting
Committees, like many managers, often operate an unwritten policy of ‘no surprises’. There is a natural tendency to reject – or at least delay – anything that is unexpected. To avoid this, if you are reporting anything unexpected, or proposing a new policy, do let at least some members of the committee know of your plans beforehand. Ideally these should include the committee chair; if you can gain his or her support before the meeting, your proposals are more likely to be accepted.
6. Consider wider issues
With luck, most of the committee members will give a fair hearing to your contribution. But there may be specifics they want to hear about – perhaps financial implications for example. Do be sure to consider these before the meeting so you are prepared to answer questions.
7. Note criticisms and stay positive
If your input is criticised, don’t take it personally. Seek clarification from the critic, and consider ways to respond positively. They may well have a point – perhaps a report could be improved with minor editing. Or if you present a good idea that is criticised as too expensive, perhaps members of the committee can help to suggest ways to raise funding for the proposal.
A competent chairperson will summarise the discussion and note any actions required. But if he or she doesn’t do this, by all means do it yourself. A quick ‘..before we move on can I just check we’ve agreed that… and I’ll follow up by…’ will normally be appreciated.
9. Check the meeting minutes
After the meeting, do check that the meeting minutes are accurate and record what was agreed. If not, do have a quick word with the person who wrote the minutes, and/or the meeting chairperson if necessary.