Here are the rules for running meetings. Meetings are vital for management and communication. Properly run meetings save time, increase motivation, productivity, and solve problems. Meetings create new ideas and initiatives. Meetings achieve buy-in. Meetings prevent ‘not invented here’ syndrome. Meetings diffuse conflict in a way that emails and memos cannot. Meetings are effective because the written word only carries 7% of the true meaning and feeling. Meetings are better than telephone conferences because only 38% of the meaning and feeling is carried in the way that things are said. The other 55% of the meaning and feeling is carried in facial expression and non-verbal signals. That’s why meetings are so useful. (Statistics from research by Dr Albert Mehrabian.)
Hold meetings, even if it’s difficult to justify the time. Plan, run and follow up meetings properly, and they will repay the cost many times over because there is still no substitute for physical face-to-face meetings. Hold meetings to manage teams and situations, and achieve your objectives quicker, easier, at less cost. Hold effective meetings to make people happier and more productive.
Brainstorming meetings are immensely powerful for team-building, creativity, decision-making and problem-solving (see the brainstorming section).
See also how to run workshops and workshop meetings.
Techniques of goal planning and project management are useful for running effective meetings.
Presentation skills and delegation abilities are helpful in meetings, and so is a basic understanding of motivation and personality.
Problem solving and decision-making are important in many meetings, although always consider how much of these responsibilities you can give to the group, which typically depends on their experience and the seriousness of the issue.
Meetings which involve people and encourage participation and responsibility are more constructive than meetings in which the leader tells, instructs and makes all the decisions, which is not a particularly productive style of leadership.
Holding meetings is an increasingly expensive activity, hence the need to run meetings well. Badly run meetings waste time, money, resources, and are worse than having no meetings at all.
The need to run effective meetings is more intense than ever in modern times, given ever-increasing pressures on people’s time, and the fact that people are rarely now based in the same location, due to mobile working and progressively ‘globalised’ teams and organisational structures.
New technology provides several alternatives to the conventional face-to-face meeting around a table, for example phone and video-conferencing, increasingly mobile and web-based. These ‘virtual meeting’ methods save time and money, but given the advantages of physical face-to-face communications (see the Mehrabian theory) there will always be a trade-off between the efficiencies of ‘virtual meetings’ (phone and video-conferencing notably) and the imperfections of remote communications methods (notably the inability to convey body language effectively via video conferencing, and the inability to convey body language and facial expressions by phone communications).
Accordingly, choose meeting methods that are appropriate for the situation. Explore other options such as telephone conferencing and video conferencing before deciding that a physical meeting is required, and decide what sort of meeting is appropriate for the situation. Subject to obvious adaptations and restrictions, the main principles of running physical face-to-face meetings apply to running virtual meetings.
Physical face-to-face meetings are the most effective type of meetings for conveying feelings and meanings. Therefore it is not sensible or fair to hold a virtual (phone or video-conferencing) meeting about a very serious matter. Understand that meaning and feelings can be lost or confused when people are not physically sitting in the same room as each other. Trying to save time and money by holding virtual meetings for serious matters is often a false economy for the organisation, and can actually be very unfair to staff if the matter significantly affects their personal futures or well-being.
A meeting provides a special opportunity to achieve organisational outcomes, and also to help the attendees in a variety of ways, so approach all meetings keeping in mind these two different mutually supporting aims.
The aim and test of a well run meeting is that whatever the subject, people feel afterwards that it took care of their needs, as well as the items on the agenda.
factors affecting how best to run meetings
Your choice of structure and style in running an effective meeting is hugely dependent on several factors:
the situation (circumstances, mood, atmosphere, background, etc)
the organisational context (the implications and needs of the business or project or organisation)
the team, or the meeting delegates (the needs and interests of those attending)
you yourself (your own role, confidence, experience, your personal aims, etc)
your position and relationship with the team
and of course the aims of the meeting.
There will always be more than one aim, because aside from the obvious reason(s) for the meeting, all meetings bring with them the need and opportunity to care for and/or to develop people, as individuals and/or as a team.
When you run a meeting you are making demands on people’s time and attention. When you run meeting you have an authority to do so, which you must use wisely.
This applies also if the people at the meeting are not your direct reports, and even if they are not a part of your organisation.
Whatever the apparent reason for the meeting, you have a responsibility to manage the meeting so that it is a positive and helpful experience for all who attend.
Having this aim, alongside the specific meeting objective(s), will help you develop an ability and reputation for running effective meetings that people are happy to attend.
Having a good understanding of other areas of management, including many featured on this website, will improve your overall ability to run meetings, for example:
the Tuckman model of team maturity and development
the Tannenbaum and Schmidt model of team development
personality and styles
facilitative decision-making (Sharon Drew Morgen’s methodology – it’s not just for selling)
ethical and social responsibility considerations (ethical reference points are essential)
meetings – basic rules
Here is a solid basic structure for most types of meetings. This assumes you have considered properly and decided that the meeting is necessary, and also that you have decided (via consultation with those affected if necessary or helpful) what sort of meeting to hold.
plan – use the agenda as a planning tool
circulate the meeting agenda in advance
run the meeting – keep control, agree outcomes, actions and responsibilities, take notes
write and circulate notes – especially actions and accountabilities
follow up agreed actions and responsibilities
Meetings come in all shapes and sizes, and for lots of purposes.
Meeting purposes include:
discussion (leading to an objective)
consulting and getting feedback
finding solutions/solving problems
setting targets and objectives
setting tasks and delegating
conveying /clarifying policy issues
special subjects – guest speakers
inter-departmental – process improvement
The acronym POSTAD TV helps to remember how to plan effective meetings, and particularly how to construct the meeting agenda, and then notify the meeting delegates:
Priorities, Outcomes, Sequence, Timings, Agenda, Date, Time, Venue.
What is the meeting’s purpose, or purposes? Always have a clear purpose; otherwise don’t have a meeting. Decide the issues for inclusion in the meeting and their relative priority: importance and urgency – they are quite different and need treating in different ways. Important matters do not necessarily need to be resolved quickly. Urgent matters generally do not warrant a lot of discussion. Matters that are both urgent and important are clearly serious priorities that need careful planning and management.
You can avoid the pressure for ‘Any Other Business’ at the end of the meeting if you circulate a draft agenda in advance of the meeting, and ask for any other items for consideration. (‘Any Other Business’ often creates a free-for-all session that wastes time, and gives rise to new tricky expectations, which if not managed properly then closes the meeting on a negative note.)
Decide the type of outcome (i.e., what is the purpose) for each issue, and put this on the agenda alongside the item heading. This is important as people need to know what is expected of them, and each item will be more productive with a clear aim at the outset. Typical types of outcomes are:
Planning (eg workshop session)
Agreeing (targets, budgets, aims, etc)
Guest speaker – information, initiatives, etc.
Put the less important issues at the top of the agenda, not the bottom. If you put them on the bottom you may never get to them because you’ll tend to spend all the time on the big issues.
Ensure any urgent issues are placed up the agenda. Non-urgent items place down the agenda – if you are going to miss any you can more easily afford to miss these.
Try to achieve a varied mix through the running order – if possible avoid putting heavy controversial items together – vary the agenda to create changes in pace and intensity.
Be aware of the tendency for people to be at their most sensitive at the beginning of meetings, especially if there are attendees who are keen to stamp their presence on proceedings. For this reason it can be helpful to schedule a particularly controversial issue later in the sequence, which gives people a chance to settle down and relax first, and maybe get some of the sparring out of their systems over less significant items.
Also be mindful of the lull that generally affects people after lunch, so try to avoid scheduling the most boring item of the agenda at this time; instead after lunch get people participating and involved, whether speaking, presenting, debating or doing other active things.
meeting timings (of agenda items)
Consider the time required for the various items rather than habitually or arbitrarily decide the length of the meeting. Allocate a realistic time slot for each item. Keep the timings realistic – usually things take longer than you think.
Long meetings involving travel for delegates require pre-meeting refreshments 30 minutes prior to the actual meeting start time.
Put plenty of breaks into long meetings. Unless people are participating and fully involved, their concentration begins to drop after just 45 minutes. Breaks don’t all need to be 20 minutes for coffee and cigarettes. Five minutes every 45-60 minutes for a quick breath of fresh air and leg-stretch will help keep people attentive.
Unless you have a specific reason for arranging one, avoid formal sit-down restaurant lunches – they’ll add at least 30 minutes unnecessarily to the lunch break, and the whole thing makes people drowsy. Working lunches are great, but make sure you give people 10-15 minutes to get some fresh air and move about outside the meeting room. If the venue is only able to provide lunch in the restaurant, arrange a buffet, or if a sit-down meal is unavoidable save some time by the giving delegates’ menu choices to the restaurant earlier in the day.
It’s not essential, but it is usually helpful, to put precise (planned) times for each item on the agenda. What is essential however is for you to have thought about and planned the timings so you can run the sessions according to a schedule. In other words, if the delegates don’t have precise timings on their agendas – make sure you have them on yours. This is one of the biggest responsibilities of the person running the meeting, and is a common failing, so plan and manage this aspect firmly. People will generally expect you to control the timekeeping, and will usually respect a decision to close a discussion for the purpose of good timekeeping, even if the discussion is still in full flow.
It’s often obvious who should attend; but sometimes it isn’t. Consider inviting representatives from other departments to your own department meetings – if relationships are not great they will often appreciate being asked, and it will help their understanding of your issues, and your understanding of theirs.
Having outside guests from internal and external suppliers helps build relationships and strengthen the chain of supply, and they can often also shed new light on difficult issues too. Use your discretion though – certain sensitive issues should obviously not be aired with ‘outsiders’ present.
Avoid and resist senior managers and directors attending your meetings unless you can be sure that their presence will be positive, and certainly not intimidating. Senior people are often quick to criticise and pressurise without knowing the facts, which can damage team relationships, morale, motivation and trust.
If you must have the boss at your meeting, try to limit their involvement to lunch only, or presenting the awards at the end of the meeting. In any event, tell your boss what you are trying to achieve at the meeting and how – this gives you more chance in controlling possible interference.
Ensure the date you choose causes minimum disruption for all concerned. It’s increasingly difficult to gather people for meetings, particularly from different departments or organisations. So take care when finding the best date – it’s a very important part of the process, particularly if senior people are involved.
For meetings that repeat on a regular basis the easiest way to set dates is to agree them in advance at the first meeting when everyone can commit there and then. Try to schedule a year’s worth of meetings if possible, then you can circulate and publish the dates, which helps greatly to ensure people keep to them and that no other priorities encroach.
Pre-planning meeting dates is one of the keys to achieving control and well-organised meetings. Conversely, leaving it late to agree dates for meetings will almost certainly inconvenience people, which is a major source of upset.
Generally try to consult to get agreement of best meeting dates for everyone, but ultimately you will often need to be firm. Use the ‘inertia method’, i.e., suggest a date and invite alternative suggestions, rather than initially asking for suggestions, which rarely achieves a quick agreement.
Times to start and finish depend on the type and duration of the meeting and the attendees’ availability, but generally try to start early, or finish at the end of the working day. Two-hour meetings in the middle of the day waste a lot of time in travel. Breakfast meetings are a good idea in certain cultures, but can be too demanding in more relaxed environments. If attendees have long distances to travel (i.e., more than a couple of hours, consider overnight accommodation on the night before.
If the majority have to stay overnight it’s often worth getting the remainder to do so as well because the team building benefits from evening socialising are considerable, and well worth the cost of a hotel room. Overnight accommodation the night before also allows for a much earlier start. By the same token, consider people’s travelling times after the meeting, and don’t be unreasonable – again offer overnight accommodation if warranted – it will allow a later finish, and generally keep people happier.
As with other aspects of the meeting arrangements, if in doubt always ask people what they prefer. Why guess when you can find out what people actually want, especially if the team is mature and prefers to be consulted anyway.
Many meetings are relatively informal, held in meeting rooms ‘on-site’ and do not warrant extensive planning of the venue as such. On the other hand, big important meetings held off-site at unfamiliar venues very definitely require a lot of careful planning of the venue layout and facilities. Plan the venue according to the situation – leave nothing to chance.
Venue choice is critical for certain sensitive meetings, but far less so for routine, in-house gatherings. Whatever, there are certain preparations that are essential, and never leave it all to the hotel conference organiser or your own facilities department unless you trust them implicitly. Other people will do their best but they’re not you, and they can’t know exactly what you want. You must ensure the room is right – mainly, that it is big enough with all relevant equipment and services. It’s too late to start hunting for a 20ft power extension lead five minutes before the meeting starts.
Other aspects that you need to check or even set up personally are:
table and seating layout
top-table (if relevant) position
tables for demonstration items, paperwork, hand-outs, etc
electricity power points and extensions
heating and lighting controls
projection and flip chart equipment positioning and correct operation
whereabouts of toilets and emergency exits – fire drill
confirm reception and catering arrangements
back-up equipment contingency
All of the above can and will go wrong unless you check and confirm – when you book the venue and then again a few days before the meeting.
For a big important meeting, you should also arrive an hour early to check everything is as you want it. Some meetings are difficult enough without having to deal with domestic or logistics emergencies; and remember if anything goes wrong it reflects on you – it’s your credibility, reputation and control that’s at stake.
Positioning of seating and tables is important, and for certain types of meetings it’s crucial. Ensure the layout is appropriate for the occasion:
Formal presentations to large groups – theatre-style – the audience in rows, preferably with tables, facing the chairman.
Medium-sized participative meetings – horse-shoe (U) table layout with the open part of the U facing the chairman’s table, or delegates’ tables arranged ‘cabaret’ style.
Small meetings for debate and discussion – board-room style – one rectangular table with chairman at one end.
Relaxed team meetings for planning and creative sessions – lounge style, with easy chairs and coffee tables.
Your own positioning in relation to the group is important. If you are confident and comfortable and your authority is in no doubt you should sit close to the others, and can even sit among people. If you expect challenge or need to control the group strongly set yourself further away and clearly central, behind a top-table at the head of things.
Ensure everyone can see screens and flip charts properly – actually sit in the chairs to check – you’ll be surprised how poor the view is from certain positions.
Set up of projectors and screens is important – strive for the perfect rectangular image, as this gives a professional, controlled impression as soon as you start. Experiment with the adjustment of projector and screen until it’s how you want it. If you are using LCD projector and overhead projector (a rare beast these days) you may need two screens. A plain white wall is often better than a poor screen.
People from the western world read from left to right, so if you want to present anything in order using different media, set it up so that people can follow it naturally from left to right. For instance show introductory bullet points (say on a flip chart on the left – as the audience sees it) and the detail for each point (say on projector and screen on the right).
Position screens and flip chart where they can be used comfortably without obscuring the view. Ensure the speaker/chairman’s position is to the side of the screen, not in front of it obscuring the view.
Ensure any extension leads and wiring is taped to the floor or otherwise safely covered and protected.
Supply additional flip chart easels and paper, or write-on acetates and pens, for syndicate work if applicable. You can also ask people to bring laptops for exercises and presentation to the group assuming you have LCD projector is available and compatible.
In venues that have not been purpose-built for modern presentations, sometimes the lighting is problematical. If there are strong fluorescent lights above the screen that cannot be switched off independently, it is sometimes possible for them to be temporarily disconnected (by removing the starter, which is a small plastic cylinder plugged into the side of the tube holder). In older buildings it sometimes possible to temporarily remove offending light-bulbs if they are spoiling the visual display, but always enlist the help of one of the venue’s staff rather than resorting to DIY.
Finally, look after the venue’s staff – you need them on your side. Most business users treat hotel and conference staff disdainfully – show them some respect and appreciation and they will be more than helpful.