25 tips for better meetings

No matter how big your business is, you probably spend a lot of time in meetings. There’s no need to suffer – there are plenty of ways to use IT to make meetings more efficient.

1. Consider your options. Do you really need this meeting at all? Could you replace it with an email update or a chat over instant messaging?
2. Use mind maps. A mind map is a way to think through an agenda in a more creative way. Software such as Mindjet MindManager can digitise the process.
3. Count the cost. Add up the hourly salary cost of everyone attending the meeting and multiply by the duration. Does it represent value for money?
4. Set standards. Set common expectations about how your business does meetings. Everyone should know how to chair a meeting, how to take minutes, how to brainstorm etc. You should also set clear expectations about arriving on time.
5. Schedule breaks. Don’t let long meetings continue without giving people a chance to take a break. Schedule the start and end time of the breaks and don’t let people wander off for a coffee, cigarette or email break.
6. Have meetings standing up. Discomfort is a great way to focus people’s minds and prevent unproductive conversation.
7. Hold meetings before lunch. Similarly, people are unlikely to tolerate overrun if they’re hungry.
8. Schedule shorter meetings. Agendas always seem to expand to fill the time allotted to them. It’s too tempting to schedule meetings for an hour or half an hour because that’s the default in Outlook and other diary software. Try scheduling different times and different durations.
9. Finish meetings early. Try to finish at quarter to the hour so people can get to another appointment that starts on the hour.
10. Ten-minute meetings. Try scheduling ten-minute meetings. Send out a very tight agenda and all the supporting documents in advance. Give everyone a brief opportunity to have their say and then move to a decision.
11. Replace routine meetings. Status reports and so on don’t need meetings. Don’t let a ‘same time, same place’ meeting carry on after it has done its job.
12. Deflect distractions. If an issue comes up that is interesting but off-topic, note it on a whiteboard or in the minutes so that it doesn’t get lost. And then move on with the agenda.
13. Shorter minutes. There’s usually no need to record who said what; just what decisions you took and who is going to do what.
14. Manage talkative people. Don’t put talkative people opposite the person chairing the meeting – that way they won’t always get eye contact and start talking. Don’t be afraid to challenge repeat offenders (one to one, outside the meeting as a courtesy). “I’m always interested in your views but perhaps with a bit of preparation you could be more succinct in meetings.”
15. Get everyone to contribute. If you are running the meeting, always ask quiet people for their views. They might have a critical contribution but lack confidence to speak.
16. Use a timer. Make sure each meeting room has a large clock with a second hand on it. If time is short, set time limits on individual contributions or a strict timetable for each part of the agenda.
17. Encourage brevity. Ask people to circulate lengthy reports in advance by email. Let people give high-level summaries but don’t let status reports turn into lengthy monologues. Try to focus on the information that the meeting as a whole needs to know.
18. Learn from your successes (and your mistakes). After each meeting, spend a minute to ask everyone what went well and what they would change next time. Those who don’t learn from bad meetings are condemned to repeat them.
19. Use document templates. Microsoft Word 2007 has lots of templates you can use to create an agenda or minutes quickly. You can use these as a starting point for your own company templates.
20. Use a computer to capture actions. An HP notebook or tablet PC with a projector is a great tool for capturing minutes and ideas in a meeting. Whiteboards and flipcharts are okay for capturing ideas during a meeting, but a computer never runs out of space and it’s easy to add and delete new ideas as you go.
21. Project rooms. If you are working on a long-term project, consider setting up a permanent project room where all the meetings for that project take place. You can cover the walls with relevant material and keep documents and files in it. Or you could have a meeting room with a project wall.
22. Be a Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2010 guru. Office PowerPoint 2010 puts the control in your hands to create great-looking presentations. The special two-monitor Presenter View lets your audience see the slideshow on a projector while your notebook displays speaker notes, the current slide and a clock – ideal for staying on track.
23. Avoid ‘same time, same place’ meetings. Regular meetings create a sense of continuity but it’s easy to lapse into bad habits – no agenda, no minutes, and a bloated invitation list. The best idea is to treat each scheduled meeting like a one-time meeting.
24. Ban email in meetings. If people spend all day in pointless meetings it’s easy to understand why they bring notebooks and answer their email; but if meetings are going to get shorter and more efficient, you’ll need their full attention. Offer this deal: we’ll cut meetings in half so you can give your full attention to the meeting now and your full attention to your email later.
25. Use Outlook to schedule meetings. Office Outlook 2010 has several features that make organising meetings much easier. These include the ability to see group schedules and other people’s calendars as well as the ‘Plan a Meeting’ tool which automatically chooses a mutually convenient time for a group.

Matthew Stibbe is writer-in-chief at Articulate Marketing. He is also an avid blogger, closet geek and HP fanatic.