A simple secret to running a great meeting

“When I enter the interview room, 
I vow with all beings to trust my innate gumption 
and simply say it or do it.”

Zen Master Robert Aitken

As a consultant, you're expected to run a professional business meeting. In the few minutes before a meeting starts you can be as nice as you want, ask your client how his kids are doing and so on, but once the meeting starts it should be as quick and efficient as possible.

The “secret” to making a meeting snappy is very simple:

Know what you want out of the meeting before it starts.

When you go into a meeting that you’re running, you should know exactly what you want out of the meeting. For instance, when I play the role of a Business Analyst who’s designing a software system, my focus is on only three things:

  • I want to know the requirements for the software
  • I want to design the database
  • I want to design the user interface

Because I know I have these larger goals, I often walk into a specific meeting with the thought, “In today’s meeting we’re going to finish the Order Entry portion of the database design.” I emphasize the point, “We are going to finish this today,” meaning that the meeting is over when we finish the design.

Furthermore, because I know this is what I want, I send out a meeting invitation well beforehand, stating this specific goal, and I supply any materials I think the meeting participants will need. Once the meeting begins, I keep it focused only on the Order Entry database.

In other meetings you may play the role of salesperson or sales consultant, where the end goal of the meeting is to walk out with a signed sales agreement. As a result, you should have a contract prepared and ready for a signature, and you should be prepared to handle any final objections and close the deal.

Although he wasn’t necessarily talking about meetings, Stephen Covey said it very well:

Begin with the end in mind.

Organization before the meeting

As I mentioned, a great way to run a meeting is to send out a document beforehand that states the meeting’s purpose and agenda. You may not be able to do this for sales meetings, but for technical meetings this approach leaves no excuse for people being unprepared, and it also lets decision makers know whether they need to be at the meeting, or not.

Ironically, in some cases I’ve found that being this organized leads to meetings being canceled, but that’s okay, too. Had the meeting gone on, it would have been a waste of time, and by the sheer act of your being organized, you’ve saved your client and their employees time and money.

Assume control

I take this next point for granted, but I often see young consultants make this mistake, so it’s worth mentioning here:

You called the meeting, and you know what information you need. You invited the participants, and they agreed to come. Therefore, it’s your meeting, and even if you’re twenty-five years old and everyone else is much older and more experienced than you are, it’s still your meeting, don’t let anyone else run it. Period.

When the meeting starts, hand out printed copies of your agenda, and then say something like this: “As you know, I called this meeting because we need more information about X, Y, and Z. Item X is the first item on the agenda, and here’s what I think about it.” At that point you present your ideas and ask your questions, but even when other people are speaking, always remember, this is your meeting, and you’re responsible for keeping it under control. If they get off track, it’s your responsibility to bring them back on track.

Keep it moving

As people move up in the business world, they have more and more responsibilities, and less free time. Therefore, they appreciate a well-run meeting. Conversely, I’ve seen more than one executive go ballistic at a poorly run meeting. (Not my meetings, thank you.)

As a result, whenever I call a meeting, I keep it moving. If someone starts to get off track, I bring them right back to the purpose of our gathering.

I can recall many meetings where technical people who rank low on the corporate ladder have started arguments about trivial details, when the purpose of my meeting was a high-end discussion that included executives of that same client. When this happens, I put a gentle but firm end to that argument by saying something like, “That’s very interesting, but the purpose of this meeting is to discuss XYZ, so we’ll talk about that later. Getting back to the second item of our agenda, let’s discuss Option A.” The executives at the meeting will appreciate your ability to control the meeting, while also not slapping down their employees.

Other meetings will seem funny (or sad)

Once you learn how to properly run a meeting, the “funny” thing is that when you later go to a poorly organized meeting you'll find yourself laughing (or crying) about the vagueness and apparent lack of purpose of the meeting. I often find myself wondering, “Why are we here? What is the purpose of this meeting?” When you find yourself thinking about other meetings this way, you’ll be well on your way to running better meetings yourself.

On a related note, here’s a quick tip on dealing with poorly run meetings: If you find yourself trapped in a poorly run meeting, find a polite way to get out of there. If the meeting started at 2pm and was supposed to last an hour, but 3pm is rapidly approaching with no end in sight, let everyone know you have to leave: “Guys, I hate to do this, but I planned on this meeting ending at 3pm, and I promised I’d write up my TPS report by 4pm. I’m sorry, but I’ll have to leave at 3pm on the nose.” When you do this, you’ll be amazed that most people rapidly get back on track, and suddenly manage to finish the meeting by 3pm.

Sum it up

At the end of a meeting, you should (a) summarize the results of the meeting, and (b) assign action items. You summarize the meeting to make sure everyone agrees with your conclusions, and you assign action items so everyone knows what to do next, and who is doing what. If you close a meeting like this, people will be impressed and realize you mean business.

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