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By Teri Grant

This article will take ~8 minutes to read.

Have you ever been in one of those meetings that just never seems to end? Ever looked around the room, and thought, “There’s nothing we’re doing in this meeting that couldn’t have been done over email. Why am I here?” Wasted time and an unclear purpose are classic indicators of nightmare meetings.


“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.” – Dave Barry


But what can be done? How can we have meetings that regularly last exactly as look as they ought to, meetings that have a delightfully unique purpose for gathering together, meetings that are truly enjoyable?


Get off Meeting Autopilot, and get intentional

I have been in some fabulous meetings and I have been in some nightmarish and ghastly meetings that seem to last an eternity – and I’ll confess that I’ve been the facilitator in both instances.  

It’s not easy to facilitate an excellent meeting, but there are always small changes we can each learn to make in our design of those gatherings that can make a big difference. Below are eight of my favourite strategies to maximize time spent in meetings:


1. Plan how to finish strong

Before you plan out talking points or seating charts, it’s time to be intentional about what you want the experience of your meeting to be. What feelings, thoughts, and motivations do you hope your meeting attendees will walk away with? What can you do or facilitate at the very end of the meeting experience that helps drive that home?

If you were to think about finishing the gathering, rather than just stopping it, how would you do it?

Would you pose a thoughtful question? Would you include time for the group to appreciate one another? Would you remind everyone of your shared vision? Determine how you want to close out your time together in a way that has maximum impact.


2. Build a thoughtful agenda

Agendas are interesting things, and often reflect our own preferred way of processing the world.

Are you someone who abhors structure and who loves to dance with the beautiful gusts of the moment? I’ll bet your agenda-making style carries the essence of that free-flow philosophy.  

Are you someone who colour-codes your scarf collection, and who times out action items to the half-minute? I’ll bet your agendas reflect that same structure and organization.

Is that a bad thing?  Definitely not – but it does warrant a small pause for thought.

Do the other folks in your meeting move through the world with the same love/disdain of structure that you do? Do minute-by-minute allocation of discussion items delight or horrify the other participants? Does your single agenda item of ‘Discussion and Decisions’ for your 90-minute meeting make your teammates relax and smile, or want to crawl under the table?

Agenda structures are often a natural mirror of the brain of the facilitator; nothing wrong with that. But, as the facilitator, it’s important to take a moment to think about who else will be there in the room with you.

Is there anything you can do with the structure of the agenda that also takes into account the preferred working styles of your colleagues? If there’s a small tweak you can make that you know will make someone else’s experience in the meeting even better, make it happen!


3. Have clear outcomes right from the start

Have you ever been in a meeting where halfway through you still aren’t really sure what’s happening? Tough to come back from that as a facilitator.  

Having a clear purpose for why everyone is gathered is only half the battle; the other half is inviting the rest of the room to be as invested in that clear purpose as you are.

Sharing the outcomes of the meeting in advance, posting them clearly somewhere in the meeting environment, and making a point of focusing on them at the outset of the meeting are three helpful ways to share with the group. These can be useful check-ins with the other folks in the room to see if everyone is on board – and if there is anything you’ve missed that another member of your team wants to add.


4. Have more than one speaker

For people to feel ownership of a meeting, they need to have a voice. One sure way to invite multiple voices is to share the facilitation of the meeting. By building a genuine culture of co-facilitation, co-creation, and co-curation of agenda items and meeting content, you release yourself of the burden of being all things to all people.

Your authentic voice is a key piece of your team dynamic – and so is everyone else’s. What ways can you get everyone to not just show up but be actively engaged? Are there aspects of the meeting agenda that could be facilitated by someone else on the team? Are there other agenda items that could be sourced from the group, and added to the conversation?


5. Know the purpose – and stick to it

When tangents threaten to derail the conversation, don’t be afraid to table discussion for another time or even set up another conversation with the right people at the table at the right time. Parking lots (also known as bike racks), a list of ‘to come back to’ items, are helpful tools to employ as needed to help keep things on track and on time.

If you have a colleague that tends to occupy a lot of meeting space (aka, they love to hear themselves talk), think about how you might manage that part of the dynamic. Consider setting out shared expectations for the meeting with the entire group, which can then be called as a reference when needing to move on in a discussion. (“Thanks for that thought, Chatty, but let’s make sure we hear from everyone at the table as per our community agreement.”)

But, this approach is only one side of the coin, and so we move on to No. 6…


6. Roll with the unexpected

You cannot plan for everything. Even the most perfect meeting layout will have changes in the moment, and if you are truly living up to the collaborative spirit of No. 3 on this list, you will absolutely have unexpected elements and items pop up in your meeting.

That is okay.

As the facilitator, your task then becomes navigating that fine line between ‘tangent’ (see No. 5) and ‘wow, this is super important and thank goodness someone brought it up’. One of the worst things you could do as a facilitator is cutting off a key conversation that your team really needs to have. This fine line is often moving, and you will likely have a different interpretation between No. 5 and No. 6 than everyone else in the room.  

Again, that is okay.  Be transparent with your decision-making if you need to cut something short or prolong an unexpected conversation, and your team will appreciate it.


7. Break bread together

Food at a meeting can be one of the easiest and most effective ways to transform a ghastly meeting into a great one. A rumbly tummy can make it awfully hard to focus, and bringing in some tasty treats can be a game-changer.

“If you can eat with mates or friends or family, I mean, it’s such a brilliant thing isn’t it? If you feel really rubbish and you have a nice bit of food it makes you feel good, you know?” – Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef)

One caveat to this is to be aware of dietary restrictions and preferences of everyone attending. It can be uncomfortable and even alienating if your gastronomical gift to the group leaves someone out. This is so easy to avoid – take the time to double-check.


8. Know what’s next

As your agenda reaches its conclusion, now is a good time to check back in on your progress through No. 3 on this list: clear outcomes. Did your meeting accomplish what you set out to do?  

If so, excellent; that means it’s time to determine next steps, assign tasks, confirm deadlines, and make sure that everyone is leave your meeting space with the same understanding of what took place. This can be done verbally, via meeting minutes to be circulated after the fact, or by each member of the team confirm what they personally have committed to taking responsibility for.


A quick review of how to facilitate productive meetings:

1. Plan how to finish strong

If you were to think about finishing , rather than just stopping it, how would you do it?

2. Build a thoughtful agenda

If there’s a tweak you can make that will improve someone else’s experience, do it!

3. Have clear outcomes right from the start

Share the desired outcomes of the meeting in advance for all to see and consider.

4. Have more than one speaker

For people to feel ownership of a meeting, they need to have a voice.

5. Know the purpose – and stick to it

Don’t be afraid to table discussion for another time or another group.

6. Roll with the unexpected

You cannot plan for everything. That is okay – be transparent, move forward.

7. Break bread together

Food at a meeting can transform a ghastly meeting into a great one.

8. Know what’s next

Confirm understanding, determine next steps, assign tasks, and establish deadlines.


Make it happen:  Next meeting you facilitate, pick one of these eight strategies that is new to your meeting approach and give it a shot.  After the meeting, informally check in with your participants. Learn:

  • Did they notice a difference?
  • Was the meeting a positive experience for them? Why or why not?
  • What might they like to see/do/hear/feel at the next gathering?

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