More effective meetings in less time

Meetings can help build productive and well-informed teams, and strengthen client relationships. Done badly, they're a thief of time. Here we explore different productivity tools to get the most out of your meetings in the least time, and how to enhance collaboration.

The reality is we can’t live without meetings. But we can make them a much more valuable use of time.

Donna McGeorge, corporate coach and author of The 25 minute meeting: half the time double the impact, says that limiting the time available for a meeting and being clear on purpose are the two best ways to improve the meeting grind.

Be clear about time and purpose

“When we have scarcity, we get clarity. If we make the time scarce by saying we’ve only got 25 minutes, people will just jump right to it,” she says.

Limiting the scope of the meeting can help too. McGeorge suggests no more than three items on the agenda and up to five participants. And, to keep speakers from rambling, set up an egg timer so they know when to wrap it up.

She acknowledges that, in some cases, more time might be needed but it’s uncommon. “I do all sorts of meetings and rarely do they go more than 25 minutes. And I still get to be a nice person and say, ‘Hi, how are you and how are the kids and the dog?’”

No matter how much time is set aside for the meeting, it’s vital to be clear about the reason you’re all there and what is to be achieved.

“From a productivity perspective, purpose trumps agenda. An agenda is often a detailed list of what we’re going to do. But when we’re clear on purpose, we tend to narrow our focus towards achieving those things,” McGeorge says.

She recommends including the purpose in the comments section of the meeting request so that everyone is clear before they arrive.

“It can be as simple as: we make a decision, we agree the budget, we have our next steps, we have alignment on the plan,” she says.

Scan, focus and act to stay on track

A tightly-run meeting keeps an eye on the purpose, the clock and makes sure that participants stay on track.

McGeorge has adapted a ‘scan, focus and act’ model for 25-minute meetings, allocating time limits to each section.

Scan: In 12 minutes, help everyone understand the context for the meeting and how they can contribute.

Focus: In eight minutes, work out the two or three things that require attention.

Act: In five minutes, decide on what actions are needed.

A good facilitator or chair is essential to lead each meeting, says McGeorge.

“You need to be able to interrupt when it’s inappropriate, steer it back on track, run a process and use a timer. Often meetings are just rudderless where there’s no clear agenda or leader.”

Get more out of client meetings

An agenda is a must for any client meeting, even informal ones, says Jim Stackpool, Managing Director of Certainty Advice Group.

Once the meeting begins, the adviser should quickly take control by identifying relevant timeframes as well as any pressing issues, he says.

“The best question I like is: For this to be an effective meeting for you, what do you want to walk out with today?”

If there are a number of burning issues, quickly agree on the priority, says Stackpool.

“Without priorities, the meeting will just go around in circles.”

Stackpool recommends recording meetings (with permission). “For us to do our job effectively as advisers we don’t want to miss anything. We can’t afford to just rely on our memories.”

A recording can also be useful for compliance and training purposes, Stackpool says.

A savvy meeting facilitator or chair is the difference between a long and boring meeting and one that results in new ideas and clever solutions.

Corporate coach and author of The 25 minute meeting: half the time double the impact (Wiley, 2018), Donna McGeorge, says everyone should have the skills to run a meeting so that discussions are kept on track.

A meeting should promote motivation, movement and momentum, she says.

Step one, she says, is to set up the best conditions possible: up to five participants, an agenda (sent beforehand) with no more than three items, and a determination to start on time and run no longer than 25 minutes.

Step two is to set a structure for the meeting that allows people to feel comfortable participating, achieves genuine results and follows through on commitments afterwards.

Everyone needs to feel supported and comfortable

Building rapid rapport is vital to getting the most out of the meeting, says McGeorge. “They are more likely to share their insights, ask quality questions and engage fully in the discussion.”

She recommends a quick exercise to help break the ice. “In your opening comments, make eye contact and thank them for coming. Then ask a question and get each member of the meeting to answer.”

It might be, ‘Out of ten, how are you feeling right now and why?’ or ‘In a few words, tell us why life is good right now’.

“It gives people a one-minute or 90-second opportunity to check in, and the chances are they’ll be more fully present. It’s a great tool,” she says.

Virtual focus

Wrangling the participants in a virtual meeting provides a new set of challenges but McGeorge says there are plenty of tricks, tools and techniques that will help.

Criticisms of virtual meetings include that the participants are often distracted with people or technology in their own space while the meeting is happening; that the speaker is simply reading a set of slides; and that the meetings are too long and may not be relevant to everyone.

McGeorge says turning on the camera will create a stronger connection to begin with. Then speak directly to each of those taking part.

Stand up and be counted

One trick to keep participants on their toes is to hold a stand-up meeting. It helps overcome the mid-afternoon meeting blues when everyone’s tired and stressed and not at their best to contribute, says McGeorge.

She says stand-up meetings help to create a sense of shared urgency, encourage others to pay closer attention to the person speaking, and promote a more equal way of holding a meeting because we tend to form a circle when we stand. Best of all, a stand-up meeting makes it hard to nod off and helps to eliminate distractions (“it’s hard to check your computer while standing”).

Similarly, a “walking meeting” works well for one-on-ones, says McGeorge.

Picture this

If you’re planning a PowerPoint presentation during the meeting, keep it sharp and snappy.

McGeorge recommends no more than five slides in a 25-minute period and they should only be images, charts or visual representations that support the discussion. Text should be large and easily read and illustrations should be high quality.

While a picture can paint a thousand words, poor visuals just detract and distract, she says.

Building trust

Encouraging a collaborative process in a client meeting is about building trust, says Jim Stackpool, Managing Director of Certainty Advice Group.

“Advisers demonstrate their expertise by the questions they ask not by the facts they deliver. Our advisers stick to an 85/15 rule as much as they can. Their job is to control the conversation so that the client is talking 85 per cent of the time and they’re taking 15 per cent of the time,” he says.

“We think you build trust by the quality of the questions you ask. It’s about really getting back to the core of why the client’s there, which is that they want to be listened to.”

Stackpool says ‘reflective listening’ is also a useful tool to build trust. It means understanding the client’s thoughts and goals and then repeating them back to make sure everyone’s on the same page.