We Move Towards That Which We Think About
You wouldn’t get into your car and drive without knowing where you want to go. You can’t buy a plane ticket without having a destination in mind. A meeting is a trip of sorts. You must know where you want to go in your meeting--your desired outcome--in order to ensure that you get there at its end. And, like a drive, you have to think through which roads you’ll take, and where you might want to stop – your agenda.
Your desired outcome needs to be crystal clear. For example, “at the end of this meeting we want to have three new ideas about XYZ,” or “group consensus about ABC,” or “debrief the client meeting so that we each have a clear understanding re: our individual responsibilities moving forward to execute this program.”
An agenda shouldn’t be a laundry list of 20 items you want to discuss. We can almost guarantee that you won’t make it to item #12 (or even item #7). It’s also a certainty that if someone asked one of the meeting participants what you discussed, they’d be unable to remember. Instead, we recommend a three-part agenda. “We’re here to discuss three things,” is so much more memorable and motivational than “Let’s get started because we have to talk about 20 problem spots…” or even said more positively “15 areas of opportunity…” You can almost see the audience’s eyes glazing over…
A good meeting facilitator opens the meeting with a clear statement of the desired outcome and a quick overview of the agenda. Distribute the desired outcome and meeting agenda in advance of the meeting to allow people time to think about the topics. That advance thought and focus will absolutely elevate the level of discussion during the meeting.
Facilitating is an active role: control the room
Every meeting needs someone in charge and facilitating a meeting is an active role. Controlling the room includes creating the room set-up that works best for the agenda (seating, flip chart/slides/video, handouts, food/no food…). You have an obligation to start and end the meeting on time as promised. You need to know what type of meeting you’re conducting: informational (single speaker who needs to ensure that the audience receives the information); brainstorm (active idea flow with everyone contributing); discussion/planning (multiple participants)….
Controlling the cast of characters: If you’re looking for active discussion, you need to anticipate ways to drive group participation. What questions can you ask? What exercises or activities will encourage the individuals around the room to share their ideas or opinions? How can you make it safe for everyone in the room to speak? Respectfully listening to each person’s contribution will encourage people to speak. We respectfully listen by capturing ideas on a flip chart. Listen with your whole body and nod in receipt of the person’s idea. Repeat part of the idea, and use that as the foundation for your next thought or question. Dismissing an idea or allowing bullying behavior in the room will discourage people from speaking up.
You encourage the less-than-confident person to share by encouraging them to talk about their area of expertise. Watch for body language and notice when someone looks like they have something to say but doesn’t know how to break into the conversation. Create an opening for them. Presumably you want to hear from everyone sitting in the room or you wouldn’t have invited them to attend the meeting. Go even further and reinforce their contribution by acknowledging their participation after the meeting.
Don’t allow any one person to dominate the discussion, to bully others, or to kill your meeting with negativity. Meeting bullying happens when one person harshly criticizes other people’s thinking. If you know you’ve got a person with bully tendencies, clearly set ground rules up front. State clearly that all input is welcome. It is the collective thinking of the group that will lead to the best plan or biggest idea. Suggest that rather than offer negative perspectives, people need to present their concerns in a positive way. For example, instead of saying, “Forget it. There’s no budget for that.” Try saying, “On a limited budget, we’ll need to think about….”
Parking Lot: In almost every meeting ideas will come up that run the risk of taking the group into a tangent discussion. Or, an issue is raised that can’t be fully explored within that meeting either because you don’t have the time, or the people who need to talk about that issue aren’t in the room. You want to respectfully acknowledge the idea or issue without sidetracking your meeting. Capture these ideas on a flip chart labeled, “Parking Lot.” The meeting facilitator or meeting participants can suggest which items need to be parked. At the end of the meeting, assign a person responsible to move forward with each parking lot item. “Moving forward” might mean including the item on the agenda for the group’s next meeting, or discussing the item with someone who wasn’t in the room.
Break Through the Clutter
People attend countless meetings a day and week that look and feel the same. You enter a somewhat sterile looking conference room. Maybe there’s a pitcher of water on the table, and pads/pens by each seat.
Visually Distinctive: Imagine if you welcomed people into a meeting that felt different from the moment people entered the room. Imagine a conference room “wallpapered” with easel paper. Imagine colorful paper strewn about the conference room table, with colorful markers vs. 8-1/2 x 11” pads and blue ball-point pens. Imagine a few fun, touch-inviting toys on the table like kush balls or play dough. We know that our brains become super-charged and creative when we return to our more playful selves. Go for the unexpected.
Variety is the Spice of Life: Think about the ways you can vary the meeting experience. Instead of asking people to listen to one voice talking about 60 slides (in a 30-minute meeting), think about having only 10 slides. Create some of the information content live on a flip chart (using colorful markers of course). Rotate speakers. Invite other meeting participants to “own” part of the content. Create a few exercises that will enable the meeting participants to “discover” new insights or ideas. If everyone is seated for most of the meeting, establish one part of the agenda where everyone needs to “race to the walls” to write down their ideas (on the easel paper wallpapered around the room). Instead of the usual sandwiches or pizza for lunch, think about ordering in something more fun or inspiring, such as Chinese food with chop sticks or ice cream sundaes. If most of your meetings are held in the morning, schedule one for late afternoon, and bring in wine or beer and snacks.
Engage Your Audience:
Anticipate how you plan to engage your audience. Plan a warm-up exercise that helps people break-away from the work they’ve left behind at their desks. Use the warm-up to jump-start thinking. Good warm-up exercises can also help level-set the group so that titles and hierarchy become irrelevant. Once everyone’s warmed up you need to work to keep people actively engaged. As part of your meeting preparation, anticipate what questions you can ask that will spark lively discussion or encourage sharing. Showcase individual expertise by inviting meeting participants to lead part of the discussion or to come prepared to share their experiences. Rotating speakers and getting everyone involved will help raise the energy level of the room. Try standing whenever possible; you’ll command the audience’s full attention and you’ll feel a higher level of energy.
But What About When You’re Not in Charge:
What can you do to make sure your time is well spent if you’ve been invited to attend a meeting? What can you control about your experience even if you’re not in charge?
In advance you can ask for three things:
During the meeting, you can:
It’s in your control to improve the meetings you lead and attend – but it takes preparation, confidence and a desire to break the long-standing bad meeting precedence.
Beryl Loeb is founder and president of The Loeb Group, a professional development resource that helps CEOs, senior executives, managers and professional teams learn how to communicate persuasively, lead distinctively; and manage with confidence and passion. The Loeb Group offers individual coaching and group workshops, designs and facilitates team retreats and important meetings. The Loeb Group consults extensively with communications agencies and corporate clients. To learn more about The Loeb Group, visit their website: www.theloebgroup.com; or call Beryl Loeb at 781-449-7212.