How To Run An Effective Meeting

Knowledge managers, like other managers, have to hold meetings. Unfortunately this topic isn’t adequately covered in many management programs, but effective meetings are critical to effective collaboration, knowledge sharing and knowledge creation. As an instructor in the Air Force I was fortunate to receive extensive training in how to run a meeting. My instructors critiqued everything from content, to voice inflection, and even how I held my pen. I later found this training applied directly to running meetings in the private sector.

Preparation, presentation, and follow-up will go a long way toward making your meeting more productive. Here are 5 tips for running more effective meetings.

1. Set an agendaHow to run a meeting.
This one is an old standard that nearly everyone knows, yet too often we skip. Most meetings require some kind of preparation, but I’ve attended meetings where I was told “We’re meeting with a vendor.” That’s it, no vendor name, no product or service we plan to discuss, and no explanation of what need we want that vendor to address. Usually I’m knowledgeable about the topic, or I’d not have been invited, but there is still homework I’d like to do. In this case I’d want to at least check out the vendor’s, and their competitors’, websites.
Set the agenda, send the agenda to the attendees, and post the agenda on a whiteboard or somewhere prominent during the meeting. Sometimes I even hand out a 1-page overview that leads with the agenda. Don’t just use the first PowerPoint slide of your presentation, because you’ll want your agenda handy later. Keep it simple, ideally 3-4 bullet statements; otherwise you will not get to everything.

2. Physically control the room
People communicate with body language. One way to lead a discussion is to physically take charge. Show up early, before your attendees, and consider the seating. You take the head of the table if there is one, and reserve seats for key players if needed. Start the meeting on time. When you start late your attendees begin to question your capability and you risk losing them before you even begin. About a minute before the meeting time stand up, announce something like, “It’s about time to get started.” then walk to the door and shut it. On your way back to the table start talking informally, comment on the weather, thank everyone for being there, etc. Consider continuing to stand if the room is set up to support it.
Closing the door says “This is my room.” and moving around will encourage your audience to focus on you. Standing will set you apart from the group and says, “This is my meeting, listen to me.”

3. Know your audience
This is a tough one. In addition to the Myers and Briggs personality types, there’s motivation: does your audience want to be there, do they have a stake in the agenda, and are they the people you wanted there? Consider each individual attendee, why did you want them to attend, and what can you do to get that from them?
The answers to the above are as varied as the people we know, so I will focus on two over-generalized, yet significant, personality types; introverts and extroverts.

  • Extroverts – If the objective of your meeting is collaboration, the extrovert will be your friend. They will break the ice when you ask for inputs, letting everyone know it’s OK to participate. On the flip side, they may want to contribute before you’re ready, or they may begin to impose their own agenda. That’s why you posted your agenda in a visible, easy to access location. To get them back on track do something with their input, either write it down for later action or point them in another direction to go with it, then walk over to the posted agenda and point to the item “we need to discuss right now.”
  • Introverts – Often maligned, the introvert probably has as much to contribute as the extrovert. In fact, since they have listened to the discussion, they may have a better understanding of the various sides and common ground of the group. You may need to ask the introvert for input, this is where knowing your audience comes in handy. You can probably anticipate where someone with particular expertise will have something to contribute; be sure you ask. Then be sure the extrovert allows them to complete their thought. Be nice about it, “That’s a good point John, thanks. Jane you were saying something about the widget supply?”
    Presumably everyone you invited to the meeting is there for a reason; it’s your responsibility to ensure they have the opportunity to contribute.

4. Manage diversions
Don’t kill diversions, manage them. Educators have a thing called a “Learning Moment” this happens in meetings too. As the organizer you attempt to cover the relevant topics, but sometimes the conversation moves beyond the scope of the meeting, but onto a worthwhile subject. Before you run to the whiteboard and yell “Let’s get back on our agenda!” think about the discussion. Is it something relevant that you, the organizer, should have included for discussion, is it something you’ll need to discuss eventually, and is it going to unacceptably detract from your intended agenda? Sometimes these diversions can be productive, so don’t jump the gun.
Unfortunately, these diversions are not always productive and you’ll need to get the meeting back on-track. Be patient, allow the passionate say their piece, cutting people off too soon may leave them frustrated and unfocused. At the right moment, before the discussion goes too far, go to your board and say “This is a good discussion, but we really need to get back on our agenda.”

5. Wrap it up (on time)
Next to your agenda, this is the most critical part of a meeting. It’s important to finish your meeting on-time so you have time for a wrap-up and your attendees don’t start focusing on their next event. Go back to your agenda to remind everyone why you called the meeting. Go over what you decided, and what you left undone. Clarify the after-action items, deadlines, and who is responsible for each. Tell everyone what comes next, and when you will meet again. Thank everyone for their time.
If you are still going when the meeting end-time arrives, stop, mid sentence if needed. Ending the meeting on time is your responsibility, and taking responsibility for that tells your attendees you respect them. This will earn their respect in return.
Finally reiterate the wrap-up in an email, so everyone has a record of the meeting, and so they have something to review before the next meeting.
When running meetings, the contingencies are as varied as the people who attend. These 5 steps will help you get started, and in most cases make your meetings more productive.

If you want to learn more, the Harvard Business Review has an online course “Meeting Management: Harvard ManageMentor” with exercises that present some of the more difficult meeting management scenarios. I took it last year as part of a management program, and even though this is a subject I’ve studied at length found the course worthwhile. I don’t get a kick-back, I just think it’s $39.95 well spent.

About John Donahue

I'm a practicing Knowledge Manager, providing KM consulting for organizations from small businesses to large governmental agencies. I've organized and participated in KM and IKM Working Groups at a US Embassy overseas, with the US DoD, and with deployed NATO headquarter staffs. I served 20-years as an Air Force officer and aviator, during which time I was an award-winning instructor at the US Air Force Academy and logged nearly 100 combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. Now a seasoned Knowledge Manager and certified Project Management Professional I'm applying my organizational, leadership, teaching and technical skill to the knowledge management profession.

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