We all know how it feels to be trapped in a pointless, seemingly endless meeting.
An essential participant shows up 10 minutes late. Discussions veer off into tangents. Nothing is decided. Everyone is texting or checking email on phones and laptops, raising the question of why get together at all.
Author and speechwriter Michael Long observes, “George Costanza put it best: I don’t think there’s ever been an appointment in my life where I wanted the other guy to show up.”
If we all feel that way, why do we call meetings that so often amount to time drains? Before you snooze through another dull meeting, take control and make your confabs useful. After all, we’re all in the communications business, aren’t we?
The matter of meeting efficiency caught my eye after the publication of a story about an email from Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla.
The rocket- and car-making boss appears to be ready to launch into space anyone who wastes his time. “Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time,” Musk muses.
Herewith are tips I cribbed from communicators, online experts and helpless employees drowning in the quicksand of meetings.
1. Cancel that meeting. Really. It’s OK.
“Please get [out] of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short,” Musk tells his staff.
Words for us all to live by.
“The best way to keep meetings short is to do your dead-level best not to have them,” writes Long, author of the forthcoming book “The Molecule of More.” “If you can write out an agenda and email it to people, you rarely need to hear their response by ear. Ask them to reply by email to each of your points.”
Because writing is harder than talking, your correspondent will limit the response to the most important points, Long says. If they don’t reply in a timely way, their reply probably isn’t worth having.
2. Start on time.
Meetings are a time-suck anyway. Be in your seat before launch time, bang the metaphorical gavel, and get it going.
Late-starting phone meetings can be especially irksome, as disembodied strangers are left to make conversation on the phone. (“So how’s the weather there in New York?” “Oh, fine. How’s Chicago?”) Let’s all do better.
3. End on time.
While you’re at it, announce the end time. This will help ensure that you accomplish what’s on your agenda and get people back to their work stations promptly, writes The New York Times’ Adam Bryant.
“I like to have an agenda that we think through,” a source tells him, “and we say, ‘This meeting’s going to go for two hours,’ and we force ourselves to carve through the agenda.'”
3. Provide a written brief to participants.
One large Pacific Northwest company requires the meeting organizer to provide a written brief of the meeting content to be discussed, says instructional designer Jay L. Gorham. “The meeting begins with all participants reading the brief and making their own notes silently before discussion begins,” he notes.
4. Set an agenda.
Many meetings start with no clear sense of purpose. The agenda can be summarized on a handout, written on a whiteboard or discussed at the outset, Bryant says.
One source he quotes is even more demanding than that; it’s paper or nothing. “If I don’t have an agenda in front of me, I walk out,” a CEO tells Bryant, adding, “It’s very important to me to focus people and to keep them focused, and not just get in the room and talk about who won the Knicks game last night.”
(Artist’s rendering of how the Knicks did last night.)
5. Establish longer-term goals.
Establish reasonable, yet productive goals, and make sure they fit into the time frame you are working, says Orly Telisman of Orly Telisman Public Relations.
“If you meet every two weeks,” Telisman says, “discuss the goals established from two weeks ago and what was met (and what wasn’t and what else those goals need to be met). And establish the next two-week goals.”
6. Leave with an action plan.
Spend the last few minutes of every meeting discussing the next steps, Bryant suggests. Decide who is responsible for what, and what the deadlines are. Otherwise, all the time you spent on the meeting will be for naught.
He cites the managing partner of a real estate operating company, uses a phrase to end meetings that has become a common abbreviation in office emails: W.W.D.W.B.W., which stands for “When Will Dagwood’s Wombats Be Weaned?”
No, wait. It’s “Who will do what by when?”
Overlong abbreviations? Augh! Still, you get the point.
By the way, I’m not alone in disliking such contrivances. “Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software or processes at Tesla,” Musk exhorts. “In general, anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication. We don’t want people to have to memorize a glossary just to function at Tesla.”
7. Hold a stand-up meeting.
Research shows that stand-up meetings can be more efficient, a Forbes writer notes. In one study, he says, groups that were standing took one-third less time to decide than those who were seated—with no loss in the quality of decisions.
Though this isn’t always practical, give it a try if you can. After all, they say sitting is the new smoking—bad for your health when you to it all day.
8. Don’t hit “mute” and talk over others in remote offices.
In phone meetings with colleagues or clients in another location, some folks can’t resist muting the phone and offering commentary, rebuttals and amplifications to those around them. Just don’t. It’s disrespectful to the person talking (even if they aren’t aware) and distracting to those present.
Besides, if you’re not interested in what your interlocutors have to say, why meet with them in the first place?
9. Evaluate how the meeting went.
Communication is key to successful meetings, especially if you’re experimenting with formats for your team, Business Insider states. Ask your employees to assess the meeting. Make it quick, though, and keep it within the time frame. (Or do a quick poll on Survey Monkey or your social intranet.)
In the end, you can make meetings a place of creative brainstorming, not a sinkhole in everyone’s day.
“The only reason to sit around a table is to engage in creative back-and-forth,” Long says. “Ask yourself if you’re there to exchange information or to explore ideas. If it’s the former, stick to email. If it’s the latter, set a definite start and stop time, keep it short, and stick to the schedule.”