A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for interacting in the modern world. This article is an interlude, a brief aside that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight or a deep discussion of human impulses; it’s just something people might want to know.
Odds are, at some point in your life you will be required to run a meeting. It may be a community meeting, a meeting of family, a volunteer meeting, or a meeting at work. Done right, a meeting is a productive way to get several different people organized around a common goal. Done wrong, a meeting is a great way to waste an hour or two of everyone’s time. You want to do meetings right, unless your goal is to waste time, which is of course a time-honored tactic and one that we will no doubt cover in a different article.
Without further ado, here are thirteen steps to run a proper meeting.
- Before the meeting, decide what you want the goal to be. Are you setting up duty assignments for the annual lottery of the Kiwi Fancier’s Association? Are you talking with your cousins to discuss Uncle Dave’s brony compulsions and deciding whether to host an intervention? Are you meeting with the boss, the union, and the HR rep to try to explain why you dosed the office coffee with LSD? Regardless, before the meeting occurs you should know how you want it to end, and make your plans in that direction.
- Before the meeting, decide who to invite. You will win brownie points for keeping meetings small, focused, and to the point. To that end, you should deliberately invite or pass over certain people. Everyone you invite should have a reason to be there. You should expect everyone you invite to either talk, listen, or make a decision. People who zone out are not helpful; if people are playing on their phones while you’re talking, they don’t need to be there (admittedly, if they’re the boss then that means you don’t need to be in that meeting, which is a different problem).
- Before the meeting, set an agenda. It is much easier to control the flow of a meeting if there is a written, distributed agenda. Strange but true, it’s a way to frame people’s perceptions of what is about to happen. So if you have a group that tends to get off-subject easily, having a written agenda can be a lifesaver. Even if your group has laser-like focus, it can still be a lifesaver for you to have written down all the things you want to discuss/decide/teach.
- Issue an invitation. This step is easy in the office, but sometimes overlooked in other settings — if you want to have a meeting, invite people using a written invitation that contains the proposed agenda. If at all possible, put it on an electronic calendar so they get a reminder. People are busy, and it can be hard to get them to make time for you, but if you get on their schedule early they are much more likely to show up.
- Invite suggestions for topics. This can backfire, but normally it’s a good idea to invite people to contribute suggestions for topics of discussion. Judge these suggestions and add them to the agenda as necessary. Then re-send the agenda. This serves the purposes of getting people to commit to the meeting, ensuring that you have topics of interest to all (or at least most) attendees, and reminding the group at a couple of intervals that the meeting is going to take place. Do not do this if you want to keep sole control of the meeting topics, obviously.
- Select a space big enough for the group. When choosing a meeting location, be sure to pick a space big enough for everyone to sit down. No one likes to stand against the wall during a presentation, and not having enough seats can prompt snarky dominance fights among the attendees (especially in volunteer groups).
- Reserve the space. No one likes having to wander around trying to find a space to meet, so identify your area and lock it down. Most companies have systems for this; it might get fiddly with less formal groups, but if nothing else just tell everyone where and when you’re meeting, and make sure that other people aren’t planning to use the same space.
- Arrive early with all materials. Make sure you show up at least a few minutes early, with any materials you will need for the meeting (including technology, as necessary). If at all possible, have everything set up by the time the other attendees arrive. This makes you look good and means you aren’t wasting other people’s time, which is generally appreciated.
- Lead the discussion as a moderator. Keeping control of a meeting is all about directing the conversation along productive paths. This, in turn, requires that people understand that the meeting is running to an agenda, and there are specific times and opportunities to discuss specific topics. It’s usually a good idea to start a meeting by going over the agenda. You can’t talk about everything, so it’s important to remind people to stick to the agenda and gently nudge people back into line if they start talking about unrelated things.¹
- Set ground rules. If it’s the first time you’re meeting a group, it’s good to set some ground rules in the first five minutes of a meeting, and extract a verbal or physical sign of agreement from the participants (people are more likely to follow rules they agree to; strange, but true). Don’t break your own rules.
- Remember Q&A. People will normally want to ask questions. Anticipate this, build it into the agenda, and allow at least 15 minutes for open forum/Q&A/random conversation when possible. Sometimes these are the most important moments in a meeting.
- Take notes and track action items. Meetings are a great way to decide issues and assign work… as long as people remember what was discussed. To that end, notes are key. Write, type, or record the events of a meeting, and remember that this is its own unique skill and most people can’t moderate a meeting and take notes at the same time (you may need to assign someone to do this). In particular, keep track of action items — things that people have agreed to do or have been assigned. If the meeting is recurring, you should review any existing action items at the start of each meeting. This keeps people focused and can shame the lazy bums in the group into actually doing their work.
- After the meeting, follow up. If you do nothing else, make sure that people know and remember what they’ve been assigned to do. Otherwise they will forget (either legitimately or conveniently) and stuff will not get done. If possible, it’s also good to provide a very brief recap of the discussion, decisions, and action items for anyone who was unable to attend.
If you take anything away from this list, let it be this: a good meeting, like any other good thing in life, doesn’t just happen. It takes effort, planning, and practice to successfully run a meeting. This may seem like the most “Office Space” topic imaginable, but you will do it at some point, and doing it right will be a large part of the difference between getting things done and getting very frustrated.
¹I had a boss once who was incapable of following his own agendas. He would wander off-subject and down conversational dead ends, engage in circular reasoning in front of an audience, and change his mind six or seven times during conversation. As a result, any meeting with him lasted two hours… minimum. People HATED meeting with him. He was radically less effective than he could have been, simply because he was always out of the loop because no one could summon up the energy to engage him for long enough to get him to understand an issue. To this day I don’t know whether he was incompetent or had just perfected a sneaky method of being lazy, but from the organizational perspective the difference between the two was minimal. DO NOT BE THIS MAN.