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Communication Skills: Business Communication, Conducting Effective Meetings

Make Your Next Meeting Count

Most of us spend a lot of time in meetings, and most of us would probably rather not.

There are ways to keep your next meeting on track.

Surveys tell us most people really don't like meetings. A frequent response is that meetings go on too long, are unfocused and, in the end, don't get anything done. But meetings can be productive, can be kept on track, and can lead to real results.

You can make sure your next meeting runs smoothly by following a few time-tested guidelines:

Is this meeting necessary?
If the decision whether to have a meeting is up to you, determine that the meeting is necessary in the first place—or at least is the best way to accomplish your purpose. A meeting can be doomed to failure if there's no good reason for having it. Ask if your purpose can better be served in some other way. If your purpose is simply to pass on information, for example, will E-mail or some other medium suffice?

Once a meeting is decided upon, then—first and foremost—prepare. Think ahead about how the meeting can produce the best results.

Start by setting a clear objective.
It may be simply to convey or exchange information, deliver a business update, or announce something. Or you may want to address an urgent problem, persuade others to your cause with a call to action, or sell something. The key is to be clear about it. Decide on the outcome you want and what the result should be. If you're delivering a call to action, be clear about what you want your audience to do. Outline specific actions, preferably no more than three, with deadlines. If your meeting entails a presentation by you, be sure to follow the steps to effective presentation development and delivery.

Know your audience. Have an agenda.
If your meeting is aimed mainly at persuading a group—and not just informing them—you'll need to give more thought to your audience profile. (See our article, You Talkin' to Me?, on audience analysis, in our Fall 2003 issue.) Know what biases and concerns you'll need to overcome, and what's likely to motivate the group. Consider inviting to the meeting someone with expert status who can support you, especially if you expect to encounter resistance or hostility from some people at the meeting.

Have an agenda with a stated purpose. Prioritize the items to be discussed. Don't overload the meeting with too many topics. Make sure those attending the meeting know what topics you plan to discuss, preferably in advance of the meeting, and how long the meeting will last.

If appropriate, use handouts—but hold them until after the meeting. However, if your topic is especially complex, you may want to hand out explanatory material to help your audience follow along.

Keep it moving—and keep control.
Once the meeting starts, it's your job to guide the discussion and keep the meeting on track. This requires a delicate balance of both control and flexibility. Keep the participants from running off on tangents, but don't control the discussion so much that you cut off helpful dialogue. It's a good idea to decide beforehand how much unfocused conversation or social talk you're willing to allow.

Encourage participation from everyone. Don't downplay individual suggestions.

Listen. Listen carefully. Listen to everyone. Pay attention to what isn't said as well as to what is. If you paraphrase, do it without judging or adding your own slant.

Manage conflict.
You can't always avoid conflict. Your best bet is to anticipate as much as possible any negative responses that might flow from your agenda topics. You may know some topics to be clearly controversial. Prepare in advance to deal with resistance you may be likely to meet. Of course, conflict may arise anyway among the group. Your job is to decide whether to allow some debate or to cut it off when it doesn't further your meeting objective. It may be as simple as reminding everyone what the meeting is about and what you're trying to accomplish. Be sure to address the issues only without criticizing individuals.

Sum up.
Meetings don't always resolve differences. Different perceptions may well remain. As the meeting ends, restate the decisions and actions that were agreed on. Underscore the key items: what priorities were set, what specific steps are to be taken, by whom, in what period of time? If specific action is to be taken, make sure everyone understands what's expected of them.

It's better if those attending the meeting have the authority to get things done, without having to take the group's ideas back to others to get authorization. Set deadlines for follow-up action. Think small. Large groups tend to bog down. They also tend to view problems in non-specific terms.

This Issue

Engage a private coach to help you get ready for your next meeting. You can develop your skills and strategize on content with professional help. You can also fine-tune your other communication skills through a presentation skills seminar.

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