Successful Meetings Start with This

Over time, you’re going to notice a pattern with me.  Meetings are a hot topic for me.  I am a proponent of fewer meetings on the calendar, and my most viewed reel on Instagram is a picturesque landscape that simply says “This could have been an email”.  Despite my disdain for meetings, I have an extensive background in PMO, a group notorious for process and meetings and have facilitated my fair share of them. 

I will let you in on a secret.  I don’t hate meetings.  I hate poorly run meetings.

Meeting facilitation is an artform and I am sure I will be writing many more articles that break down what it takes to run a successful meeting.

Today I’ll focus on the center of the meeting: the agenda.  The secret here is, you will have two agendas.  The publicly facing agenda in the meeting invite and a second, secret agenda, just for yourself.  This second secret agenda is really just a glorified outline, but I much prefer calling it a secret agenda.  Makes any meeting more exciting.

The First Agenda

The agenda included in the meeting invite sets the stage for the attendees.  Why are you meeting?  What do you want to accomplish?  What are we going to talk about?  Why was I included in this thing?

I suggest drafting the agenda before you even set your attendee list.  What you want to achieve and what you plan to talk about should drive who is invited.  So often people go through the motions and add dozens of people that really aren’t all that relevant to a conversation.  Starting with your agenda can aid in cutting back in an extraneous invite list.

Your agenda at the highest level should have the following:

  • An objective:  What is the end goal for this meeting?  What problem are you solving, what mission does this meeting have? 

But Tracy, this is a reoccurring project status meeting, why would I even bother putting an objective on here? 

Even the humble status meeting has an objective and you should reiterate why you’re meeting.  Not every project deserves a recurring meeting.  Why is this project important?  Perhaps there is a date this project needs to hit that should be drilled into the memory of every team member working on it.  Emphasize that in the objective.

  • An Agenda:  Ok you got me, this is a bit redundant, but what I mean for this section is what topics (and in what order) do you plan to review?  If you’re having a hard time arriving at a set of topics, start by asking yourself questions that you would hope to resolve from this meeting, to achieve the above objective.  Write down all of your questions and then start to group those questions into sections, that will in turn become your agenda.

Hopefully after you notate your list of topics, the order will be apparent.  If it’s not, think about ordering them how they chronologically occur, or perhaps the topics that are highest priority first, to ensure they are covered.

Note:  Some meetings are status meetings for a program or list of projects.  While you might not need to list out all the projects in the agenda, the list should be accessible somewhere for your attendees to review and prepare for.  If it is this type of meeting you’re running, use the agenda section to document what topics each project should discuss when it is their turn.  This will prepare the attendees for the information they should come to the meeting prepared with (which fingers crossed, should result in a more productive meeting). Having a standardized set of talking points will also keep the call structured and ideally eliminate meandering tangents.  As the meeting facilitator it is your job to ensure the conversation sticks to the agenda of course.

Bonus Tip:  After you compile your agenda, note who in your organization is needed to contribute to each topic.  This list of individuals will become your mandatory attendees.  Following that, think through any backups to the mandatory attendees, people that need to be aware of the conversation, etc. This list will be your optional attendees.  Don’t bend over backward trying to find time that works for everyone, focus on your mandatory attendees.

The Second (Secret) Agenda

(or Outline if you refuse to indulge me)

This second artifact is a guide for yourself, an outline on how to facilitate the conversation.  You should start with the agenda in the meeting invite as a base and expand upon it in greater detail so you have all the pertinent information at your disposal.

Think through all the questions you asked yourself to build the agenda, place them throughout your outline as they are appropriate.  Who would you pose these questions to?  Include them in this outline so you know who to quickly pivot a question or topic to (and I am a proponent of pointing questions to specific people.  It doesn’t put them on the spot, it allows a conversation to move more efficiently so nobody is standing around twiddling their thumbs wondering if that question was for them).

Also include the last status detail in this outline so you can reference it as you segue from topic to topic.  Plenty of meetings are filled with people regurgitating the same bit of information every week, hoping nobody realizes that it’s just the same thing they said last time.  Beat these people to the punch and reference what was last said which you will have available in this outline so that you have a more productive conversation.

Notate if there are specific decisions that need to be made for each section as well.  This will help you ensure that conversation stays on topic and if a decision is achieved you can move onto the next.

Lastly, if there are a lot of topics that need to be covered, review your outline and divide out some estimated durations for each subject to fit within the allotted time.  While you can’t exactly predict how long a certain section should take to get through, you can make an educated guess and use that to determine if you need to move your meeting along to cover everything in the agenda.

Remember, meeting facilitation is an art form and the best way to improve is by running many meetings. Repetition will expose you to a variety of scenarios and train you on how to respond, pivot, and lead a successful conversation.


Become a Better Speaker; Talk to Yourself

Ah meeting facilitation.  It is an art form, it is.  It is so much so that one of my goals this quarter is to publish an online course on meeting facilitation.

There is plenty of advice out there on how to become a more confident speaker and presenter.  The easiest and most accessible one to me, the most bang for your buck is this:  talk to yourself.

When I had to speak in a company-wide meeting I was terrified.  Public speaking truly made me nervous, my heart rate would skyrocket (my apple watch would check in on me to see if I needed medical assistance…).  Yet ahead of that, when I was asked to present, I had to go for it.  One of my more annoying qualities is facing my fears like I’m jumping off a cliff. So, cutting to the chase, I went for it and I was scared.

How could I possibly be comfortable speaking to over 300 people if I couldn’t even speak to myself”

My method started with writing word for word what my brain wanted to say as a stream of consciousness.  It was messy, it was frenetic, but it was in my voice.  Then I did something that felt very uncomfortable: I read it out loud, alone.  I read it again and again as if I had people in front of me. I caught myself getting tripped up, stumbling on myself, and it initially felt embarrassing.  But I realized how could I possibly be comfortable speaking to over 300 people if I couldn’t even speak to myself. 

Eventually I abandoned that ad hoc script and just continued practicing and speaking to myself and the embarrassment subsided.  I felt confident alone, and in turn, felt confident in front of the masses.  It had become conversational for me which took the pressure off my heartrate and allowed me to be more at ease.

I’ve used this not just in presentations but also in regular meetings I’m running.  If I know a call is going to be drama, I write out an opening statement that I speak out loud ahead of that call to set the tone.  Now, I toss that statement out so it doesn’t sound like I’m reading from a piece of paper, but for today, our focus is only on talking to yourself.  Other meeting preparation and facilitation tips are for another day.

If you get better at speaking to yourself, I encourage you to take it a step further, record yourself. Watch it, see how you’re speaking, how you come across and how you can improve.  But for now, baby steps, and get comfortable talking to yourself.

Cancel all your Meetings this Month (or do this if you can’t bear that)

Anyone enjoy that lull in the latter half of December?  That time when meetings start to drop off the calendar, when so many people are taking time off that meetings cease to exist because there’s literally no one to attend them (a bit of a tree falls in the woods scenario at this point)? 

You would think we’d learn, that we’d take a step back and do some philosophical soul searching at this point.  Do we really need all these meetings?  Where did all these meetings come from? 

But no, not only do we keep up the recurring calls of yesteryear, but we pile on top of that and add more meetings, meetings to achieve new objectives part of the new year corporate strategy.

So this January, cancel all your meetings.  As impediments are experienced, build back up the calendar with the mission critical calls needed to be successful. This is likely not feasible. What are we if not a string of back to back meetings to provide status updates on what we accomplish in the twenty minutes of downtime we have?

I imagine by end of Q1 chatter will start up about how there are too many calls on the calendar. Typically felt first by those doing the work, it’s then run up the ranks and layers of management, hoping for change. When this starts to pick up, I suggest managers (or really anyone) take an inventory on the state of the state for their group, long before putting an inevitable and dreaded “meeting on meetings” on the calendar.

“As a manager, one should understand the lay of the land and come to the table with an informed opinion on the state of the state when it comes to the meetings in their org”.

Hearing the feedback that there are too many calls on the calendar and then booking a meeting to discuss this is the lazy way out.  As a manager, one should understand the lay of the land and come to the table with an informed opinion on the state of the state when it comes to the meetings in their org. It takes some effort, but I’ve mapped out some basic assessment criteria that can provide insight into what’s really going on in your org.

This straight forward assessment can honestly be done by anyone. If you host several meetings yourself it can be helpful to understand the components of your meetings and do some analysis on the various elements of your calls.

The Meeting Assessment

Take a week’s worth of meetings you, your team, your org has on the calendar.  Take some time and attend as many as you can and map out the following details across them:

Meeting TitleWhat’s the meeting subject? Can you immediately tell what it’s about at glance?
FacilitatorWho owns the invite and who runs the call?
Who is invited?How many people are invited to this? What is their role? What group are they in?
Who attends?Who actually shows up? What is their role? What group are they in?
Who actively participates?Who is engaged and participating in conversation? Does this include the facilitator?
AgendaIs an agenda included in the invite? What is the format? Is it clear what will be discussed? Are links and files included?
One Off/Recurring?Is this part of a meeting series? How often is it?
What is being shared?Is anything being shared on the screen? What system or format is it in?
Start TimeDid the call start on time? How late was it to begin? Why?
End TimeDid this call end on time? Early? Late? By how much?
Meeting NotesAre there notes? Are they sent out and stored somewhere? Is it clear who has action to take?
Intended PurposeWhat is the intended purpose of this call? Beyond the agenda, what is the impact of this meeting?
Achieved PurposeDoes this meeting accomplish the intended purpose? If not, what are the gaps?

The Takeaways

Is every call starting late (probably)? Is every meeting then going over (possibly)? Are there resources needed for a discussion that fail to attend? Are facilitators inconsistently sending out meeting notes, documenting action items, and ensuring completion? What is being shared? Is one facilitator leveraging one system and another an Excel? Are there more than a dozen individuals sitting on these calls that never say a word? Do any meetings even have an agenda?

The key thing to remember is that there’s no right or wrong answers to the above. Every organization is different, with different needs, different structures, etc. Maybe it’s ok to not have structured agendas across the board, perhaps there’s a large group that needs to listen in but not participate. But you have to collect the data first and make an informed decision with it. Even taking the effort to attend as many as you can could be illuminating enough for you. Your team is in a lot of calls and at the end of the day that will take a hit to productivity.

Are you doing this exercise for your own meetings? This is a great exercise and can empower you to better yourself in an area that is highly visible by many in your company. Key takeaways to take from the above data revolve around consistency. Is there consistency as far as format goes for the calls you’re running? When you can apply the same standards on the fundamentals of your meetings (agenda, document sharing, meeting notes) you develop an auto-pilot like rhythm that allows you to focus on some of the more challenging elements, like driving a productive conversation.

The last two rows in particular are where the honest conversation with yourself will happen. Do you understand the underlying purpose behind this meeting your running? Are you successful in achieving that purpose?

So, cancel those meetings. Or, make a concerted effort to understand what exactly is going on with everyone’s time all day.