We love to hate them and hate to have them.
We hate to love them and love when they’re canceled.
We’re talking about meetings. And of course, we’re generalizing a bit here. Some are effective, necessary, and—gasp—can even be fun. Not to mention there are meetings most people do love to have—like ones with customers, teammates, and the ones that lead to revenue.
And we all know that 2020 forced us to change everything about our gatherings. How and why we held them, the volume, length, type, and more. We’ve found ourselves gazing into green dots instead of eyes. We’re having more virtual gatherings than ever imagined. And we’re expending our energy more than ever, too.
We’re here to help. Because at Chili Piper, we happen to know a thing or two about meetings.
We believe they serve important purposes. And they’re the lifeblood of companies—especially as more become fully-remote.
While some professionals report that many meetings are not useful or productive, it’s undeniable that our work requires and benefits from collaborating, coordinating, and connecting with others.
So, can we maximize the benefits of meetings while averting the challenges and friction they sometimes present? Absolutely. Instead of groaning that it should’ve been an email, let’s learn to have better meetings, shall we?
Here are 10 tenets of a highly-effective meeting from industry experts, applicable to all internal, external, virtual, or in-person gatherings.
1. Begin with intention. 🤔
A good meeting should first and foremost begin intentionally. Rather than immediately diving into the matter at hand, be thoughtful about how you begin. This principle comes from researchers at the University of Nebraska Omaha who found that humor and laughter can “stimulate positive meeting behaviors, encouraging participation and creative problem-solving.”
This may mean beginning a meeting with some authentic pleasantry, for example. It can be simple: the weather today, a personal anecdote from your weekend, the crazy thing your cat is doing off-camera.
For sales or discovery calls, perhaps you share an interesting fact about yourself or your role. Find something in common with your attendee in advance to discuss—not creepy at all, it’s relationship-building research. Or the good ole standby, talk about where in the world you’re calling from that day.
Another option may be to begin with a minute of silence. In the book, The Fearless Organization, Harvard Business Researcher Amy Edmondson discusses the importance of creating a safe space where everyone feels comfortable speaking up.
“People sit in a circle, with the intention of de-emphasizing hierarchies and instead encouraging what’s called ‘a leader in every chair.’ … To create the mindfulness and focus conducive to an environment where everyone collaborates and contributes, meetings begin with a minute of silence,” Edmonson writes.
The bottom line: Beginning a call intentionally can have a positive psychological impact. Pleasantry is likely to spark at least a bit of laughter, which is our body’s feel-good hormone and promotes social bonding.
And while we cannot sit in circles on virtual calls, as Edmondson writes, the idea is to create a level playing field for participants and take a moment to recognize that. When people feel safe, or speak up in the first few minutes of a meeting (with the pleasantry example), they’re more likely to engage and contribute throughout.
2. Have a solid agenda. 📝
If there’s one tenet we want to scream from the mountain tops, it’s this one: All calendar invites should have an agenda.
Allow us to repeat. Don’t send a calendar invite without some form of an agenda, so says Cameron Herold, Founder of COO Alliance and author of “Meetings Suck.”
“I’ve found that without an agenda guiding the discussion, it’s also common for attendees to ramble, or engage in simultaneous side-conversations — all outcomes detrimental to taking your company to the next level,” Herold says.
Your agenda doesn’t have to be formal. And on some occasions, the agenda may be in a document that is linked within the invite. But the goal is to ensure that the human on the other end will know what you want from their time. An effective call begins with its organizer being a good steward of everyone’s time.
Even when the invitee is expecting the meeting and knows its purpose, it’s most effective and respectful to include at least a sentence or two that defines the meeting’s purpose. This is done well when the objective is simple, clear, and direct. We’ll outline more specifics of what makes a good agenda in the steps ahead.
There are some exceptions to this rule. For example, it’s not likely that you’d list out a full agenda in say, recurring one-on-ones or a daily team stand-up.
The bottom line: When you send a calendar invite, no matter the goal or type, you’re asking for someone’s time. Energy and time are like currency for us as humans, so the most efficient and empathetic thing you can do is include an agenda, in whatever form works for you, to set expectations.
Plus, agendas help you stay on topic and ensure that you accomplish all you need to.
3. Give every item a time allotment. ⏲
For the agendas that require more than a couple of sentences, how can you ensure they’re valuable?
Every item on your list should be given a time allotment. This is an idea from the folks at Radical Candor that we have found to be effective. Here’s a real example from a Chili Piper marketing meeting:
You likely won’t strictly stick to this limit every time, but this structure helps you stay on track and reign in conversations that go off the rails. It also helps to identify what conversations can or should be taken “offline.”
For discovery, sales, or demo calls, this approach is advantageous so your attendees know precisely what will be covered in what capacity and in how much time. It can also help make the case for the attendee to accept your meeting to begin with.
And while we’re on the subject of time, consider baking in a short break for those longer meetings. There’s research to support this from health and stress expert Heidi Hanna, Ph.D.
“The most important thing for meeting planners to keep in mind is that while time is a finite resource, the value we get out of the time we have depends on our ability to bring our full and best energy to that time,” Hanna says.
If your call has to be 60 minutes or longer, including a 5-10 minute break can be incredibly helpful. Long meetings, especially when virtual, can be emotionally and cognitively draining. A short break can provide attendees a moment of reprieve and focus. (Your brain will thank you, too.)
The bottom line: This is another effective method to help you be a better steward of participants’ time. It helps you meet your goals while also giving them a clear idea of what to expect. Win-win.
4. Give every agenda item an objective. 🥅
In addition to time limits, every item on your agenda should have a clear intent. What are you aiming to accomplish with each topic? You may even find it helpful to write it out plainly on the agenda. This is another proven practice from the research team at Radical Candor.
For example, which items do you need to: discuss, decide, solve, or relay? Other objectives may be: share, celebrate, announce, sketch, or brainstorm.
How you structure your objectives will vary based on the type of meeting. There are many ways you could execute this, but we recommend thinking about the specific desired outcome of each item and defining it.
The bottom line: At the heart of your meeting is (usually) one main goal, right? This structure ensures you’re hitting the right topics in the right way to help you accomplish that.
5. Provide clear context in advance. 🔮
Alongside your agenda, we recommend including any additional context that helps your attendees prepare for your meeting. This includes any “homework,” reading, researching, etc. that they should do in advance. Harvard Business Review regards this as a key ingredient to an effective meeting.
Should attendees come with ideas about something specific? Is there a deck or article they should read first? If nothing immediately comes to mind, think if there’s anything you should share or create beforehand that would enable you to have the most effective discussion in your allotted time.
The bottom line: Being upfront about what you expect from attendees ensures you’ll receive high-quality participation in return. They’ll be more likely to contribute informed and thoughtful responses, rendering a highly-productive meeting.
6. Include the right stakeholders. 🔑
A good meeting always includes the right people, and not too many, either.
“Leaders should ask what the goal of the meeting is and whose expertise can help the team get there,” researchers from The University of Nebraska Omaha report.
And sometimes, the right people are not always the most senior. We recommend selecting the people who are the closest to the facts of the meeting’s purpose. This may mean inviting the person who will be doing the work versus their manager. Other times it’s the opposite.
Some questions to consider are:
- Who will realistically attend based on their role?
- Is it necessary to double up on skills or perspective?
- What skills or knowledge are needed to accomplish the meeting’s purpose?
- Are there unlikely choices you should consider?
- Do you need to speak to the decision-maker in this meeting, or the end-user?
In other instances, it may be a matter of knowing who is the right decision-maker to involve at which stage of your conversations.
And as for the number of invitees—unless it’s a team all-hands, or something similar, more than eight people (especially on virtual calls) tends to prove the “too many cooks in the kitchen” maxim to be true.
The bottom line: This is an evolving and customizable principle, but one that will ensure you’re the most effective and impactful. And if you’re still not sure who the right attendees should be, it’s beneficial to simply discern in advance. Ask the proposed attendee or their manager if it makes sense for them to attend based on their role, workload, and association with the project.
7. End with action items and next steps. 💪
The ultimate meeting flex is when you close with no loose ends.
Ensure you leave every type of meeting knowing exactly “who will do what by when?” for all applicable topics or tasks discussed. This is a fairly common phrase and one that Mark Toro, managing partner from North American Properties, has found to be incredibly effective.
“I type the acronym so often in emails — “W.W.D.W.B.W.” — that my phone just auto-fills it. So we’ve trained ourselves and each other, but we’re also trying to do it with people we work with. We developed a system where before we hang up the phone with somebody, we’ll say, ‘When do you think I can have that?’ We track people who deliver and those who don’t,” he told The New York Times.
Add it to the agenda if you need to. For example:
- Action items (specific tasks that arose)
- Who will own them?
- What are the deadlines?
- Next steps
- What are they?
- When will they happen?
We also recommend closing with some form of, “Does anyone else have any other thoughts, questions, or comments?”
The bottom line: There will often be tasks that come up and next steps that are important to capture. Baking this into your process will ensure you never miss a beat.
Also, there will always be someone who didn’t speak up or couldn’t chime in, for one reason or another. This is especially true for virtual calls. It never hurts to ask for additional input — it’s not only kind and effective, but it perpetuates a psychologically safe environment, laying the foundation for great future meetings as well.
8. Keep meetings short, when possible. ⏰
Some meeting types dictate the length. But the majority of the time, it’s up to you as the organizer. When you’re able, keep them short. Very few calls need to be an hour. Aim for 25-30 minutes and see how that works for you.
This principle is from Steven G. Rogelberg, a professor of organizational science and management at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, and author of The Surprising Science of Meetings. Based on his research, he suggests reducing your average meeting length by 5-10 percent.
He also recommends to stop thinking about an hour as the default, and experiment with scheduling meetings for odd amounts of time—32 minutes, 48 minutes, etc.
“These odd times attract attention, curiosity, and may even be a little fun,” he told The Cut.
Rogelberg also highlights Parkinson’s law, which is “the concept that work expands to whatever time is allotted to it.” This suggests that if you schedule a meeting for 90 minutes, it will take 90 minutes. And when you limit time to 30 minutes, for example, there’s implicit pressure to accomplish the tasks at hand in that set amount of time.
Here’s an illustration of how this law relates to effort.
If less effort is given over a longer period, what purpose is that serving?
Pay attention to meetings that may end early, too. Why did it end early? Could that have been a Slack conversation or an email? Was that a recurring invite that was no longer necessary? This is an ever-evolving practice. Learn and assess your efficacy, one meeting at a time.
The bottom line: Simply, it’s always advantageous to be thoughtful and strategic with the length of time scheduled.
9. Ask for feedback. 🎧
As with all things in life and work, we fail and learn as we go. Reflect often, and ask for feedback around your meetings. This is another learning from the researchers at The University of Nebraska Omaha.
“Feedback can inform the structure and content of future meetings. In particular, leaders can identify meeting problems to increase attendee satisfaction,” they write.
For internal gatherings, this may sound something like, “Hey team, I’m trying to run more productive meetings, do you have any feedback based on ours this week?”
Or perhaps you leave a meeting feeling like it was an utter mess. Humbly ask your participants how it could have gone better. Document your learnings and apply them next time.
For external meetings, it may be appropriate to solicit feedback at the end, in a follow-up call or email, or maybe in a survey. The worst they can say is “no,” and perhaps that’s feedback in and of itself.
Here are a few aspects to consider:
- Talking time
- Who spent the most time talking?
- Was talking time fairly distributed?
- Did we stick to it? Why or why not?
- Did we deviate from the agenda but still achieve our goal?
- Were participants engaged or distracted?
- Did everyone contribute in a meaningful way?
The bottom line: Self-reflect on how a meeting went. Pay special attention to failures and successes, and keep learning!
10. Approach empathetically. 🧡
Our friends from the Stanford Business podcast “Think Fast, Talk Smart,” said it best:
“You really need to spend time not just focusing on the content and the specific agenda, but also how people feel and show up.”
Sometimes we’re so focused on the task at hand that we forget to be humans first. You’re not only a steward of your attendee’s time, but you’re also a guardian of their well-being, too.
Here are a few examples of what this looks like in practice:
- Read the people, not the room. Especially on video calls where we stare at a grid of faces, people can sometimes be revealing. If appropriate, a simple message after the meeting can go a long way.
- Identify moods and emotions. For internal meetings, consider changing your Zoom names to how you’re feeling that day so teammates know what headspace you’re in. You may also entertain the idea of a “one-word check-in” at the beginning of a call, where everyone can share one word about how they’re feeling.
- Be cognizant during the scheduling process. Respect time zones, blocked time on people’s calendars, and restricted schedules—or any needs to reschedule.
- Consider an audio call over video. Constant video chats can become emotionally exhausting. When appropriate, try an audio call here and there to give your attendee’s brain—and yours—a break.
The ultimate bottom line: Meetings are important. Some may not always be necessary. But most are. We need them to work, collaborate, socialize, coordinate, meet our goals, help customers, and drive revenue.
With these tenets in place, we’re confident you’ll be fully equipped to spice up your gatherings and be highly-effective. And dare we say, you may never have a bad meeting again.