Meetings can be great opportunities, but not all meetings are great.
There are really only three good reasons for a meeting:
- To create a feeling of belonging and togetherness
- To communicate a bunch of information to a bunch of people, in the same way, at the same time
- To brainstorm about a project, or deal with an open question, such as planning interdependent project handoffs in which multiple people need to hear and respond to each other
With so much interdependent work going on and handoffs to plan, meetings have become ubiquitous in the collaboration revolution workplace. Now that many of us are working remotely, the Zoom meeting has come to almost dominate our working lives. People tell me every day they have hardly any time to work because they spend so much of their time in meetings. And too often, the meetings are not so great.
The stakes are high. Everyone is feeling the pressure to make the best use of their time. Think about it this way: every single minute consumed in any meeting is multiplied by the number of people. A thirty-minute meeting with eight people consumes four hours of productive capacity (time in which people could be working on something else).
Yes--the basics of good meetings really do need to be said
I'll never forget the first time I walked into a corporate conference room that had a posted placard outlining rules of conduct for meetings. The list included gems ranging from "if you are the host, distribute an agenda in advance to all participants" to "silence your phones" to "please clean up after yourself." I asked the person sitting next to me, "Gee, is that really necessary?" She said, "Yeah, people are irritated by the sign. It's sort of infantilizing. But some people are just horrible in meetings."
Since then, I cannot count the number of conference rooms in which someone, officially or not, has posted a placard with similar kinds of meeting rules. Nonetheless, people still hold meetings without clear agendas--or despite a clear agenda, they don't follow it. Or they go way over the allotted time; or digress; or hold one-on-one crosstalk conversations on the side; or try to multitask with handheld devices or laptops (sometimes pretending to take notes) and then chime in with a point that's already been made. Or they come late, leave early, make noise, eat smelly food--you name it.
And we all know this hasn't changed now that many of our meetings are remote.
Just as people notice when colleagues are especially "horrible" at running or attending meetings, they also notice people who are great at meetings. Here's are the basics of how to be a go-to person in meetings.
Be a great meeting citizen
First, be known as a great meeting citizen. Be informed, be reliable, and be presentable.
Study the meeting agenda beforehand. This sounds like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how often people learn about the purpose of a meeting during the course of the meeting itself. If an agenda wasn't provided, take the initiative! Request one for yourself and your colleagues. They'll thank you later.
Make sure you don't double- or triple-book yourself for meetings. It's amazing how common this has become among would-be go-to people because they think it makes them seem busy (and therefore important). Being double-booked is not impressive. You cannot be in more than one place at a time, and it's distracting if you're hopping in and out of meetings in progress. If you have conflicts, make a choice--and choose the most important meeting, not the easiest one. That doesn't mean the meeting with the most big-shots or the highest profile work, but the meeting where you have the most value to add. If you are not sure, align with your boss.
And make the effort to be presentable. Don't use video chats as an excuse to show up without being basically groomed and appropriately dressed. You don't necessarily have to dress to the nines, or prepare as you would normally to go into the office. But do your colleagues the courtesy of putting on something nicer than your pajamas. It helps to put you and everyone else into a more professional, focused mindset.
Prepare in advance
Again, before any meeting or presentation, know what the meeting is about. Then, really prepare by going a few steps further in your preparation.
One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself (and everyone else) is becoming savvy about which meetings to attend and which ones not. Determine whether your attendance is required or requested. Again, make sure to align with your boss.
Then, the key is knowing exactly what your role in the meeting is: What information are you responsible for communicating or gathering? Prepare any material you should review or read. Take notes you can refer to easily and effortlessly during the meeting itself.
Lastly, are there any conversations you need to have before the meeting? It can be tempting to wait until you're in a meeting to have these conversations. But if it's a one-on-one conversation, should you really waste everyone else's time? Maybe it's something that can be taken care of in an email. But have those one-on-one conversations in the right time and place.
If you are making a presentation, of course you'll prepare even more. Ask yourself exactly what value you have to offer the group, and then be sure you deliver that value.
Don't juggle, and think before you speak
It can be tempting to multitask, especially in virtual meetings. After all, unless you're screen-sharing, nobody can see what you're doing, right?
Don't juggle! Meetings are only valuable if everyone is focused enough to make them valuable.
So, practice good meeting manners:
- Silence your phone
- Close extraneous browser windows
- Designate a distraction-free zone for your webcam
- Listen carefully, learn, take notes
And try not to say a single word that will unnecessarily lengthen a meeting. Respect everyone's time by only saying what really needs to be said.
If you are tempted to speak up, ask yourself: Is this a point that everyone needs to hear, right here and now? If you have a question, consider whether the question is important to the purpose of the meeting. Maybe it can be answered later.