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Guide on the Side - Meeting Skills: Antidote for Bad Meetings

By Marie Wallace, Published on March 1, 1999

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: ax852@lafn.org.


Job descriptions in almost every field specify "excellent communication skills" but few require "excellent meeting skills."  They should.  There is universal discontent with unproductive, time-wasting meetings caused by the absence of meeting know-how. Look how participants responded in a recent survey conducted by 3M about meetings:
  • No decisions made
  • People not prepared
  • Don't stay on the agenda
  • Don't start and end on time
  • Lasted too long
  • Not well run
  • No agenda or focus
  • No or inaccurate notes
  • Unnecessary for me to attend

Perhaps you recently suffered through or conducted a meeting with some of the above deficiencies. It might have been a business meeting but it also could have been a professional, civic, or vocational one. There are simple solutions to each one of the above complaints. Meetings drive organizations. They bring together people to share knowledge and information and stimulate creativity. But paradoxically "more than a third of meetings that managers attend are unproductive" according to a survey reported in the Wall Street Journal in December 1998.

What makes for successful meetings has been identified and widely disseminated. There is an abundance of books, magazines, newsletters, videos, Web sites, seminars, and training materials on "meeting mastery". Based on the sheer quantity of information, one would expect productive meetings to be on the increase and Peter Drucker eating his words "One either meets or works."

Instead, bad meetings seem to beget more bad meetings.

How can I move readers to better their skills? Send the meeting militia to drag you to compulsory rehab? Provide the address of the local BMA (Bad Meetings Anonymous) gathering? How about a warning? Inadequate meeting skills endanger your well being, prevent you from achieving life goals and create harmful stress. Administer this antidote quickly.

Before the Meeting

Get help from an expert. This you can do without leaving your chair or the Net.

Use "meetings" or "successful meetings" on almost any browser to bring up books, articles, newsletters, magazines, videos and training resources. Be sure to visit:

Search for "meetings" in an online bookstore. Invest in a title. One I find useful is Meetings that Work!: A Practical Guide to Shorter and More Productive Meetings by Richard Y. Chang and Kevin R. Kehoe, $12.95.

Download a meeting manual by Kevin Wolf, The Makings of a Good Meeting, at www.dcn.davis.ca.us/go/kjwolf.

Rent a humorous, classic video, Meetings, Bloody Meetings with John Cleese at www.video-arts.com/productshowcase or call Video Arts 800-553-0091.

Know when to hold them and when to fold them.

Hold them when you need to.

  • Solve a problem
  • Make a decision
  • Develop support and rapport
  • Assign team responsibilities 

Fold them when you have them.

  • Trivial subject
  • Alternative communication modes
  • Inadequate information
  • Costs out of line with any possible benefits
  • Key people unavailable
  • No time to prepare

Plan and prepare but do not do it alone; partner with others in the organization.

To illustrate, it is time to plan the annual retreat. Structure the meeting so much of the information is accessible by working with several participants to research topics in advance of the meeting, such as:

  • Three available conference facilities with cost data
  • Ten program topics
  • Three entertainment ideas
  • Past and proposed budgets
  • Analysis of possible dates.

At the meeting you will already have some informed options rather than off-the-cuff ideas. Other participants can piggyback on these ideas.

Distribute responsibilities for the meeting. Separate the top official in the organization (President, Head, Chair, Chief, or Manager) and the person facilitating the meeting.  If the meeting is longer than two hours, consider several people sharing the later role.

What happens when the titular authority runs the meeting is that the situation turns into a hierarchical me versus you situation. When responsibility for the meeting is distributed, it becomes a project of the organization. Everyone has a stake in its success. Plus it is unreasonable to expect one person to assume all of the meeting responsibilities. Meeting role assignments to consider, perhaps with different names or combined in smaller meetings, are:

  • Leader - Calls meeting, determines objective, and prepares and sends agenda,
  • Facilitator - Runs meeting, keeps to the agenda, neutralizes dissension
  • Timer - Times each meeting component and signals when to move on
  • Recorder - Records and displays ideas and decisions, may need several for brainstorming
  • Vibes watcher - Takes meeting pulse  and suggests breaks or changes
  • Arranger - Physical and travel arrangements, guests, facilities, and equipment
  • Refueler - Arranges for water, coffee, meals, or snacks
  • Secretary - Provides and distributes permanent record of the meeting plus key documents
  • Gofer - Handles unexpected situations or gets needed items
  • Enforcer - Reminds people of the meeting time, devises humorous penalties and rewards.

Never meet without an agenda. Ideally a agenda is circulated in advance so participants are able to come prepared.  The agenda can be put on a blackboard or flip chart for emergency meetings. Include the objective of the meeting, the time budget for each item and who is responsible for each module. Finalize the agenda at the start of the meeting to get buy-in and add last minute changes by asking "Are there any additions to the agenda before we begin?"

Call a meeting only when there is a clear objective of what will be accomplished.

A poor meeting agenda reads "Remodeling Proposal." A good agenda specifies the desired outcome "Select Remodeling Proposal," "Assign Remodeling Responsibilities," or "Decide Remodeling Budget." Using non-specific verbs such as "discuss" is an open invitations to wander off the agenda and lose focus.

Select the best process and technology to support the type of meeting (problem-solving, decision-making, planning, or team building) and the process used (discussion groups, brainstorming, briefing, presentation). Technology enriches and enables expert meeting skills but does nothing to replace absent skills.  Use the technologies which support the meeting objective, size and process.  New technologies such as digital whiteboards, videoconferencing systems do new things but old "chalk & talk" technology (handouts, flip charts, blackboards and overheads) may be more appropriate.  Read more in "Can Technology Save you from Meeting Hell?" by Jon Hanke in Presentations, July 1998.

Be clear how each decision will be reached at the outset, whether by consensus, vote, committee, nominal group technique or key decision maker. Avoid inviting participants who will not benefit from or provide input to a meeting.

Design the meeting logistics to align with the meeting type and process used.

  • Brainstorming requires a different set-up than small discussion groups
  • Seating arrangements vary with size of group and the technology used.
  • Consider noise level, equipment needed, lighting, and ventilation.

Observe the dynamics and high energy of any successful meetings you attend. People appear to be having fun. Note also that meeting skills are rooted in organizational issues unlike presentation skills which originate from personal goals.

During the meeting

Display the group thinking and meeting progress. (see Guides five and six)

  • Facilitate the meeting to accomplish the organizational objectives.
  • Be cognizant of the organization's values, sensitivities and goals.
  • Familiarize participants from other cultures with your processes and procedures.
  • Attend to common courtesies, like introductions especially when remote sites are involved.
  • Promote participation and collaboration by validating all participant's ideas.
  • Keep discussion on track and away from personal issues.
  • Create a "parking lot" to record and acknowledge ideas that are off the topic.
  • Observe time commitments; get group approval to extend time or modify the agenda.

Responsibility for the success of the meeting rests with everyone there. Active participants can deal with a meeting saboteur or loud mouth as effectively as the facilitator if they understand their role and the meeting process. Training may be required for this to happen.

After the meeting

Evaluate and debrief the meeting.

  • Did we accomplish the objective?
  • What did we do right?
  • What can we improve next time?

Follow-up the meeting with appropriate action. Distribute a report of the meeting results. See to it that decided actions are taken. Determine when and if other communication is required. Schedule the next meeting.

The tricky question is what do you do when the boss is "meeting challenged" and in denial. Try a variety of approaches depending on the situation:

  • Be a Guide on the Side unobtrusively leading the boss to enlightenment.
  • Suggest improving meetings as a topic for a team building project.
  • Put good articles and training brochures on his or her desk.
  • Volunteer to assist with meetings by assuming one of the meeting responsibilities.

If you are the boss and decide to upgrade your meeting skills, remember to include other people in the organization at the same time.

If the boss is a bean counter, provide a balance sheet of meeting costs and income.

If the boss is a competitor, report what the competition is doing.

If the boss is a control freak show how "meeting smarts" drive organizational results.