Michael Mankins at Bain & Company studied online calendars at a large company to determine how much time employees spend in meetings. The organization in this study held an executive committee every week, which created an unintentional ripple effect: managers and division heads set up additional meetings to prepare presentations for the executive committee. Cumulatively, this approach resulted in an astonishing 300,000 hours a year and cost about $37 billion nationwide. Only about a third of those meetings were productive.
It’s not that meetings aren’t necessary. With the right approach, they can be helpful—but poorly planned and executed meetings don’t lead to consistent or profitable results.
If you want to make sure your meetings are productive, here are seven things you need to set the stage.
How to Host a Business Meeting (Without Wasting Time)
1. Invite the right people.
Don’t invite people just because of their titles. Instead, ask colleagues to attend who can provide relevant information and input. If they aren’t necessary to the discussion, don’t make them show up. Wasting someone’s time will hurt morale and productivity.
Large meetings tend to be the least productive. The CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos has what he calls the “two-pizza rule.” If the organizer needs more than two pizzas to feed everyone in attendance, he won’t go to the meeting.
2. Develop a written agenda.
A formal agenda sends a message: this meeting is significant and warrants everyone’s attention.
When you put together an agenda, start with your desired outcome. Think about if you want to share information, discuss a project, or make a final decision. Then, list the steps needed to achieve that outcome and who will be responsible for each deliverable.
If you struggle to outline an agenda, ask yourself if the meeting is really necessary.
3. Communicate expectations ahead of time.
If you routinely start meetings by handing out an agenda, stop—you’re wasting time putting people on the spot. You want your team to look over your proposal before the meeting begins so they have time to respond to the material and can make meaningful contributions to the discussion.
Set the expectation that people should research the topic and develop an informed opinion. If someone has to leave the meeting because they forgot to bring an important document or need to reschedule because they haven’t prepared, hold them accountable for delaying the project.
Here are the most common types of business meetings:
- Project Development
- Project Deployment
- Information Sharing
- Decision Marking
As you can see, each purpose requires different preparation and a unique mindset. Make sure your agenda clearly communicates what attendees should expect during the assembly.
4. Limit off-agenda topics.
Try to limit off-agenda items to keep the meeting from derailing. If something important needs to be addressed quickly, attendees should add it to the agenda before the meeting begins.
If you’re hosting a roundtable for colleagues to share information about their progress, ask all the attendees to create a bulleted list of highlights in a joint document or email before the session starts. This approach streamlines the conversation, and it’s faster to read a list than give a line-by-line verbal account.
When people veer off-topic, find a way to steer the conversation back on track without being rude. For example, try thanking the person and gently guiding them back to the meeting objective by asking a question.
5. Check the equipment.
When a “technical difficulty” happens during a meeting, it’s almost impossible to get back on track. If you’re doing a phone or video conference, using a whiteboard, or projecting a presentation, make sure all the equipment works before the meeting begins.
If team members or customers are joining remotely, send them the connection information ahead of time so they can install software and check their connection. It might also be necessary to walk some individuals through the process during a dry run if they’re unfamiliar with the program.
6. Keep attendees engaged.
Let’s face it—most meetings aren’t very exciting. Few people like to sit around talking and shuffling papers. So engage with the crowd to keep the energy up. Bring coffee, for example, or use visuals during your presentation, tell a few jokes, and try to keep the conversation moving between different speakers.
If you think people are starting to get distracted, call a time out. Give everyone a few minutes to take a break and reconvene after they’ve had a chance to reset.
7. Start and end on time.
If you wait for everyone to show up before you start the meeting, you’re rewarding people for being late. It’s unfair to everyone who’s in the room on time and ready to get started. Start when you say you’re going to start. If people are late, they’ll learn to be on time for the next appointment.
The average meeting runs for about an hour. That’s a lot of time to take out of everyone’s schedule if you aren’t getting concrete results. If you haven’t reached a conclusion at the end of the meeting’s allocated time, agree to follow-up at a later date. Set a new appointment and assign out tasks that need to be finished before then.
Not every meeting will go the way you plan, but if you try to limit each session to one hour, you stand a better chance of keeping everyone engaged. Sticking to the schedule also shows respect for your colleague’s time and helps people manage their projects efficiently.