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The Anatomy of an Effective Meeting

14 Min Read

“How to run an effective meeting?” If you’re a team manager, this question is probably enough to keep you up at night. And you’re not alone. Many senior managers (71% to be exact) believe meetings are a waste of time and 64% say meetings interfere with deep, focused work.(1) 

The good news?

Your next meeting can still be time well spent. That’s as long as you follow the tips from this article and tweak a few aspects of your meeting philosophy. 🛠️

💡 Before you start… Are you interested in top-notch team management strategies? Make sure to check other similar guides when you’re done reading.

  1. 🍰 Project Management Basics
  2. 🏉 Agile Project Management
  3. 🤯 Beating Meeting Overload

🤔 Why Are Meetings Important to Many Organizations?

If meetings are getting such a bad press, why not scrap 99.9% of them and get back to work?

The problem is humans are pack animals and we crave personal interactions. So, unless you’re a robot (or an alien), there’s still a lot to gain from an occasional moot:

  • 🦣 Tribal allegiance: According to a 2022 survey by Enboarder, 96% of workers are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs if they feel connected to other people within the organization.(2) And satisfied employees mean better productivity, improved collaboration, and lower burnout. Regardless of what you think of meetings, that’s a solid ROI right there.
  • ​​👊 Sense of ownership: Here’s the harsh reality. Only 20% of employees are truly engaged at work.(3) The reasons? Unclear goals, lack of recognition, no incentives… Some of those problems are signs of serious organizational issues. Others are caused by a lack of clear communication strategy which leaves people in the dark about why their work matters.
  • 📣 Constant feedback: “In our team, every voice matters.” That’s a noble goal, except it’s rarely more than a catchphrase on companies’ marketing materials. Organizations that care about employees’ opinions should give them a meaningful outlet to express them. And while an email complaint may be ignored, personal, direct discussions rarely are.

The bottom line is, brief face-to-face discussions (remote or otherwise) can be worth a hundred emails. The trick is to make those meetings worth the time and effort.

“So, what’s the secret sauce?”

🪄 What Makes a Meeting Effective?

We’ve all been there. You call into a meeting, go through the usual icebreaker chit-chat, and wait for the productive mood to kick in. Except, it never does. And then you start wondering:

“Why am I here?”

“Why are all those other people here?”

“Why is nobody paying attention?”

If you’re asking those questions, you’re NOT in a productive meeting.

"Meeting," a comic by @ismonkeyuser.

Successful meetings will leave your team energized and empowered to take action. They will give participants a clear purpose and direction on what comes next. A meeting worth having is one where you make decisions, solve problems, and have impactful conversations.

And speaking of purpose, you need to be clear on WHY you’re running the meeting in the first place. There are four scenarios when a meeting is perfectly justifiable:

  • ⭐️ Making decisions: Decision-making meetings usually involve only key decision-makers and stakeholders. The fewer people there are, the easier it is to reach a consensus.
  • ⭐️ Solving problems: Most problem solving-meetings have a clear objective and agenda—solve the problem using the time and resources at your disposal.
  • ⭐️ Generating ideas: Nothing boosts team creativity better than a short, intensive (and caffeine-fueled) brainstorming session. Works best in person but remote is also fine.
  • ⭐️ Giving updates: Ok, this one is contentious. Many status update meetings can be an email. But if you sync up once a week in under 15 minutes, you should be fine.

Of course, there are a few other factors like meeting size, duration, and frequency. But the exact specs will largely depend on the size of your organization and types of meeting.

That’s it for the basics. It’s time to learn how to run an effective meeting in 7 simple steps.

🚀 7 Tips For Running Effective Meetings

1. Have Fewer and Leaner Meetings!

The average knowledge worker—if you stare at your computer from 9-5, you’re probably in that group—joins 8 meetings each week.(4) That’s roughly 4-8 hours away from deep, productive work considering that a typical meeting is between 30 minutes and 1 hour long.

If you’re a manager, those figures can go as high as 12 meetings per week.(4)

"Sprints," a comic by @_workchronicles.

But quantity doesn’t always equal quality (ok, it rarely does). So, instead of puzzling about why your meetings suck, you should try to make them as lean and lightweight as possible.

  • 👑 Invite meeting VIPs: The most effective companies keep meeting participants down to a few key stakeholders and subject-matter experts. According to Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, you should invite between five to eight people for optimal results.(5)
  • ⚖️ Apple the Pareto principle: Look at some of your recent meetings. Was your team engaged? Was there an agenda? Was the discussion productive? Identify the 20% of productive meetings that drive 80% of the results and scrap the rest.
  • 🤫 Have a day without meetings: A 2022 study of 76 companies with more than 1,000 employees found that at least one no-meeting day per week resulted in improved productivity, higher engagement, and… higher-quality discussions. You know what to do.(6)

2. Get Your Agenda in Order

Ready for a crash course on attending meetings without an agenda?

Run like hell and don’t look back! 🏃‍♂️💨

Let’s get serious for a moment. Getting an invitation to a meeting with an unclear agenda or with no agenda at all can mean two things: A) the organizer doesn’t have a clue why they’re calling the meeting or B) they don’t respect the time of other meeting participants.

In both cases, the only reasonable response is to decline.

Here’s what a solid meeting agenda (yes, you need to write one!) should include:

  • 🗓 Meeting start and end time
  • 🎯 The type and purpose of the meeting
  • 👥 List of all participants
  • ❌ Backlog agenda items
  • 🗳 Voting results (post-meeting)
  • ✅ Action items and owners (post-meeting)
  • 👍 Decisions/outcomes (post-meeting)

On top of that, there are a few other unwritten rules you should keep in mind. 

First, send your agenda 48 hours in advance so people can prepare and confirm attendance. Second, be very clear about the type of meeting you’re running (see above). And third, attach supplementary information and documents like minutes from the previous meeting.

Author of The Surprising Science of Meetings dr. Steven G. Rogelberg recommends assigning “homework” to participants. That can include downloading necessary software or reviewing documents before the meeting. You should include those instructions in the agenda.(7)

Need a little help writing your own agenda? Grab this free meeting agenda to get started!👇

3. Respect the Clock (And Your Team)

Long meetings have their place and time (pun not intended).

Solving problems, brainstorming ideas, or figuring out the best course of action when things go south requires scrutiny and deliberation. It takes time to get everybody warmed up before the ideas start flowing. Plus, rushing high-impact business decisions is asking for trouble.

Buuut… you can’t justify bi-weekly, 2-hour-long status updates. That’s pure evil. 🤯

Learning how to run an effective meeting means learning how to make good use of time.That’s especially true in hybrid and remote teams that work across time zones with limited overlap.

Follow the tips below to get your meeting duration and timing just right:

  • 🗜️ Compress the agenda: How many talking points do you have on your agenda? 5, 10, 15? According to The Rule of Three practiced by many speakers and writers, you should stick to just three. Limiting your arguments to three agenda items will make your slice of the meeting more impactful and memorable. Encourage other participants to do the same.
  • ⏰ Take frequent breaks: Skipping a break to finish early? It sounds like a grand idea, except it isn’t. An average person can maintain focus for around 90 minutes. After that, performance drops drastically.(8) For long meetings (>1 hour), consider adding short breaks to the agenda (5-10 minutes) for the best results.
  • ⚡️ Make your meetings shorter: Did you know that most TED talks wrap under 18 minutes? The 18-minute rule applies to CEOs, scientists, motivational speakers, educators, and artists alike, so you can do it too.(9) The lesson for today? Turn your next meeting into a personal TED talk and finish before the 18-minute mark.
"Short Meetings," a comic by @PHDcomics.

4. End It With a Bang (Or a Call to Action)

Calls to action (CTAs) are every marketer’s secret weapon. According to WordStream, marketing emails with a single call-to-action see a 371% increase in clicks and a 1617% increase in sales.(10)

“Ok, but what does it have to do with meetings?”

Every team meeting is like a sales opportunity. 

You meet with a bunch of people, you talk the talk, and hope they will buy what you’re selling. Except in the case of a meeting, you expect your team to perform a specific action.

  • “Review customer feedback.”
  • “Finish the new website design.”
  • “Prepare a meeting notes template.”
  • “Add more cat memes to the latest blog post.”

You get the idea.

To make sure your team follows through and actually delivers, you need a powerful, crystal-clear CTA to guide them. Don’t assume your team knows what you expect them to do. Unless you’re running a meeting of local clairvoyants, you need to be very specific about what comes next.

  • 🍰 Keep it simple, stupid! (KISS): Coined by Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs (ADP) engineer Kelly Johnson, the KISS principle states that, in most cases, the simpler solution is better.(11) Keep your meeting CTAs short, focused, and easy to understand. Stick to basic parameters of who does what and when
  • ⚡️ Use actionable language: Skip the fluff and get straight to the point. Use imperative verbs (verbs that give commands to the person you’re addressing) and tell your team what you expect them to do, e.g. “@mike Submit the meeting agenda by 5 p.m.” Using imperative verbs is not about being bossy but reducing ambiguity and guesswork.
  • 🔗 Provide essential information: Don’t want to micro-manage your team? Then give them all the information they need to act autonomously. That can include anything from documents and checklists to training materials and access to subject-matter experts.

And that’s it! 🥳

🐑 Parting Words

Figuring out how to run an effective meeting will take time and a lot of dull, directionless conversations. You’ll need to learn the communication dynamic of your team, adjust delivery methods, and field-test many meeting formulas before you strike gold. 

Or… you can just use the tips from this article to get there faster and with fewer mistakes under your belt. So, here’s your ultimate to-do to make the next meeting shine:

  1. ☝️ Have fewer and leaner meetings: In many cases, an email will work too.
  2. 📝 Get your agenda in order: Never run a meeting without a plan.
  3. Respect the clock (and your team): Keep your talking points short and finish on time.
  4. 🧨 End It With a Bang (or a Call to Action): Tell your team who, what, and when.

And if you still need some help… try Taskade! 🐑 Taskade is the Swiss Army knife of project management software that allows teams and individuals:

  • ⚙️ Manage multiple projects at the same time.
  • ✅ Track tasks in a unified view.
  • 🤝 Collaborate with your team in real time.
  • 💬 Chat/video conference in the same window.

Ok, Taskade does a few more things, but we’re running out of time, so watch the video below and see for yourself. And if you like it, sign up for a free and bring your team for the ride. 👈

🔗 Resources

  1. https://hbr.org/2017/07/stop-the-meeting-madness)
  2. https://enboarder.com/enboarder-research-reveals-the-value-of-human-connection/
  3. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/352949/employee-engagement-holds-steady-first-half-2021.aspx
  4. https://www.booqed.com/blog/minutes-wasted-of-meeting-50-shocking-meeting-statistics
  5. https://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2014/03/why-big-teams-suck-seven-plus-or-minus-two-is-the-magical-number-once-again.html
  6. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/the-surprising-impact-of-meeting-free-days/
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWIlZosXxCM
  8. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170925-the-surprising-tricks-to-help-you-focus-at-work
  9. https://help.ted.com/hc/en-us/articles/360038669354-Why-do-we-need-to-keep-talks-within-18-minutes-
  10. https://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2015/06/10/digital-marketing-stats
  11. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/kiss-keep-it-simple-stupid-a-design-principle