Bad Meetings Go Back Further than You Think: 4 Tips to Improve Them

Bad meetings go way backThe longer I work in Silicon Valleyhome of what seems like constant change at a blinding pacethe more I realize how little things have changed. Take, for example, bad meetings.

Ancient documents like the Bible tried to warn us about them—along with war, pestilence, plagues and big guys named Goliath. We just weren’t smart enough to understand all the warning labels.

Consider this passage from Genesis:

“The whole world had one language and a common speech…Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.’”

It was, in other words, the world’s first recorded startup venture.

“The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’”

It was also, apparently, the first functional team meeting.

The end of the story tells us that the participants were scattered them over the face of the whole earth. Are there Tower-of-Babel descendants lurking in your conference room?

As Dave Barry once said—and I am not making this up— “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’”

So at the beginning of the New Millennium, most professionals know that nothing can kill collaboration and creativity more quickly—or make people want to bail on your projects faster—than a meeting that spirals out of control.

4 Tips to Channel Human Nature More Effectively

I belong to Toastmasters, a 91-year-old organization that has 14,650 clubs worldwide. Most of them meet weekly for about an hour, which averages out to about 2,100 meetings per day. Still, more than 313,000 members (and growing) feel they get enough out of their meetings to attend regularly. Some of these tips come from observing Toastmasters meetings around the world; others come from observations of successful (and not-so-successful) meetings in Silicon Valley.

So if you’ve ever had a meeting go off the rails—and wondered why—here are some tips for your next online or face-to-face meeting.

  1. Consider the appropriate meeting style. Often, meeting organizers give mixed signals—or in extreme cases, no signals at all—about the purpose of the meeting. So, some people might think they’re attending a brainstorming session, when its purpose is really to disseminate information already gathered. Then, when Connie the Creative Director tries to contribute an idea and Hanna the HR Rep says, “I’m sorry, but we’re not open to changing the approach at this time,” it’s not just an innovation-crushing blow to Connie. It can communicate to the rest of the audience that their input isn’t appreciated. And at that particular meeting, maybe it isn’t. But the real threat is that the participants think their input—and creativity—isn’t ever appreciated at meetings.  And that will make your next brainstorming session pretty awkward. And quiet. The fix? Characterize meetings as “brainstorming,” “fact-finding,” “information-sharing,” or “decision-making” to set expectations for the behavior you want to encourage. What will the takeaway will be—an approach, more ideas, a decision, more information, or something else?
  1. Send out an agenda as soon as possible. Focus the agenda around specific questions or actions that need to happen for the meeting to be successful. It helps to take a stab at how long each item should take and map the time out. That’s because, as human beings, once someone says a specific number or figure, we tend to almost instantly readjust our expectations, even if we know it’s subject to change. Something like this gives people boundaries and filters, helping them know if their next comment exceeds the scope and time limit for the meeting:
  • Brainstorming new features for Version 2.0. (1:30-1:50 pm)
  • Vote on the top five features to prototype. (1:50-1:55 pn)
  • Decide on action items for everyone and determine the next meeting date (1:55-2:00 pm)
  1. At the start of the meeting, reiterate the purpose and what you hope to come away with at the end of the meeting. This helps focus everyone, and it gives you an excuse to shut down discussions that don’t contribute to the purpose. Is the outcome supposed to be new ideas? A better understanding of a new policy or project? A decision? A set of action items? Some effective meeting leaders even ask if there’s anything that should be added to the agenda, or perhaps moved to another meeting. That way, you can divide and conquer different pieces of the objective or problem at hand, rather than make everyone feel they’re in a Mad-Max style duel-to-the-death where they must win on every point.
  1. At the end of the meeting,  go over the agenda and indicate whether you’ve accomplished the objectives, and diplomatically comment on whether they’ve been achieved. This is a good way to indicate that you’re looking out for the group’s time and trying to stick to the original purpose, and to respect everyone’s time and input.

Don’t Give Up—No Matter How Scary that Tower Looks

Of course, there’s no magical solution to people’s imperfect ability to organize and communicate—since clearly people have been lamenting this problem since the dawn of Western civilization. But that’s no reason to give up, and perhaps these tips can keep your next meeting from deteriorating into a first-class tower of you-know-what. (Babel, of course.)

Click here for more information on how the latest in web and video conferencing technology can help your teams communicate and collaborate more effectively—no matter where they are or what device they’re using. And for more tips on mastering impromptu speaking situations that sometimes confound businesspeople, click here.

Lisa Stapleton


Lisa Stapleton is a marketing manager at 8x8. She holds an MBA from Santa Clara University, an MA in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and a bachelor's degree in applied math and physics from UC Berkeley. [...] Read More >

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