The course of a meeting is determined before the group gathers, when the organizer sends invitations that include time, place, and agenda. To some extent, the format of a meeting determines the substance. Meeting organizers who take these responsibilities seriously will have an easier time leading a successful meeting.
Time, Place, and Agenda
One of the most important aspects of a well-managed meeting is a carefully conceived agenda. Preparing an agenda isn't just a protocol, it's an occasion to think about the purpose of the meeting and the desired outcomes. Giving structure to the conversation helps ensure that the time is managed effectively and that at the end of the meeting, the group has made good decisions and is ready to accomplish its next steps.
Many meeting organizers prepare two agendas: one is distributed to guests, and the other is the organizer's key to keeping the meeting on track. The public agenda lists topics, speakers, and allotted time. The organizer's agenda also lists the things that must be covered before people leave the meeting. As the meeting ends, people should be aware of their next steps, that is, the work to be accomplished before the next meeting.
Although a well constructed meeting can result in a lot of work getting done, it's important to set reasonable goals for one gathering. The objectives should be achievable in the time allowed. Be realistic when determining how long the meeting should be, and take comfort and attention spans into account. Most people can't give their undivided attention longer than an hour and a half without a break.
Right Place, Right Time
The choice of time and place is also important for ensuring that the meeting is a success. For example, the room should be the right size to accommodate the number of guests. If the room is too big or too formal, or too small and crowded, those who attend could become distracted. If clients will also attend, the nature of the meeting should suggest whether it's better to hold the meeting in house, on site at the client's offices, or at a neutral third location.
Choose a time of day appropriate to what's being accomplished. If the meeting ties together people in remote locations through technology, take time zones into account. For example, first thing in the morning is a great time for department meetings if one of the goals is to get the day off to a good start; but it may not be a good time for a brainstorming session unless you provide plenty of coffee and doughnuts. Conversely, Friday afternoon may be a perfect time to ask people to let ideas flow freely, but it may be more difficult to reach decisions just before the weekend.
It's better to allow time between the end of one meeting and the start of another, unless the guest lists are more or less identical. If one meeting runs longer than scheduled, or even exactly as long as scheduled, the guests are likely to need a break in between.
Meeting software makes it easy to send an invitation and an agenda to everyone on the list quickly and conveniently. It puts the meeting on your guests' calendars and can be set to remind them of the meeting. And it makes it possible for your guests to retrieve the agenda and handouts before they come to the meeting. Some meeting software can even determine whether guests have conflicts to help you reschedule. Unfortunately, not all organizations have meeting software, and if some guests work at remote locations, meeting software may not be sufficient.
Give your guests about a week's notice for an in-house meeting, if possible, sending the invitation via email or paper. Emergency meetings usually must be called on short notice, and may not need a written invitation. More formal meetings require written invitations and two to four weeks' notice, or two weeks longer if guests are traveling. Meetings of the board of directors or the shareholders may call for formal, printed invitations.
The invitation should include an agenda, a list of those expected to attend, and the contact information and deadline for the reply. Expect your guests to send a reply to a meeting invitation as soon as they know whether they're available. Track them down if necessary. If resources permit, call the guests one day before the meeting to confirm date and time, and to make sure they received the handouts.