Even a well planned meeting requires attention to detail to stay on course and accomplish its objectives. As the meeting organizer, you're responsible for managing the course of the meeting and its final result.
Not just at highly structured meetings, but at many meetings, seating arrangements (published or unpublished) matter. Place guests of distinction in view of presenters, whiteboards, projection screens, or other points of visual interest. As organizer, you have an opportunity to determine where the most important guests will sit. If they choose their own seats, let other guests fill in afterward. Latecomers can fill in empty places.
Set a beginning and end time for your meeting, and do not exceed it. This is a good way to keep people on track, and give you the leeway to put a courteous end to conversations that are not adding value. You can say, "I'm sorry to interrupt you, but I want to make sure and keep to our scheduled time." In addition, set an approximate time for each item on the agenda.
If anyone is expected to be late, say so at the outset to set everyone's expectations. If you know you will be late to a meeting, tell the organizer as soon as you know.
At the outset, let people know what you hope to accomplish in the allotted time. Even though the agenda is printed and distributed, it will help to restate the objective in your own words.
Meetings have different formats, each of which suggests a set of ground rules. For example, there are no bad ideas in brainstorming sessions, and speakers may or may not be permitted to interrupt one another. Participants should understand whether they are expected to contribute to the conversation, or just listen. If you set clear ground rules at the beginning, it will be easier to keep the meeting on track.
To avoid interruptions, put telephones on "do not disturb" and turn off mobile phones or set to vibrate.
If any guests at the meeting have not met one another, introduce them. And if anyone's presence is likely to intimidate some of the guests, put them at ease by explaining the reason the person is sitting in. If the person is there to deliver bad news, get underway quickly.
When a new participant is asked to join a group, particularly a standing group that has already worked together, the facilitator or a competent team member should give the new member an overview as the participant first joins the meeting. Otherwise the group runs the risk of having to cover old ground. Then, the group can be invited to add anything else it thinks the new member needs to know.
The Organizer's Role
The person who leads a meeting is only a facilitator whose opinion is best expressed through a restatement of or agreement with comments from others. This encourages the group to take ownership of what is decided.
The most effective facilitators also bring lots of energy to the meeting, and a sense of humor. Even the most intense discussion can benefit from a little levity at key moments.
The best facilitators are able to advance the agenda gracefully without participants' realizing they are being guided. Here are some suggestions for seamless participation.
- Be a Model of honesty and integrity in the meeting.
- Use the agenda, but don't refer to it outright. Let the words you say steer the conversation so that it's clear you are leading the meeting, not the piece of paper.
- Give everyone an opportunity to contribute, and if someone isn't participating, offer them the floor. In doing so, though, try not to let the person feel put on the spot. Don't let an awkward moment arise as the person tries to think of something to say.
- When asking for input from the group, let each person speak for a set period of time, for example, 2 minutes. The people who talk a lot will usually try to continue beyond 2 minutes, but will still feel the pressure from the group to limit their comments.
- Hold people to things they've said or committed to earlier in the meeting or in previous meetings.
- Point out contradictions in what people say, by way of encouraging the group to determine ways to resolve those contradictions.
- Examine body language for nonverbal disagreement, conflict, anger, or other signals that not everyone is in synch.
- Let people finish what they are saying. If someone interrupts, direct the conversation back to the previous speaker to let him or her finish.
- Ask follow-up questions that show the speaker's point was heard and that challenge the speaker to finish an incomplete thought.
- If someone steers off course, acknowledge the valuable nugget in what was contributed but show how it can be applied to the topic at hand.
Handouts and Presentations
A presentation is what you say. Overhead materials and handouts should underscore the message you're there to deliver in person. With that in mind, here are some tips on using materials effectively, whether you're the meeting organizer or an invited speaker.
- Arrive early to greet other attendees and get a sense of the mood.
- Figure one slide per minute, maximum.
- Put only a few words or one picture on a slide.
- Distribute handouts only when you are ready to use them. Otherwise, people will read through them instead of listening to you.
- Don't leave people in the dark. When you are speaking, the attention should be on you. Don't darken the room so much that people can't see you. And don't turn the lights off and on - leave them the way you need them for your presentation, and turn them back on at the end.
- Use only as much time as you're given for your presentation.
- Forget the formula that says you have to tell a joke at the beginning. If you want to start with something light, spend the extra time thinking of a personal anecdote that will resonate with the people at the meeting.
- Determine in advance whether you will be expected to handle questions from the audience.
- Practice answering the most difficult questions you expect to receive.
- Handle unexpected problems with technology, car alarms outdoors, or other unscheduled occurrences with grace and wit.
- If you did not organize the meeting, thank the people who invited you to speak.