Workshop: The art of managing meetings

Be disciplined, keep everyone focused and be sure to stick to the timetable.

Did you know it's thought that 53 per cent of time in meetings is wasted? In my last column, I suggested how you can make sure your meetings matter (Third Sector, 23 May). This column will look at the skill of managing meetings.

First, make sure you prepare. Read the paperwork, anticipate the points for debate or dissent and have strategies in mind to deal with them. You don't need all the answers, but you must know the direction you want to go in and what the meeting needs to achieve.

Point two is to ensure you keep to time. Negotiate with participants about any changes to plans. Assign a set time for the discussion of topics beforehand and be disciplined about time management.

My third tip is to set an appropriate tone for the meeting. Humour and informality are not banned, but tone does link to purpose. Asking participants to help create ground rules around this can be useful, particularly for difficult meetings.

Fourth, invite participation and don't take up more air space than others. Start the meeting with a round-table session by encouraging everyone to comment on something topical. This warms people up. Look out for anyone who has not contributed and invite them to do so in a way that makes them feel noticed but not pressurised. Develop skills to keep the eternal talker focused so that others do not stop participating. Value the silences. And if everything grinds to a halt, take a break in the knowledge that the group can refocus under your guidance later.

Rule five is to remember the aims of meetings, because it's unusual for them to progress in a linear way. Shared thinking leads to new streams of thought, stories or questions. Managing a meeting is like being at the helm of a yacht, tacking this way and that but always keeping an eye on the ultimate destination. Remind participants of the purpose of the meeting, demonstrate how this is being achieved and be assertive when you need to be.

Finally, give feedback, because many ears hear different things. Always check out the shared understanding of decisions. You want ownership of outcomes by everyone, not just by you; aim to get action notes out promptly to reinforce these.

Meetings are a huge time and opportunity cost for organisations, so aim to make the ones you lead half as long and twice as effective.

- Elaine Willis is a consultant and coach specialising in voluntary sector management.

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