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How to Hold Good Meetings

“How to Hold Good Meetings”

Because time is precious, conduct meetings only when needed, and make each one effective and succinct. No one needs to waste time just warming up boardroom chairs.


Want to delve into your employees’ thoughts during a meeting? Odds are, you won’t be pleased by what you discover. A whopping 91% of all attendees admit to daydreaming during meetings, more than 70% scribble on other work under the guise of taking notes, and nearly 40% admit they’ve dozed. ("Meetings in America," networkMCI conference white paper, 1998) If you think the problem lies with your employees, however, think again.

The Wall Street Journal‘s statistics reveal that an average CEO spends 17 hours each week in meetings, while his or her senior executives endure 23 hours a week. Middle levels face an average of 11 hours. Yet managers at all three levels claim only 56% of their meetings are productive and that a simple phone call could have replaced more than 25% of the meetings they attended.

"It’s clear American businesses have a severe case of ‘meeting mania,’" says Jay Crookston, vice president of U.S. sales for networkMCI Conferencing.

The good news: Simply tightening meeting objectives will add seven productive hours to the average manager’s week, which in turn saves between $9,000 and $16,000 per manager in productivity numbers.

In this Quick-Read you will find:

  • Secrets to better meetings.
  • Ingredients for a fun, memorable meeting.


Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoon strip addresses today’s meeting climate head on: The manager hands Dilbert a sheet of paper announcing, "You’re invited to my four-hour meeting. There’s no agenda. It’s just supposed to hurt." In reality, a good meeting energizes its participants. They leave empowered to accomplish their respective tasks and consider themselves more knowledgeable than when they walked in. They leave with a spring in their step and an up-beat attitude that conveys their enthusiasm to others throughout the company.

Whether you choose the traditional conference table or opt for video- and computer-conferencing techniques, the ground rules for success remain the same:

  • The facilitator controls the meeting’s productivity by setting the tone in advance and sticking to it.
  • The length of the meeting is no longer — or shorter — than necessary to accomplish the stated goals.
  • One-time meetings tend to be extremely productive while recurring meetings often invite tedium.
  • The ultimate goal is to solve problems.
  • The meeting includes only staff members who can or need to contribute to the issue on the agenda.

Says Kevin Polk, a clinical psychologist and stress management coach, effective problem-solving starts with a good attitude, followed by time spent defining and describing the problem. Next, the participants brainstorm for several creative solutions, then — and only then — they evaluate the possibilities and choose an action. Presto! — the blueprint for your next meeting. As facilitator, you are responsible both for preventing the evaluation debate from beginning at the wrong time and for keeping participants’ comments flowing. Some companies provide efficient-meeting guidelines in their employee handbooks to help facilitators conduct meetings more effectively.

The right toys for the right meeting

Certain types of meetings (brainstorming, strategic planning) benefit from props: toys, games or food that subtly let attendees know you want them to relax. Carefully select from a variety of quiet items that keep the fingers active and free the mind: Silly Putty, magnetic marbles, Koosh balls, trail mix or M&Ms. Never implement a strategic meeting without these fun ingredients. By the same token, such creative props should not be used if the gathering’s purpose is to deliver bad news. The contrast between the toys and trauma undermines your sincerity. Also avoid allowing the fun to dominate the meeting. Participants should label a meeting "fun" because of their connection to colleagues, not diversion activities.

The right tools for the job in hand

Digital whiteboards, easels with pads and even rolling chalkboards reinforce your contribution. Present in-depth data in a document you distribute at least several hours before the meeting’s start. Take advantage of opportunities to illustrate concepts visually using PowerPoint, slides or laptop computers. According to the "Meetings in America" study by networkMCI, the more time you spend in preparation, the higher the meeting’s productivity. In the study, 26 minutes of prep time qualified as low impact, while 53.5 minutes, by contrast, had a high impact on meeting productivity.


Outsiders probably assume meetings at Mattel Media toy manufacturer take on a carnival atmosphere because of its product alone. Consultant Bernie DeKoven, however, knows better. DeKoven earned a full-time position at Mattel and the nickname "Dr. Fun" by challenging the status quo.

DeKoven originally arrived to help teams hammer out the exhaustive paperwork needed to outline the company’s electronic game scenarios. "It’s an amazingly complicated, frustrating process most people never suspect lies behind this entertainment medium," he says.

DeKoven forbade participants to come armed with pen and paper, opting instead to record all ideas collectively on a common digital whiteboard. He scattered Mattel toys across the boardroom and passed around potato chips. He distributed M&Ms by shuffleboarding the discs to members around the table. He occasionally began the gatherings with silly numbers or gestures games to break tension.

The department’s profits increased, and more important in DeKoven’s opinion, "Everybody would show up to these meetings. We didn’t deal with absenteeism challenges." Management measures the success of these meetings by pointing to numbers like $200 million in earnings during DeKoven’s first year and the development of an entirely new category of software: games for girls.

DO IT [top]

  1. Consider calling a meeting only as your last resort. Determine first whether you need a one-way or two-way street to get where you’re going. If the point of a proposed meeting is merely to pass out news, then use e-mail, newsletters, bulletin boards or intercom announcements.
  2. Develop a written agenda for the meeting, using the sentence "By the end of the meeting, I want the group to .…" as your guide.
  3. Assign attendees specific responsibilities, and remind them of the time limit on their presentations. Ensure each invitee accepts a role, even if it’s merely to offer three possible solutions to the stated problem.
  4. E-mail participants to remind them of the meeting 30 minutes in advance; encourage them to glance over the agenda a final time at this point.
  5. As a leader, arrive at the meeting place 10 minutes early to oversee material placement.
  6. Start the meeting on time, and close the door to signal that you intend to stick to a schedule.
  7. Introduce a fun element at the beginning, whether a trivia question related to the meeting’s topic, a quick game or a toy.
  8. Hold tight to the meeting’s purpose. If your comment isn’t germane to the topic, shut up. Politely steer participants who show this tendency back on track with phrases, such as "We can better address that in its own meeting."
  9. Assign specific actions and deadlines.
  10. Solicit feedback on ways the meeting could have been made more effective.
  11. End the meeting on time, even if it didn’t begin on schedule.



Better Business Meetings by Robert B. Nelson and Peter Economy (Irwin, 1994).

Business Meetings: 76 Secrets for Better Problem Solving and Decision Making at http://openthis.com.

Internet Sites

For in-depth advice, self-check quizzes and software planning tools, subscribe free to Effective Meetings.

"We’ve Got to Start Meeting Like This," by John Grossmann. Inc. (April 1998): 70-72+

"The Seven Sins of Deadly Meetings," by Eric Matson. FastCompany (April 1996): 122.

The High Cost of Meetings, by Robert C. Brenner. Publishers Marketing Association, 1997.

Article Contributors

Writer: Julie Sturgeon