What’s your secret to leading an effective meeting?

  • Have you ever tried handing out door prizes to employees who show up on time?
  • How about inviting college cheerleaders to hold a pep rally before you kick off a major planning session?

Don’t laugh—these are real-life examples of methods some managers have used to inject a sense of importance into their meetings.

But you don’t need to rely on gimmicks. Instead, establish sensible ground rules to make your meetings more effective. It’s important that every company or manager develop such policies, according to Norman Sigband, a communications consultant and distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Southern California.

“When you have no rules for playing football or hockey, it becomes madness, and most meetings are madness,” said Sigband.

Part 2 in a series

In this article, you’ll learn the fundamentals for leading an effective meeting. In the first article, we showed you how to plan ahead to ensure your meeting would get off to a good start.

Time is money
Sigband estimates that a meeting with 12 employees may cost the average company about $2,700. The use of the conference room and the time employees spend away from their desks are among the expenses. If you take that estimate and apply it to the entire year, Sigband calculates that the average company is spending about $7 million annually on meetings.

“Meetings are the most expensive form of communication—even more expensive than high-tech alternatives,” said Sigband.

Here are ways to reduce the time you spend in meetings.

  1. Cancel the meeting: Decide whether what you have to say can be accomplished with an e-mail instead.
  2. Distribute an agenda: Before the meeting, require employees to come prepared with the necessary materials. During the meeting, keep your staff on task by sticking to the agenda.
  3. Start the meeting on time: Even if the vice president isn’t there yet, begin the meeting anyway. If you wait for everyone, you encourage employees to be tardy in the future.

Your leadership skills
Leading a meeting is a skill—to improve, you need to search for new techniques and you need to make an effort to apply them.

“People think a lot of things come naturally—dancing, sex, walking. But there are right and wrong ways to do almost anything,” said Sigband.

The right way to lead a meeting requires balance. Sigband suggests that at times you should be democratic and allow the group some freedom. But most often you should gently demonstrate your authority and return the group’s focus to the agenda.

Your diplomacy will also be put to the test when you handle difficult staff members. You should develop your own way of dealing with typical problem employees—such as the worker who wants to complain or the worker who constantly daydreams during the meeting.

Attention to detail
Someone should take notes during the meeting so that there is a record of what was decided. You can do this yourself or you can assign this to a staff member. Afterward, the staffer should e-mail the minutes of the meeting to all attendees. The minutes should include:

  • A list of decisions or announcements
  • A list of projects: Every project should have a deadline and the name of the person assigned to complete the task.

Often, the due date for a minor assignment may be listed as ”complete by next Monday’s weekly meeting.” When you assign tasks and set deadlines, you show attention to detail and you hold people accountable.

“Otherwise, people say, ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to do that,’” said Sigband.

For more than two decades at USC’s business school, Sigband has taught these communication strategies to dozens of companies, including AT&T, Southern California Edison, and Cigna. Sigband said these businesses recognized meetings as an important resource that must be managed effectively.

“The companies that I’ve worked with, that have put this in effect, they’ve actually figured out how much money they’ve saved, and everybody is a lot happier,” said Sigband.

The wacky and the weird
We asked the TechRepublic staff to share their effective meeting methods. Here are a few ideas our IT pros have used.

  • Ask everyone who can to stand up throughout the entire meeting so that everyone stays alert.
  • Establish a rule that everyone who is required to attend the meeting must be notified at least 24 hours in advance. This allows people to plan ahead and reduces too many surprise meetings.
  • Use Lotus Notes or MS Exchange for threaded discussions, then establish a database to review new postings. This approach is effective for people who work in different time zones and need to share ideas.
  • Charge people a quarter or a dollar for every minute that they’re late. At the end of the year, donate the money to charity or buy food for staff members.
  • Establish a time limit for each topic to be discussed.
  • For a company meeting, five minutes prior to start time, announce over a loudspeaker that everyone needs to hang up the phone, save their files, and begin moving toward the conference room.
  • For a small group, have a participant bring in a food item. Every week, rotate the person assigned to bring the “goodies.”

Share your secret

How do you keep your meetings on track? Have you ever seen a technique that backfired? Post a comment below or send us a note.