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Nobody likes a pesky meet­ing — the kind that drags on with lit­tle pur­pose and takes your focus away from all of the valu­able projects you’re work­ing on

We’re not anti-meet­ing, we’re just against direc­tion­less fol­low-ups and stale Zoom calls that feel like an eter­ni­ty. If you’re a PM, you have the pow­er to shape your team’s work­flow by know­ing the ins and outs of how to con­duct a meet­ing. This smart meet­ing guide will give you tips for run­ning your meet­ings like a gazelle — quick­ly and with­out being tack­led by a blood­thirsty, hairy mob.

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Before the meeting

Think before you schedule

Meetings are expensive. So, before you even hit that schedule button, ask yourself—do we really need this meeting? Is it worth the cost (think number of people X number of hours)? In other words, could this meeting be an email? Could it be a Slack message? Could it be an emoji? Kidding on that last one (mostly).

Provide sufficient notice

Nobody likes to be at anyone else’s beck and call. For every meeting that you book, try to give as much advance notice as possible (at least 12–24 hours). This goes for both internal team members and clients.

Put thought behind meeting times

Don’t schedule meetings at lunch or before or after work hours. Seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. meetings pop up in companies where the agreed-upon work hours are 9 to 5.

If your org has flex hours, try to set some ground rules around what appropriate meeting times are, and then stick to them. If you have team members in different time zones, keep in mind that what might seem like an innocent mid-afternoon meeting to you could actually be cutting into somebody’s precious sleeping hours. You will also want to specify the time zone in your meeting invite.

Prepare an agenda

You should plan ahead for every meeting and have an agenda to prove it. Your agenda should be ready not before the meeting, but before you even send out the meeting invites.

Your agenda should include the “why” of your meeting, i.e., the meeting’s overall goal. Think about the questions that your potential guests might have like:

Why are we having this meeting?

What will we accomplish?

Why would I come, and if I can’t make it, what would I miss?

Next, you’ll want to plan out agenda items or the topics to address in the meeting. Make them clear and concise—or, better yet, include time limits for how long you will address each agenda item. If it’s not on the agenda, it’s not part of the meeting.

Send your agenda out in plain text inside of the meeting invitation (the meeting notes section of Google Calendar is a great place to do this). Never send meeting agendas out as Word or PDF documents. Folks almost never open these up and read them until a few minutes before the meeting (it’s nothing personal, just human nature). If there are documents that you would like people to read over before the meeting starts, specify in the meeting invite. It doesn’t hurt to remind them again before the meeting, too.

Mark some invites as ‘optional’

It’s okay to invite more people to your meeting than you anticipate joining. This isn’t a birthday party, and you don’t need a headcount for goodie bags. If you’re not sure whether or not a meeting will be helpful for certain people, mark their attendance as optional and let them decide for themselves. You should ideally be inviting as few people as is necessary, and marking the rest of your guest’s attendance as optional.

If you’re on the receiving end of an optional invite, read the agenda of the meeting to see if it’s relevant to you. If it’s not, don’t go. Just make sure that you respond “no” to the invite, and include a reason. Not like “my baby turtle has the hiccups,” but something relevant.

Remember that time is sacred

The pillars of project management tell us that our time is sacred. This means that nobody has the right to book you into a meeting without first making sure you should be there. In other words: you can decline meetings that are useless, time-consuming, don’t have an agenda, or happen out of work hours or over lunch. We dare you to try it. Your time is the only thing you have. Don’t give it away for free.

Keep ‘em short

Meetings keep us informed and help us make decisions—or at least that’s what they’re supposed to do. Most of the time they drag on till we start sprouting chin hairs. Make your meetings valuable: short and to the point. Don’t keep people in an hour-long meeting when all you needed was a fifteen-minute check-in.

Respect the sanctity of the all-knowing calendar

Before you book a meeting, check out the calendar of every participant. The last thing you want is to accidentally double book somebody. And whatever you do, don’t send informal meeting invitations—make sure that you are scheduling meetings on the calendar and sending email invites to go along with them. Double-check that these meeting invites include a clear title and supportive context.

If your meeting is in-house, test your tech before the meeting starts. If your meeting is remote, don’t forget to add the link to the meeting within the invite so that you’re not scrambling to share it with everybody at the last minute. It’s also a good idea to have a backup method and format. Don’t forget to use Slack to remind participants of a meeting before it starts.

Don’t be afraid of the cancel button

Don’t expect folks to know that a meeting is cancelled by simple word-of-mouth, or even via Slack message. Most people swear by their calendars, so make sure that you remove a cancelled meeting from the calendar and opt to send them notifications about it.

Remember the three meeting maximum

Something strange has happened with the increasing popularity of remote work. Some workplaces are taking the lack of in-person interaction as an excuse to schedule more and more meetings. We’re not sure if this is just some sort of strange attempt at a virtual panopticon that comes from the anxiety of being out of sight of one another, but it needs to stop.

Whether virtual or in-person, we can handle three meetings per day, max. Not four. Not five. Three. Zoom fatigue is a real thing—scheduling more than three meetings per day is a surefire recipe for running out of energy, not to mention the fact that you won’t have any time to do any actual work.

During the meeting

Show up on time (or early if you’re running the show)

If you are a participant, remember that the meeting will start with or without you, and there won’t be time to recap if you’re late, so show up two minutes early. If it’s your meeting, show up at least five to ten minutes early to set up. Fifteen-minute event reminders are great for reminding you in time. And last-minute issues always happen. Best to work it out before everyone sees you struggling and gives you pity glances.

If people stride in late, don’t wait and don’t recap when they get in. They can get the notes/updates afterward.

Break the ice

It’s tempting to hit the ground running, but make it a habit to check in with your people before you get down to business. Icebreakers are a great way to do this. Try something like Rose, Thorn, and Bud, a mindfulness-inspired exercise that gives team members space to bond by sharing their grievances, small wins, and excitements.

Address your agenda

Start your meeting off with a list of questions that you will want to have answered by the end of the meeting. This may come in the form of reviewing the agenda. It’s also a good idea to include a quick health status update on your project(s) when the meeting starts.

Then, you can set expectations on communication and roles for the meeting. Don’t leave your meeting open-ended—make sure that you end the meeting with a summary of the next steps for everybody. If you have time, ask your attendees for feedback that you can use to improve future meetings.

Hang your ego on the coat rack

Just because you’re running the show it doesn’t mean that yours is the only opinion that matters. People might have things to say that conflict with your views. Allow healthy conversations to happen within your meetings as long as it doesn’t turn into a personal attack.

We all have different comfort levels when it comes to sharing. Some folks are naturally more vocal than others, but don’t assume that quiet voices have nothing to contribute. Ensure that every voice gets an opportunity to speak by asking probing questions and providing ample opportunities for discussion. Do open the floor often, but don’t single out quiet people in front of everyone—that’s how you make enemies with introverts.

Ditch the distractions

Encourage your attendees to adopt a rule of no laptops, cellphones, or apps. The notetaker can have a laptop, and the PM can reference project data, but keep offline meetings offline to keep people caring about your silly meeting. For online meetings, set ground rules for working during the meeting time—many folks may think that they are being sly, but it is totally obvious when somebody is “secretly” working during a meeting.

The best meetings are ones that offer resolve. If things start to go off the rails, identify one or two single issues that you can focus on within the meeting’s duration. Or use your best project management voice and say, ‘let’s talk about that in a future meeting; we need to get through this first.’

Project managers don’t take notes

You read that right. PMs might run the meetings, but they ask someone else to take notes. This is because our brains are incapable of tracking important information while also directing the conversation, keeping convos on track, and referencing project details at the same time.

A note-taker has the important job of documenting decisions and threads. They can also track time. If you have recurring meetings, try one running document or single Kanban board (per client/project) for meeting notes. Ask your note-takers to highlight all decisions and action items in an obvious way. In some cases, it may make sense to have multiple note-takers.

Let everyone have a turn

The quickest way to make a meeting meaningful is to give your eager participants the microphone. Now, this speaking time should be about equality: some people are rhinos and like to dominate meetings and poop all over other people’s ideas.

It’s up to the PM (or meeting chair) to keep those ones in check. One thing—nobody wants to be spoken to like a child who is acting out in school. Instead of shaming chatty group members, it might be helpful to have an agreed-upon phrase or code word that anyone in the group can use if they sense that things are diverging (use something neutral and random like ‘avocado’ or ‘wheelbarrow’).

Add breaks for long meetings

If your meeting is long (say, more than 90 minutes), make sure that you allocate time for breaks. Nobody can stay focused for an indefinite amount of time—be kind and give them a few moments to stretch their legs and grab a glass of water.

If you can, try splitting up your long meetings into increments of 30-45 minutes when possible. It’s better for concentration and gives people a chance to break before their next meeting.

Let people leave

Give your colleagues permission to leave the meeting early if they have other commitments or if the subject matter at hand is no longer relevant to them. This sends the message to your team that you value and are grateful for their time.

End meetings on time

Always end on time. Don’t drag on a meeting to get through an agenda. Instead, follow up with another meeting offline or via email.

Better yet, try to end your meeting at least five minutes early. This leaves your meeting participants with a bit of time to grab a glass of water, go to the bathroom, prepare for their next meeting, etc. It’s a small gesture but they’ll love you for it.

Of course, if you’ve barrelled your way through the objectives, don’t be afraid to end early. People adore that. Just be sure to take a few minutes to summarize action items before you leave. You can do this collaboratively by going around and having every person quickly summarize their personal actions and next steps.

Make sure that your notetaker is able to document everyone’s action items. Not only will you need them for the follow-up meeting notes, but you’ll also want to send out reminders for folks who have same-day tasks.

After the meeting

Post meeting notes for reference

Remember those notes that that person who was not the PM took? You’re going to want to share those with attendees as a follow-up. Some people are not strong auditory learners and will benefit from having documentation to reference. Make sure that you look over the notes and fill in any gaps before sending them out to the larger team.

Make sure that these notes provide a summary of the results of the meeting. Did you meet the goals? Who is doing what? What are the next steps?

If you have audio recordings of your online meetings, you can send them away to be transcribed as a complement to your meeting notes, or for folks who were not able to attend the meeting. Share your meeting minutes in one place where everyone can see them and use a standard file naming convention (ex: ACME_Meeting_2021-05-04). We just happen to offer a nifty little template below that will allow you to do just that.

Get proper sign-offs

If you have come to any decisions during a brainstorming or kickoff session, make sure that you receive the proper sign-offs for every decision made so that it doesn’t create a bottleneck in the future.

Follow up on action items

If action items were identified during the meeting, make sure that you turn them into cards or tasks. Do it sooner than later so that you don’t forget about them. If you said you are going to do something, make sure that you do it sooner than later.

Check-in with your team

If there are folks on your team who have deliverables, it’s best to check in with them post-meeting. Do they have the resources that they need in order to deliver? Do they have enough time? Are there any barriers that you can help them break down?

Clean up

If your meeting is happening in person, be nice and clean up the room. Remember to turn off projectors and other expensive things and don’t hide remotes for the next sorry soul that needs to use the meeting room.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to the brilliant minds who helped inspire the content in this guide. Brett Harned, Carson Pierce, Tera Caldwell Simon, and the rest of the Digital PM community.

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