for release March 23, 2001
by Melodie Davis
How to Run a Meeting
Meetings have gotten a bad rap. So few people really know how to plan and run a meeting. I may not be the world's greatest meeting runner (not even close) but I've learned a few things from some really good ones in my 25 years of working. I finally decided that the only thing worse than being the chair of a committee, is being on a committee where the meeting isn't run very well.
So what are some tips for running good meetings? I'm not talking about the Robert's Rules of Order kind of meetings, just the ordinary office, church, school or community meeting where things too often get bogged down, run amuck, or end in total frustration. Some of these things may seem obvious but I've sat through enough bad meetings to know they're not.
First, have an agenda. That's simply a list of things you want to cover in the meeting. It can be scratched on your palm (or Palm Pilot). Better, send out the agenda ahead so meeting-goers have a clue what to be thinking about. Heavens, some of them may even do some preparation-research, brainstorm, talk to others, prepare a proposal. Some meeting-goers think off the seat of their pants. Others need to study something and write down their thoughts before they can utter a coherent sentence in a meeting.
If you have a major item of discussion, also send participants a proposal, background reading, or at least "current thought" on the topic. E-mail makes it sinfully easy to get this kind of stuff out. In the meeting, though, please don't read me the whole thing then. If no one has had time to read it, take time for everyone to read it silently. Then verbally highlight the important parts, so everyone knows the key parts of the handout.
Start on time, or close. The only way to insure that people won't come to the next meeting late is if you started this one on time.
Assign a person to take minutes or at least notes. Please be kind and ask the person before the meeting. My pet peeve is a leader looking around the circle and asking you right in front of everyone. One of my favorite meeting leaders always said, "Any meeting worth having is worth having minutes." You hear people say meetings are a waste of time because nothing ever happens out of meetings. Minutes are the key to having something happen after meetings are over. They force a group to make decisions. The leader should get volunteers or assign names and dates to jobs or tasks. A good assertive minute taker will interrupt the meeting and ask, okay, who was going to do that? And by what date? If the group can't come to a decision, you can record what the next step is: assign to a subgroup, look at it the next time after more thought.
If you didn't get materials out to people ahead of time, handouts are a great way to not only look good (you did some preparation) but to engage those who are visual learners. Some things are so much easier to respond to when you can see them.
If a meeting gets off the agenda at hand, stop, recognize that, and ask if you need to finish that discussion now or if it can be tabled until later in the meeting, to a smaller group, or another date. Then finish your agenda item. Too many meetings flounder by wandering from one item that seems connected and then you get into something else no one had thought of before. This is actually one of the benefits of having a meeting. The group thinks of things no one had thought of. That's good, but don't allow the rabbit trails to miss the main reason you gathered.
Set the next meeting time while you are still together. This saves incalculable time and frustration. This seems obvious but is so often forgotten.
Be a little laid back. That sounds contradictory to some of what I said above, but I appreciate leaders who even though they have all their ducks in a row and try to start on time, can go with the flow and not run the meeting like it was boot camp. A really good meeting leader listens, summarizes and feeds back what she's hearing, and gently keeps the agenda moving along.
Finally end on time. If everyone conducted meetings like this, I bet the population of meeting haters would be reduced by 67 percent. Meetings are essential for anything to get accomplished, whether in the national legislature, PTA, the Lions, band parents, or helping the needy. So like them or not, meetings have been around since God and Adam first conferred over that troublesome apple issue.
Have any "world's worst meeting horror stories?" Send them to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
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