Have you ever sat in a meeting and thought, “When will this be over?” Or walked out of a meeting feeling emotionally drained? You’re not alone. Joel Levitt, director of internal projects at Virginia-based professional services firm Life Cycle Engineering and the author of 10 Minutes a Week to Great Meetings, says these are just two symptoms of a really bad meeting. Whether you’ve been roped into one of these sluggish summits, or—worse!—are running one, your boring meeting will do nothing to improve productivity and morale. In fact, a dull, endless meeting can do more harm than good.
That’s why Levitt is on a mission to make meetings better. And the good news is that he doesn’t think it takes much. In a phone interview last week, he shared six simple ways to improve the usefulness, productivity and, yes, fun of meetings.
1. Establish guidelines
In Levitt’s view, guidelines form the backbone of any effective meeting. He’s not talking about an agenda; he’s talking about a set of rules or best practices that dictate how your meetings will be run. “Those guidelines have to be congruent with the company’s culture and the mission of the meeting,” he says. For instance, a meeting of the U.S. Federal Reserve would have different rules (and consequences for breaking them) than a meeting for a local soccer club, but in both meetings the attendees should understand and agree upon the principles of how the meeting should proceed. “It makes it so much easier to conduct [a meeting] when there is a common set of guidelines,” says Levitt.
2. Sweat the small stuff
Ever showed up to a meeting without a place to sit? Such things may seem inconsequential, but they set a negative tone, Levitt says. The person organizing the meeting should be responsible for making sure everything is in order (or for appointing someone to do the same): that the room isn’t double booked, that there are enough seats and that there are enough materials for everyone. He also recommends that the organizer should show up at least 10 minutes early to make sure there aren’t any hiccups that can be easily avoided.”These are kind of trivial things, but they’re disruptive,” he says.
3. Be conscious of different cultures
In today’s diverse global business climate, the likelihood of dealing with people with different cultural practices is high. Levitt says it’s important to be conscious of this during meetings. For instance, when he was delivering a course in Saudi Arabia, he discovered that Saudis like to have some social interaction before the meeting starts. “If you’re dealing with somebody of a different culture, find out a little bit about them so you know what’s going on unconsciously,” he says.
4. Clear the air
People usually have other things on their mind before they enter the boardroom, which can make it difficult for them to focus in a meeting. At the beginning of a meeting, get everybody to voice what’s on his or her mind, whether it’s an irritating expense report or an upcoming trip to the dentist. “Once they get it out, they then have a clearing [in their minds],” Levitt says. “Otherwise, they’ll be fighting with themselves to concentrate on both the meeting and whatever else they’re thinking about.”
5. Read the room
Levitt says meeting leaders should consistently monitor the engagement of participants. “If people are wandering, then the meeting’s leader has to do some intervention,” he says. If energy starts to wane, Levitt suggests asking people to focus back on the meeting, taking a break or simply asking everyone to stand up. “My rule is that when 20% of the people in the meeting have gone for a bathroom break or a cigarette, I know it’s time to call a break,” he says.
6. Invite only people who really need to be there
More often than not, bored meeting participants are bored because they don’t actually need to be there. Levitt says some people with only a “peripheral interest” are too often roped into meetings, which drags down energy and wastes valuable time. If someone is only tangentially affected by the meeting’s outcome, let them sit it out, and copy them on the event’s minutes (or provide a quick email summary) later.
What do you do to liven up your meetings? Do you agree with Levitt’s suggestions? Share your thoughts in the comments below.