6 Ways to Make Your Meetings Less Terrible

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Cameron Herold has been coaching companies across the globe for over two decades. From advising Sprint’s second-in-command on growth tactics to coaching the monarchy in Qatar on business culture best practices, a common foible he has noted among his clients is a difficulty holding effective meetings.

In his new book, aptly titled Meetings Suck, the “growth guru” defends the loathed ritual. It’s not meetings that are the problem, he says—participants just don’t know how to hold and participate in them properly.

Here are Herold’s tips for getting the most from your meetings and making them less painful, if not fun.

1. Don’t invite everyone

“Meetings have become a bit of a kumbaya group hug,” says Herold. “We think we’ll hurt someone’s feelings if we don’t include them.” But over-inviting wastes a ton of employees’ time for and companies’ money.

Instead, Herold recommends keeping the guest list short and letting non-crucial attendees know that their time and skills would be better spent on other-high priority tasks. To avoid crowding up your meeting with superfluous attendees, he suggests using a rule popularized by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: “If you can’t feed everyone at the meeting with two pizzas, you’ve invited too many people.”

2. Book the room for half the time you need

Think a meeting will take all the day? Schedule it for four hours. Need the conference room for an hour? Book it for 30 minutes. “You can have a meeting in half the time you think it will take—you just have to keep people a little more focused,” argues Herold, who calls the strategy “the quickie.”

3. Understand what your meeting costs

Bad meetings cost the U.S. economy about $ 37 billion a year. It can be frightening to think about, but putting a price tag on your meeting forces you to question whether or not it’s worth having at all.

To drive home the point, one of Herold’s clients actually puts the labour cost for a given meeting in the subject line of the meeting request. “It’s to make sure people take it seriously,” says Herold. “If we’ve got eight people sitting down for an hour, and the average wage for people in the room is $ 60 an hour, that’s a $ 480 meeting. If it’s an all-day meeting we’re talking about $ 3,400—let’s not waste that.”

Pricing the meeting gives the host pause when making the guest list and booking time. “We should also be asking, If we spend $ 3,000 on a meeting, are we going to make $ 3,000 because of it?”

4. Stick to an agenda

Herold suggests circulating a no-frills, to-the-point agenda along with the meeting request. It should start with one sentence describing the purpose of the meeting and the main outcomes (three, maximum) you hope to get out of it.

The body of the agenda should include what you’re covering in the meeting, in what order, and how many minutes you’re going to spend on each item. “This way, people understand why you’re moving on from an item: Bcause you told them in advance that we don’t want to spend that much more time on this,” says Herold. “We’re really delegating our people, time, and resources that way.”

Finally, Herold recommends ascribing a specific style of communication to each agenda item—a quick update, full brainstorm, discussion, debate, or decision. If a final call needs to be made, try to wrap up the debate on the item at the same time as the meeting. “It can be a unilateral decision or a group decision, but when we walk out of the room, we [should] agree that we have consensus and we left the debate in the room.”

5. Listen carefully

Upper management and executives tend to dominate meetings. To encourage participation from everyone on important items, Herold hands out a stack of Post-It Notes and gets everyone to write down their ideas related to the discussion. He then goes around the room and has everyone share what they’ve come up with, starting with the most junior person and ending with the most senior.

“You end up getting the quieter people sharing and the sales people to shut up a little bit. They’ll have their turn, but everyone else has to talk as well,” says Herold. “It also gets the CEO to stop talking in advance of everyone and slaying [other people’s] ideas. By the time it gets to them, they realize: My team is pretty darn smart and they shared most of what I was going to say anyway.”

6. Speak up

While hosts can do plenty to improve meetings, attendees should be helping to make them better too. That starts with being willing to opt-out where appropriate. “There’s no harm in saying, ‘I saw the agenda, looks great, but I don’t really need to be there—looks like you have it covered,’” says Herold. “That should be more of a badge of honour, not a sign of disrespect.”

There’s also no shame in offering feedback on the agenda prior to the meeting. “Everyone actually appreciates it, because they all know in their own way that the meetings they’ve been running aren’t that great,” he says. “Everyone wants a better way.”

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