Billions of dollars are wasted each year because of poorly managed business meetings. We've all been to them; those meetings where we begin lamenting in the first five minutes that "this is going to be a long meeting", or those where as the facilitator rambles on, we wonder "why am I here?" These types of poorly run meetings are typically the result of poor preparation.

With today's high stress of lots to do and not enough time to do it in corporate environments, managers skimp on the preparation for meetings; they don't "think it through." Adequate preparation, which takes some but not much time, can keep a meeting on track and on time. The key components are setting appropriate goals for the meeting, setting a preliminary agenda with timeframes, and preparing meeting participants.

  1. Setting appropriate goals

    Most meeting facilitators expect too much from their meetings. They want everything done at one time; after all, time is short. Having too many goals can easily cause a meeting to go off on tangents. Each meeting should have only one purpose. If you have several decisions to be made or steps to complete, break your meeting down into phases or components and have a few short well-focused meetings rather than one long confused marathon session.

  2. Setting a preliminary agenda with timeframes

    Agendas are standard equipment for most meetings - add a new twist by setting timeframes (and sticking to them). Determine what specific issues you want to cover in the meeting (remember, only one purpose!) and how much time you think you'll need to do it in. Be realistic; after one hour, attention spans are greatly diminished. Give the most important issues the largest chunk of time and remember to leave time for introductions and opening and closing comments. Participants will appreciate that you've set such a clear structure. You will also appreciate the time structure's control component. If the meeting is going off in an unwanted direction, you can simply refer to the agenda, defer to the time constraints, and bring the meeting back to the original topic. If something comes up that needs to go beyond the preset timeframe, simply eliminate one of the other topics of discussion or agree to meet at another time to continue the discussion.

  3. Preparing meeting participants

    The most important items to convey to a participant are why they were asked to come to the meeting and the purpose of the meeting. Participants need to know why they will be at the meeting and what their benefit will be before they can buy into the purpose and get motivated about attending. If a participant has a reason for attending and that reason is beneficial, they will be an active responsive participant rather than a resentful one. When given the purpose of the meeting and, if possible, the preliminary agenda, participants can begin to prepare for the meeting by thinking about or researching discussion items. Along with this information, also send the date, time, and place of the meeting just in case they've forgotten to write it down, lost their calendar, transposed a couple of numbers or any other of the numerous things that happen during a busy day. How you prepare your participants - voice mail, fax, e-mail, memo, in person, etc. - will depend on your corporate culture. However you decide to do it, always follow up to confirm any information you have given them.

Each of these steps takes relatively little time compared to the amount of time and frustration they can avoid. Meetings can run smoothly and stay on track. And if participants see you as a time-conscious, effective facilitator, they will actually look forward to the meeting. Isn't that a novel idea?

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