If you’re a woman in business, you’ve probably attended a few meetings in your life. Somehow, many of us still don’t love going to meetings. Priorities are misaligned. The topic of conversation gets off track or goes too long. Being able to manage meetings effectively is a skill we all need to learn. It’s a skill that helps in numerous situations – even if you’re not the lead. The key is to know what your goals are for the meeting and lay out the agenda in advance to meet them. More importantly, when you manage meetings well, everyone leaves with a shared understanding. And that’s critical to good business communication.

So, how exactly do you manage meetings well? I don’t think there’s one right way to do it, but I’ve got a couple methods I really like. One works in meetings where there’s a single topic on the agenda but requires a discussion and multiple decisions. The other works with multiple topics that require short discussions. These two cover the majority of meetings.

Covering a big topic? Outline the purpose, process, and payoff.

Planning is all about setting yourself up for success and it’s no different when it comes to putting together an agenda for meetings. The 3P approach to manage meetings with big topics is a great way to provide up-front clarity of what’s expected.

1) Purpose

Start by telling your attendees why. Be clear and concise. You’re asking people to invest time on this, so the why is arguably the most important part of the setup.

3) Payoff

Payoff actually comes last, but once you know why you’re having a meeting, define the outcome(s) you want. It’s easier to set the process if you know what you’re trying to achieve. Begin with the end in mind.

2) Process

You know Point A and you know Point B, but what’s the best path to get there? Write the steps out that you need to complete – all decisions, all discussions – to get to the outcomes you’ve defined.

When you’re ready, send out your meeting request with the purpose, process, payoff summary to give context to your request for time. The advanced preparation will also give you more confidence in your ability to lead and get the desired outcomes you’ve identified.

Covering lots of topics? Structure and responsibility are key.

When you have a diverse agenda that includes topics from multiple people, schedule it out. Every. Single. Item. Does it sound tedious? Oh, it is, my friend. But it works. Here’s the approach I’ve used to manage meetings:

Compile and prioritize the full list of agenda items

When you have a large group of people who all need a chance to have a voice, it’s important to prioritize the order. Start with the most important items. I also like to start with standing agenda items because they don’t usually take up a lot of time.

Set a time limit and lead for each agenda item

A mentor of mine suggested that I put a start and end time on meeting agendas a few years ago. When I started doing that, it helped define expectations as to how quickly the conversation should go. I don’t always get it right, but I rarely get it completely wrong. A big part of being able to manage meetings is knowing the complexity of the issues you have to cover. I check in with the lead person on topics to get a good sense of the time they need to adequately cover everything.

My agendas look a bit like this, only with real names and real agenda items:

Item

Description

Lead

Time

1. Action Items Review Update on action items from previous meeting Jane 3:00-3:10
2. Financials Overview of April financial statements Sue 3:10-3:20

I even number background documents in meeting folders to match the corresponding number on the agenda. It makes it easy for me to find what I need to open during the meeting to show to the group.

Tips to help you manage meetings confidently and effectively

The agenda is only the outline of the plan. It’s a great tool to set you up to manage meetings well, but leading a meeting requires a little bit more.

Keep the conversation on topic

It’s easy to get off topic and start veering off in another direction, but you’ve set expectations with the planned agenda. People are investing time because of the plan you laid out. It’s okay to politely interrupt conversations and redirect the discussion. The same is true about discussions that are going on too long, particularly if it’s not accomplishing anything. This one’s a judgment call. You may have short-changed the topic, or your attendees may be getting too caught up in a non-essential or unplanned discussion.

Know when to deviate from the set agenda

In the course of conversations, you may have to re-evaluate priorities on the fly. It’s okay to shift the agenda, especially if the group agrees. But it’s important to respect the time of all your attendees; book a separate meeting if new priorities come to light.

Respect everyone’s time and contribution

Everyone needs to have a chance to speak up. As the lead, your job is to manage meetings in a way that includes everyone. Some people have a lot to say and their voice can drown out others in the room. It’s okay to respectfully and politely cut people off to move the meeting forward. However, it’s important to balance this against the contribution of what they’re saying.

Manage meetings well to save time and reduce frustration

No one should walk out of meetings confused or frustrated. That’s a sign of a meeting that wasn’t well planned, lacked clarity of goals, or wasn’t lead effectively. We all deserve to get more out of the time we spend in meetings.

Do you have more ideas to help others manage meetings well? Post them in the comments section below. 

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Karen C. Wilson, WBN President
WBN President, 2015-18
Chief Marketing Strategist and Storyteller
Karen C. Wilson Communications