Make meetings matter

HRM 09 Nov 2012

Do you remember the last time you delivered a great meeting presentation – nods of agreement, laughter at the right points, no one yawning in the back (or front) stalls…

It sounds easy but holding an engaging meeting – whether it’s for an intimate small team or for a conference room full of people – is a fine art. It’s also something that many HR professionals dread. Increasingly being asked to speak in front of the executive team, or indeed to wider workplace teams, all but the most outgoing meeting facilitators amongst the HR fraternity will freeze at the thought of getting up in front of peers and presenting with confidence.

It need not be the case. Here’s a sure-fire roadmap to success.

Set an agenda and get the people there

Too many people find meetings wasteful and not beneficial to their work. Grant Emanuel, a self-proclaimed ‘king of meetings’ and senior product manager, Avery Dennison, says his first piece of advice for meeting facilitators is to always double-check that the people invited can add value. “If you don’t think they need to be there, then don’t invite them – send them an email and update them in a written manner after the meeting,” he suggests.

When a meeting request is sent, set the agenda in the subject or body of the email. Include a summary of all those who will be attending, including their role and responsibilities for being there so all involved are well aware of what they bring to the table and can prepare adequately.

If it is a large meeting involving various stakeholders from different places, states or even countries, take advantage of free Cloud tools such as Dropbox to upload any information they need to bring along with them. This tool can include videos, images and summaries which will be accessible anywhere at any time, and also removes the hassle of trying to send large files.

Don’t just presume those who you have invited will attend, Emanuel adds. Keep track of meeting request acceptances and make sure you contact those who have not responded. A simple reminder can make all the difference and ensure you don’t rock up on the day with a half empty room or table. “Perhaps you could award a reward for the first lot of people to RSVP. If it’s going to help make your time more productive, why not?” he suggests.

When it comes to opening the meeting itself, Dr Ken Hudson, author of the international series The Idea Generator, The Idea Accelerator and Speed Thinking suggests highlighting the goals and outcomes of the meetings up front. “This will help attendees ask relevant questions without wasting anyone’s time. Design the meeting around the set goals – including the invitation list. If the purpose of the meeting is purely to inform, rather than to collaborate send an email or update via the intranet.”

Think outside the box

Don’t feel restricted to the board room. Removing the four walls of office can usually open up free communication and can help get creative ideas flowing. Depending on the people and the agenda for the meeting, Emanuel suggests changing it up a bit to help create a sensory experience for all those involved. He suggests taking the meeting outdoors to a local park, a beach or café to ensure attendees are comfortable and the meeting is met with enthusiasm.

Dr Hudson says meetings reflect the culture and values of the organisation. They should also reflect the drive and passion of the leaders in the business. “Consider this when designing meetings and in particular the management and delivery of the meetings. Meetings can create or destroy company culture,” he says.

Keep it moving

In this meeting-jaded age the trick is to engage people early. Emanuel suggests something as basic as putting up a picture of something amusing or something that’s metaphorically relevant to the topic can get people thinking. Alternatively, ask people if they are happy with the agenda or would like to add something or move items around. Not only does this get people involved, it also helps to set the tone for the meeting: yes, questions are ok.

In fact, Dr Hudson notes that rigidly sticking to a set agenda means that people lose focus on the real point – an outcome. He too recommends keeping meetings open for questions. “Remember the most valuable ideas come from your people so give them a chance to share,” he says. “Explore side avenues briefly – if there seems to be a lot of interest and energy in those, then decide if the side avenue is actually where the action is or take it up separately with the protagonists and see how you can harness their enthusiasm and give them positive feedback for their contribution.”

Visual cues can also avoid the dreaded ‘death by PowerPoint’ malaise that affects so many meetings. “There’s nothing worse than going to a meeting and seeing a PowerPoint screen with 250 words on that screen – and the meeting facilitator reads every word. The less words the better.”

If PowerPoint must be used, Emanuel suggests using more images than text. The images can also act as a cue to the facilitator to move through their list of key points.

Tools for attendees also need to be considered. Take a kit including pens (that work!) and notepads. Name tags with the attendees’ name and role are a handy way to ensure Larry doesn’t mistake Bob for Pete. Also ensure that key points in printed handouts are easily found – Emanuel suggests using tabbing products to assist with quick access to information.

“Don’t forget plenty of fluid, fruit and or lollies to ensure everyone is alert and hydrated for the full duration of the meeting,” he adds.

Short and sweet – or not at all

Dr Hudson suggests reducing standard meeting times. “Our electronic calendars default to a set time, in many cases one hour. Reduce this to 30 minutes. Most people find that this makes no difference to the productivity of the meeting but makes a huge difference to the overall productivity, particularly when there are many meeting participants who join many meetings each day,” he says.

“If people know they have 30 minutes for most meetings they’ll dispense with the rambling intros and personal weekend accounts and get straight into productive work. That’s more energising for everyone in the meeting and rewards the more organised and focused individuals.”

In addition, consider holding a short daily meeting and cancel a longer weekly one. Change the metaphorical term for your meeting – use words like, ‘scrum’, ‘muster’ or ‘huddle’ and encourage the meeting to move quickly by having people stand instead of sitting. Use this meeting to highlight brief achievements over the past 24 hours and run through what needs to be done next and ensuring bottlenecks are removed. The daily meetings are effective because they are short (10-15mins), everyone is involved in at least one daily huddle and it covers key results and metrics.

Alternatively, to keep the whole thing fresh, have a ‘meeting free day’. Create a day where there are no meetings. This can be a day where employees can catch up on projects and work that needs to be done. Alternatively, keep 20% of your day free from meetings so you can keep on top of other activities.

Summarise and finish with a bang

For optimal ‘take-away value’ it’s best to finish off any meeting or presentation with a bang by making an impact at the conclusion. It might be a video that makes people laugh, an image that is a bit silly. Alternatively it might be something more serious or a call to action that might leave a mark on the audience.

Make sure you finish every meeting with a ‘thank you’ and ensure time for an open forum or Q&A to ensure everyone is on the same page. If circumstances (and size of group) permit, it’s also great to allow some time for a little social activity to help establish and develop relationships further.

Most importantly, make sure you create a meeting summary to send your attendees which clearly states the next point of call. This also gives you a written record of all that was discussed for future reference. Free online tools such as Wunderlist can be helpful for managing a tasks list which can be accessed by and shared with all attendees and worked on collaboratively. It can be used everywhere on the go via iPhone, Android, the iPad, on PC & Mac or online with the new browser version. This allows you to keep track of activities needed for completion between one meeting and the next.

Any questions?

If preparation is crucial to the actual presentation or meeting agenda, it’s equally important to prepare for the feedback session that typically follows. Survey meeting attendees and encourage honest and constructive criticism. Make meetings an opportunity for feedback. Ask simple questions at the end of a meeting. Was this a good use of your time? Have you learned or shared anything that will help us achieve our company goals? Can you explain the purpose of this meeting? What would you suggest is a better way to get the result we’re looking for?

A presenter’s greatest fear is not knowing the answer to an audience member’s question and thus losing control of the situation.

Here’s how to stay in control:

1  Preparation is key

Always be prepared from the outset, even if you’re not sure if there will even be a formal Q&A session. You never know when ‘impromptu’ questions might arise. So what do you need to do?

Start by anticipating and making a list of questions that are likely to be prompted by your presentation. This includes negative questions that aim to dig holes in your position or your message. Once you’ve done this, prepare a response for each and make it part of your rehearsal.

2  Restate each question clearly

You’ve completed your presentation, it went well and now you open the floor to a Q&A session. What should you do when the questions start coming?

Avoid giving the wrong answer or facts: make sure you listen closely and stop yourself from interrupting.

Pause before answering and keep your focus on the questioner. This is a great trick to ensure that everyone present (including you), has heard the question properly, and it gives you an extra few moments to compose your thoughts.

3  What if there is a domineering questioner in the room?

If someone starts to dominate the Q&A session, you might want to:

•        Respond to the first question or comment politely.

•        Use a tactic such as, “we’ve heard from this side of the room” and then, walk over to the side from which you have not had a question.

•        Keep the session moving and try to answer a question from a different person each time, in order to avoid any one person monopolising the discussion and to give the audience more opportunities for input.

4  Handling hostile questions

Hostile questions pose a particular challenge, and they can come in a variety of formats. How do you stay in control?

Remain calm. Take a moment to think through your response, stick to the facts and answer the question carefully. It is perfectly acceptable for you to disagree on a point that’s been made, but make sure you are not criticising the questioner or the question that’s been asked.

5  Awkward silence

What if there are no questions from the floor? Here are some useful tricks:

•        Ask the audience what they think about your presentation. Do they agree with you? Do they have other opinions?

•        Plant a colleague or a friend in the audience. Make sure you choose people who are trustworthy and will ask questions that will spark the process.

•        Some people may prefer to ask questions on a 1:1 basis, rather than in the presence of an entire room. Offer to take questions in private too at the end of your presentation to facilitate them.

6  Don’t be a know-it-all

You can craft a great presentation and deliver it brilliantly. But if you fumble when responding to questions, you will risk sinking your credibility and the success of the presentation. Here are some useful tips:

•        If you don’t know the answer, let the questioner know that you don’t have the information to answer right at the moment but offer to revert back at a later time.

•        Do not speak outside of your area of expertise. Remember, you are not expected to know everything.

•        Ensure your tone and body language is open: arms uncrossed and speak with an even tone.

•        Turn the tables: ask if anyone in the audience has had experience and would like to share their insights if the Q&A turns to an aspect of the topic that you are unfamiliar with.

Virtual meetings

Collaboration technology is making it easier than ever before to connect with clients and colleagues regardless of distance. Here are a few quick tips to get you on your way to having more professional virtual meetings:

•        Ensure engagement: To ensure people are focused throughout a call, keeping them on their toes will decrease the amount of time they spend multi-tasking. If you’re presenting, ask lots of questions and make calls as interactive as possible.

•        Be organised: Send through a meeting agenda in advance, and ask attendees to come prepared with information they want to discuss in the meeting too. Not only will this help more people get involved, but it will also mean the meeting is likely to stay on track and not go off at tangents.

•        Cut out the noise: You wouldn’t expect interruptions in a face-to-face meeting, so for those that are frequently on the move and have to take conference calls on the run, make sure conference details are included in the Outlook invitation, along with instructions to mute/un-mute their line to block out background noise.

•        Seeing is believing: With technology opening up more doors than ever before, the ability to use web conferencing in conjunction with the telephone means that it’s possible to see people on webcams throughout the meeting too. Having some face-to-face time makes things far more personal.


Top tips Body language

•        Position your head level both horizontally and vertically when you want to appear authoritative and want what you say to be taken seriously.

•        Keep your arms to the side of your body or behind your back- this shows you are not scared to take on whatever comes your way.

•        Palms facing slightly up and outward is seen as open and friendly. Palm down gestures are generally seen as dominant and possibly aggressive

•        Posture is important – slouching collapses the chest and inhibits good breathing, which can contribute to making you feel nervous or uncomfortable.


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