by Jennifer Lonoff Schiff

15 ways to make meetings more productive

May 02, 2017
IT Leadership

Business and HR experts share their top tips on what managers can do to improve meeting attendance and make them more constructive.

Let’s be honest, almost no one likes meetings. They can be disruptive, tend to go on for too long and often feel like a waste of time.

But meetings don’t have to be boring, drawn out affairs. Meetings, when done right, can produce new ideas, solve problems and help move projects forward.

Here are 15 ways you can make your organization’s meetings must-attend gatherings that make attendees feeling like they accomplished something.

[ Related: How to make meetings more productive ]

1. Determine if you really need to hold that meeting

“If your meeting can be replaced by an email or a memo, don’t hold it,” says Ross Andrew Paquette, CEO, Maropost. “Save meetings for when nothing else will do, for when you need people in the room, for when their presence is more than a courtesy but a contribution.”

“I always encourage my teams to consider whether we really need a standalone meeting on a topic or if it can be covered in email, a quick hallway conversation or combined with an existing meeting,” says Megan Kiester, vice president, HR products & technology, Expedia. “If a meeting is needed, I find that sometimes it’s best to keep [it] short as the time constraint usually helps keep people focused and on task. People’s time is valuable and someone who leads great meetings understands the importance of this.”

2. Avoid times when people are more likely to be distracted

Don’t call a meeting at the end of the day, when people would normally be getting ready to leave, or early in the morning, before the normal workday. Similarly, studies have shown that meetings held right before lunch, or during lunchtime without providing food, are less productive, as people tend to be hungry and distracted.

The best times – and days – to hold meetings? Between 9 and 11 or 2 and 4 Tuesday through Thursday.

3. Invite the right people and ensure they understand why they’re there

“Some leaders leave people out of meetings [who] should be in or invite people to meetings [who] don’t need to be [there],” says Halelly Azulay, founder & CEO, TalentGrow. So before calling the meeting, think about who really needs to be there and “invite only those who can contribute.” Then “ensure that [those] people understand why they’re invited and how you’d like them to participate.”

4. Create an agenda and email it to attendees in advance

“A successful meeting begins with an agenda sent at least two hours in advance that includes the required attendees and materials, topics to be discussed, goals and a start and stop time,” says Don Joos, president & CEO, ShoreTel. “This ensures that the meeting produces concrete results.”

Then, “once you’re in the meeting, put that agenda up on a screen or whiteboard for others to see,” says Charles Dugan, owner, American Image. “This keeps people focused.”

5. Offer incentives or rewards for attending

Aegis FinServ Corp is a prepaid debit card company. To get people to attend its meetings, the meeting leader places prepaid debit cards worth $5.00, $10.00, $25.00 and $50.00, as well as one card worth $100.00, or else gift cards (to local businesses and restaurants), in a bowl, one for every attendee. The result: “We always have 100 percent attendance,” says Jim Angleton, president, Aegis FinServ Corp.

But you don’t have to give out monetary rewards to encourage attendance. Often the promise of food and good coffee are enough.

“If you feed them, they will come,” says Deb Cohen, an HR consultant. So “offer either breakfast or lunch [or snacks], depending upon the time of the meeting,” and let attendees know in advance there will be food (or treats).  

[ Related: 8 tips to make sure your staff meeting is worth the time ]

6. Hold meetings in a bright, well-lit space with comfortable seating

“If possible, [choose a room that gets plenty of] natural light and ensure that everyone has enough space to sit comfortably,” says Jake Tully, head, Creative Department, “Forcing people [to sit for an hour or more] in a fluorescent, cramped room is the definition of office meeting drudgery.” 

7. Eliminate distractions

Ask attendees to leave all electronics (cell phones, laptops) back in their office or cubicle, unless they need their computer or tablet to present.

8. Keep meetings short

Try to keep meetings to no more than 30 minutes. People have short attention spans. By keeping meetings to 30 minutes, you have a better chance of holding people’s attention.

Similarly, if possible, present “in 5-minute chunks,” says Kelly Bedrich, cofounder, Electricity Plans. “Otherwise call a meeting to address a single, specific problem.”

9. Be prepared

“Know the names (first and last) of those you’re meeting with, do some research on the topic you’re discussing (especially if you know it’s one that you’ll need to brainstorm ideas for) and be familiar with [the agenda and] timeline,” says Deborah Sweeney, CEO,

10. Don’t be a slide-reader (and bore attendees)

“One of my biggest pet peeves in meetings is when the host reads directly, verbatim, from the presentation they’re sharing,” says Richard Heby, content manager, LiquidSpace. “The point of a meeting is to offer insight on a topic, not just share a document, spreadsheet or deck.

“When presenting, hold your audience’s attention by offering information that they can’t immediately grasp from the presentation,” he advises. “Show them something they’re not seeing. Otherwise you’re providing no added value beyond the document itself.” And you could have just sent them the presentation instead of forcing them to attend a meeting.

11. Don’t lecture

“If your meeting consists of one person talking, you’re not holding a meeting, you’re holding a lecture,” says Paquette. “Participation is what makes a meeting.” So encourage people to ask questions or share information.

12. Stay on topic

“A common mistake that meeting leaders make is being overly polite to attendees,” says Joos. “If the conversation is getting off topic, don’t be afraid to intervene and bring the conversation back to the outlined topics, and table any relevant points raised for a future discussion.”

13. Don’t forget about virtual attendees

If you invite people to virtually attend your meeting, make sure the technology is in place for them to attend virtually (audio only or video) and then don’t forget about them.

“When you’re physically present in a meeting, you feel more included and more comfortable chiming in with your ideas and opinions,” notes Pat Harper, CTO, PGi. However, “when you’re attending a meeting virtually, the lack of physical presence makes it more difficult to participate in the discussion.” Therefore, meeting leaders “should make a habit of verbally checking in with remote workers as important questions are raised or key discussion topics are introduced, [so] virtual meeting members feel included.” 

14. Capture decisions, action items and next steps

“You may have had a wildly productive meeting, but if the decisions weren’t captured, it could be as if [the meeting] never happened, says Leigh Espy, project/process advisor, FedEx. Therefore, it’s important to “capture action items and target dates [during the meeting], along with the next steps the group identified to keep the momentum and progress [going]. Documenting and sharing these with others helps with communication and accountability. It provides a historical record if needed by your team. And everyone knows what’s expected next.”

15. Do a quick recap at the end

“Spend the last two minutes clearly covering action items: who will cover them and a target date for when they’ll be accomplished,” says Bedrich. This way people will leave the meeting with a sense of purpose.