How to Run an Efficient Meeting

Many people spend a significant percentage of working time in meetings, and without structure they can waste time. Here are some tips for running an efficient meeting.

Before the Meeting

Planning is vital. Your meeting should have a clear purpose. It could be to share information, make a decision, resolve an escalation, or something else, but without a purpose you will not be able to plan. Holding the meeting should be a more effective use of your time or your team’s time than not.

Some examples of regular meeting with intended purpose:

  • A daily five-minute stand-up to share current work efforts on a project.
  • A weekly 30-minute one-on-one with a manager to plan project next steps and share feedback as needed.
  • A weekly 45-minute check-in with senior management to escalate blocked tasks for action and provide status updates on known risks.

Your meeting should have clear roles that help fulfill the meeting’s clear purpose, and each person attending the meeting should know their role. Here are some common roles:

  • Leader: whoever convened the meeting and will end the meeting when the agenda is completed. There should be an obvious backup in case the leader is away.
  • Timekeeper: the “enforcer” who will help to keep the meeting on track and on time if the leader is focused elsewhere.
  • Note-taker: the person who produces a record of the meeting. Not assigning this role is the most common mistake we see meeting organizers make. However, anyone attending meetings has the authority (and responsibility) to correct this. If you find yourself in a meeting where it’s unclear who is taking notes, you should ask.
  • Stakeholder: someone with decision-making authority who can make a decision or help make a decision in or after the meeting.
  • Information recipient: someone whose job is to listen and ask clarifying questions. Meetings with people in this role are often about information dispersal.
  • Observer (optional): attends the meeting and provide feedback about your presentation and facilitation skills.

As a general rule, once you get into the double digits of attendees, you need to take a hard look at your list. Decide whether everyone truly needs to be there. If you have people on the list without clear roles, ask yourself if they can read the notes afterward and take them off the invite.  

Your meeting should also have a helpful calendar invite. Don’t assume all meetings have to be 30 or 60 minutes; consider booking 15- or 45-minute meetings so that participants have time to breathe before or after.

A side benefit of a 45-minute meeting: the “unused” 15 minutes are generally available as flex time if needed. If necessary, invites should have links to agendas and conference call information; if hosting guests in a building, consider including directions to the meeting room.

Agenda

Your meeting should have a complete agenda. The agenda both has the content of the meeting and tells you when the meeting is over. When the agenda is completed, the meeting should end.

Depending on the nature of the meeting, the format might be a short list of topics in the meeting invite or a detailed document listing speakers and subjects. With a clear agenda, you will be able to stay on track during the meeting and avoid filling time when topics are exhausted.

Withholding an agenda is sometimes a valid tactical choice if you want a more free-flowing discussion, but the meeting organizer should still have a list of essential topics.

Your agenda needs to be delivered with sufficient advance notice to be useful. For some groups, that might be an hour’s warning so that people walking to the meeting can prepare themselves while en-route or while waiting for the meeting to start.

For other groups, you will need to allow more time — especially if you will expect others to present or lead discussion. For recurring meetings, a consistent time for distributing the agenda will help your participants build a habit of preparation and avoid the “I’m sorry, this is all new to me. Can we start at the beginning?” syndrome when people jump into a meeting cold.

Your agenda may need clear guidance for presenters and the audience about your expectations. That may be a quick timing note such as “Topic A: 5 min” or a guide for participation such as “Topic B: Discussion and Decision.”

If you have items on the agenda that are announcements and not for discussion or decision, make that clear. Many times, questions can be asked elsewhere, keeping the meeting more efficient and useful for everyone.

Your agenda should say or ideally link to where notes will be taken. That makes sure that you don’t have to scramble when the meeting starts, and makes note-taking easy to pick up if the note-taker isn’t available. Sometimes, you can take notes within the agenda, which limits post-meeting paperwork; other times, it will be appropriate to split out agenda and notes. Do what makes sense and stay consistent.

Right Before the Meeting

A few minutes before your meeting, send a reminder with the agenda, mentioning anyone by name that is particularly needed. Even well-organized people will find these notifications helpful.

If running the meeting, be early. This will give you time to check your technical setup and make sure the phone, projecting, or videoconferencing equipment is working. This is both considerate to remote employees and makes you appear more competent — no one looks classy when futzing with cords and remotes. Arriving at the meeting start time means you’re late.

Starting

To build good habits, you need to consistently start your meetings on time. If you start late, people will shift their own schedules in response, and you’ll find that people will be comfortable coming later and later.

If starting on time is difficult for your team or agency’s culture, consider moving the official start time to five minutes past the hour.

Start meetings with pleasantries and establish a friendly tone. You don’t know what your meeting’s participants were doing before the meeting; some deliberate tone-setting helps “cleanse the social palette” for your attendees.

Next, establish your meeting’s purpose and ask if anyone has items to add to the agenda. Spoiler alert: people will typically not have additions, but this helps establish your authority and prevent future attempted derails. After this, establish your meeting’s roles. This is when you should name a timekeeper and note taker, and appoint someone to these roles if necessary. If you are attending a meeting, you should feel empowered to ask who is taking notes or start taking them yourself.

Recognize that it’s not necessary to be a stenographer to take good notes. Capturing dialogue verbatim isn’t as important as capturing the underlying meaning of comments and presentations. Passages can be left incomplete in order to capture all major points if the meeting moves quickly, then revisited on the same day of the meeting to clean up and flesh out anything unclear while it’s fresh in your memory. Be sure to pay special attention to capture specific decisions and assigned tasks; those are the crucial details.

After covering introductory material, do introductions if necessary. The note-taker should be able to check people off of the meeting invite or add other attendees to the list as needed. Pay special attention to the titles of people in the meeting, since this is often your only chance to capture that information without being rude.

If your meeting is too large for introductions, have your note-taker quickly run through the expected attendees and capture anyone not on the list.  

Staying on Track

As you get into your agenda, make a conscious effort to respect and uphold your agenda. This will help the room stay on track. If you need to depart from the agenda, do so deliberately: “I know this isn’t on the agenda, but let’s spend five minutes on this given the timeliness.” This will help you get back on track when possible and maintain your leadership of the room. If you struggle with timekeeping, consider empowering a separate timekeeper to help track and enforce the agenda.

If people show up late and need to get up to speed, kindly and firmly refer them to the agenda notes before answering their questions so that the room’s time isn’t wasted. Rewarding someone who shows up late harms a culture of timeliness.

Develop a presentation style through iterative practice and feedback that allows you to speak with confidence and nicely keep the meeting on track and free of distractions. The meeting’s participants will respect your efficiency and good use of their time — especially managers and executives.

When leading a discussion, pay attention to who has a loud voice in the room and elevate other voices to ensure the meeting is useful to everyone. You can seek feedback with a show of hands and call of people that didn’t talk as much in the meeting. When moving on from a topic, be deliberate and don’t allow someone to keep the conversation frozen because they are emphatic — that rewards their insistence and harms your authority.

Wrapping Up

If you’ve planned your meeting correctly, you should always aim to end the meeting a little early. People will be more likely to show up to future meetings when they know their time won’t be wasted.

When you are ready to end the meeting, go through the meeting notes. Every action item needs a goal, an owner, and a timeline, such as “Alex will get the statement of work drafted by December 10.” This will be easiest to recap if your note-taker is consciously building the due-outs section during the meeting; otherwise, use this time in the meeting to build the list of due outs with participants.

You must have enough time to cover these next steps verbally with all accountable attendees. This avoids miscommunication and makes them enforceable.

After the Meeting

When the meeting is over, actually end the meeting and make sure people leave. “Meetings after the meeting” are tempting but often waste time without clear structure. They are also unfriendly for any remote attendees.

If the meeting ended early, use extra minutes to process the notes for inaccuracies while everything is fresh in your head. Send notes and action items out in writing, with explicit owners and timelines for all next steps in the notes.

 

Source: General Services Administration: https://18f.gsa.gov/