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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

From Chaos to Control: How to Lead Super-Productive Meetings

If you’ve ever led a meeting, you’ve probably also experienced trying to pull back a session that has quickly taken a turn for the chaotic.

Maybe you’re dealing with an extra talkative bunch—or that one person who seems to have the attention span of a four-year-old. Perhaps everyone there has a great idea to share—or maybe the royal baby was finally named, and it’s all anyone can talk about.

Whatever the reason, meetings can, and do, spiral out of control. But if you’re in charge of the gathering, you want to seem on top of things and avoid wasting everybody’s time with inefficient meetings.

Keeping the group on track can be easier said than done, but with some smart planning and a few day-of strategies, you’ll be on your way to more focused team meetings.

Start With a Plan

The first step in establishing control is preparing an agenda. And I mean, a good, old-fashioned, typed-up agenda that can be sent around to the attendees ahead of time (and then displayed or handed out at the meeting as a friendly reminder). It may feel too obvious to write everything down, but trust me, having a few details on paper will help keep you—and everyone else—focused on what the meeting’s really about.

When putting together your plan, think about the ultimate goal you’re looking to achieve in the meeting (e.g., is it a brainstorming session, or do you need to finalize some key action items?). Then, work backward to determine what needs to be discussed to reach that goal, what questions need to be answered, and what responsibilities need to be assigned. Make sure any of these loose ends have a place on the agenda, so everyone knows what to expect before they arrive.

In addition to these agenda items, also think about the people who will be attending. How many people will there be? Do they know each other? What are their personalities? What typically distracts them? This will help you decide if you need to build in any extra time at the beginning of the session. For example, if you know your meeting attendees will want engage in personal talk before getting started, plan a few minutes of time for everyone to get the chatter out of their systems before getting down to business.

Facilitate for Focus

Your next step is to create a meeting space that discourages distraction and interruptions. Start with the physical space, making sure the room is closed off from outside noise and conversations and free of visual distractions like a looping video screen or materials on the table. And just before the meeting starts, put your phone away and close your laptop—it’s a subtle sign to others that they should do the same.

Then, set the stage for productivity. Make sure the agenda is available—either by having printed copies or by pulling it up on the screen—and be sure to restate the goals for the meeting while you’re welcoming everyone (e.g., “We’re here today to finalize the details for the fundraising event.”). Also, be sure to remind people of when the meeting is supposed to be wrapping up. Simply saying, “I know we’ve all got a lot to do, so let’s try and keep this under 30 minutes,” will remind people that you want an efficient meeting just as much as they do.

On more of a logistical note, if you have additional meeting materials, pass them out as you go along rather than at the beginning of the session. I’ve heard others suggest that this approach is distracting, but I’ve learned that the majority of people will read ahead and derail meetings if they have the opportunity to see what’s coming up.

Bringing the Group Back

A clear agenda and a clean meeting space go a long way in keeping things on track, but no matter how carefully you plan your meeting, distractions can still happen. That’s where the art of the transition comes into play. Before you go into a meeting, be sure you’re armed with a few polite, yet effective, ways to redirect the conversation back where you want it. Here are a couple of my favorites:

  • The Bounce-Back: If someone moves on to a different topic before one question is answered, acknowledge the new subject, but bring the discussion back to the topic at hand: “That’s definitely an area we need to discuss, but before we do, let’s wrap up our conversation on the seating chart.”
  • The Parking Lot: This strategy involves keeping a list of topics you want to acknowledge but not discuss at this time. That way, if someone interrupts with something off-topic, you can just say, “That’s a great conversation that deserves its own time. I’ll note it for later, but for now, let’s get back to the event details.” Then write it down to come back to at the end of the meeting (or set a time to talk about it later).
  • The Time-Keeper: If you find the group spending too much time talking about unrelated things, remind them that you all want to get out of there on time: “Great conversation here, but we only have about 10 minutes left, so let’s be sure to stay on track.”

    Wrap it Up

    Just like a good essay (yes, we all remember those), you should wrap up your meeting with a brief summary. Clearly state what was accomplished and any subsequent to-dos, next steps, or responsibilities. This doesn’t need to be detailed—in fact, it shouldn’t last more than a minute or two—but it helps put a bow on your meeting to say something like: “Thanks everyone. We’ve made great progress on finalizing the event logistics. Emily will contact the event coordinator with these details, and I’ll be sending out an email list of everyone’s final to-dos.”

    Let’s face it, when you put a bunch of people in a small room, it can be difficult to establish and maintain control. Going into your next meeting with a plan, an agenda, and some key lines to get everyone back on track can make all the difference.

    Tell us! How do you keep control of your meetings?

    Photo of meeting courtesy of Shutterstock.