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Making the most out of meetings

By Kelly Cullison

I attended a "project status update" meeting yesterday; let me describe it to you. The meeting had been scheduled two weeks ago for 9am. Six people were scheduled to participate (including the moderator). One of the invitees was 10 minutes late because he couldn't find the right room. Another never showed up (he may still be wandering around looking for us). Four were actually on time, including yours truly. The meeting kicked off at 9:14, after typical office banter had been exchanged. Two of the participants debated the purpose of the meeting for about 7 minutes. Another left to get a soda...you get the picture. The point is, this was a very bad meeting. My time is valuable; please don't waste it with poorly planned and executed meetings. That said, what could have been done to make this meeting productive?

If You're the Moderator

* Decide if a meeting is really needed. This seems obvious, but do you really need to convene a meeting to present a status update, or would a memo suffice? Hold meetings to solve problems, not as update forums.

* Rethink your list of attendees. Do they all need to be present? Attendance and productivity seem inversely related - the more attendees you have, the less productive your meeting will be.

* Confirm with all attendees the day prior to the meeting, especially if the meeting was arranged several days in advance. Provide them with the time, location and directions if necessary.

Time the meeting appropriately. Some ideas:

* Schedule it before lunch or quitting time to eliminate unnecessary discussion and encourage participants to focus on the task at hand.

* Schedule the meeting for an odd time, such as 4:13. Strangely, this seems to improve punctuality.

* Don't wait for latecomers, unless they are critical to the start of the meeting.

* Set not only the starting time, but the ending time as well.

* Schedule the meeting far enough in advance to allow participants to plan their schedules.

* Use an agenda to keep the meeting on track. Distribute the agenda in advance, to allow participants to prepare appropriately. This prevents debates about the purpose of the meeting. The agenda should cover the 5 Ws: who, what, where, when, why.

* Develop an action plan at the end. An action plan ensures the meeting will be productive. Assign responsibility to specific people and give them due dates. Distribute the action plan to all participants.

When You're Not the Moderator

* Rethink your attendance. Is your presence needed? If not, inform the moderator and spend your time doing something more productive.

* Confirm location and time the day before the meeting if the moderator has not done so.

* Be on time.

* Be prepared.

* Stay focused on the discussion; do not stray to topics outside the scope of the meeting.

One-on-One Meetings

In general, the same rules apply, but here are some additional tips to consider:

* While it's important to be on time, try not to arrive too early. This implies that you have time to waste.

* Keep busy while you are waiting; this communicates the message that you have things you need to be doing. Plus, you'll get stuff done!

* Don't wait more than 15 minutes, unless you feel you absolutely must. If 15 minutes have passed, try to reschedule the meeting with your contact's assistant.

Online Meetings

Online meetings have some unique differences.

* Online meetings tend to eliminate gender and age boundaries, encouraging people who would not normally speak up to do so. This is a good thing!

* On the flip side, online meetings can allow people to hide, or lurk, in the shadows. The moderator should monitor participation and encourage all participants to share. Periodically check with lurkers by sending a private message (known as a "whisper"). Make sure they are following the discussion; they may need clarification on a point before they feel comfortable posting a comment.

* If you're the moderator, regulate the pace of the conversation. You may need to jump in if conversation lags, or recap portions of the conversation to allow participants to catch up.

* Most systems provide a whiteboard, use it! A whiteboard is a great way for sharing drawings, or keeping a list of issues that come up during the meeting. Assign one person, a scribe, to keep track of "follow-up issues" on the whiteboard.

Meetings can be good things (really) if handled properly. With a little foresight and planning, your meetings can be productive uses of your time to help further your and your clients' success.

(c) Kelly Cullison

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Kelly Cullison is a Birmingham, AL-based virtual assistant and the founder of Atlas Virtual Services. Atlas provides a wide range of administrative support for small businesses so entrepreneurs can focus on the core functions of running their businesses. Visit Atlas at http://www.atlasvs.com, or email mailto:kelly@atlasvs.com.