Run More Effective Meetings

My colleague Steve Spurgeon spent three decades in senior leadership positions at some of the world's top PR agencies and several well-known multinationals. Today, in his role as an interpersonal communications specialist, Spurgeon challenges, inspires, and coaches business professionals to do their best work, specifically by improving how they communicate. Among his topics: running effective meetings in an age when some of us spend the equivalent of a day a week in them. Consider his advice:

1. Remember the reason for the meeting. Meetings can easily lose their focus after 15 or 20 minutes if participants get diverted by non-agenda items or distracted by the strongest voice in the room. Although it's everyone's responsibility to stick to the agenda, it's up to the meeting organizer to enforce it.

2. Engage with attendees. Actively participate in meetings. The leader deserves attendees' full attention. Participants who aren't engaged in the meeting undermine it. "The holdout takes up space and sends a nonverbal signal that the topic is too mundane to warrant interest," says Spurgeon. As a business owner, if a meeting is called that does not require your attendance, do not just show up because you're the boss. If you attend—participate.

3. Show up on time. If you are the boss—and you plan to attend—show up on time. According to Spurgeon, there is a "collective energy" and attention at the start of a meeting that evaporates with every late arrival. "Often, those with the highest titles are late and the [meeting's] leader will start the meeting over with a recap out of deference," says Spurgeon. "Early in my career, I worked for a manager who used her late arrival as way to reinforce her importance. By sweeping into the room about 10 minutes into the meeting and scooting a chair around, she would announce 'Now where are we?' In reality, she weakened her standing with colleagues who saw the ploy for what it was." The boss should respect the larger group contribution and keep the momentum going.

4. Put the BlackBerry away. "Making a show of what an adept 'multitasker' you are is not only arrogant, but rude as well," says Spurgeon. In addition, it deprives you of making your best contribution to the group. I understand, and agree, with Spurgeon's observation. But I realize this is difficult to enforce. A recent New York Times article featured high school students who send and receive hundreds of text messages a day. Some researchers quoted in the story believe these teens will be less capable of focusing their attention for long periods of time. Well, these students will soon be working for you or with you. They have a responsibility to the group, but as a meeting organizer, you have the responsibility to minimize distractions in meetings.

5. Encourage colleagues to participate. You are part of a team for a reason. The meeting's organizer and leader must make an effort to ask everyone—even reticent participants—to speak up. This can be done without intimidating people. One approach that Spurgeon recommends is encouraging attendees to comment about something related to their job or department. Once people have heard their own voice in public, it's easier for them to speak up again. Sometimes it takes encouragement to draw them out of their shell.

6. Carry your own water. According to Spurgeon, "If you have something of value to say—say it. Do not hold back waiting for someone else to say it for you." How many times have you left a meeting only to hear an employee say, "I was waiting for Joe to talk about the factory delay, but he never did," or remarks to that effect. No one can read your mind. Speak up.

7. Think before you speak. Yes, you need to carry your own water and actively participate in the meeting, but it doesn't mean that you say whatever pops into your mind. "Does your point support the reason for the meeting?" asks Spurgeon. Advance the topic, ask relevant questions, or underscore valid points. Do some self-editing before speaking up.

Most of us have the ability to communicate better—more clearly, more strongly, and more often. Use meetings as an opportunity to improve your interpersonal communication and public speaking skills. Making meetings more efficient will reduce the time you spend in them.