CAREER COLUMN

The 11-step guide to running effective meetings

The quality and outcomes of meetings can improve drastically with a few simple steps.
Nadine Sinclair is a managing director of the consulting and coaching firm Mind Matters in Sliema, Malta, and is the author of On Track, a project-management guide for early-stage researchers.

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Meeting Table

Credit: Getty

We all know what a bad meeting looks like.

You are on your way to the meeting room, but you have no idea what the meeting is about.

You are in the meeting asking yourself, “Why am I here?”

The conversation gets hung up on details or gets sidetracked entirely.

People are looking at their phones or working on their laptops during the meeting.

The meeting seems to drag on and on although it was supposed to end 20 minutes ago.

There are plenty of people in the room, but not the decision makers.

After the meeting, you feel no closer to the answers you were seeking.

You leave the meeting unsure of whether anything was decided.

There are ways to combat these problems. Running effective meetings is a skill that can serve you throughout your career. Here is an 11-step guide to doing just that.

1. Do you need a meeting?

Before you move ahead with an in-person meeting, ask yourself if your goals can be accomplished more easily with an e-mail or a phone call. If so, avoid organizing a meeting — be protective of your own and others’ time.

Before the meeting: set expectations

2. Define the objective

The first step to a good meeting is defining the meeting objective — the ‘why’. This will aid in keeping the discussion focused and will help to measure the success of your meeting.

If you’re certain a meeting is necessary, determine its aim. Most meetings belong to one of four categories, each of which has a distinct objective:

Decision-making: the aim is for decision makers to come to a conclusion that leads to action, such as deciding to change an experimental set-up.

Information sharing: the objective is to spread awareness to a broader team, for example by sharing your latest experimental data.

Problem-solving: the goal is to crowdsource advice and build a plan based on that knowledge, such as by discussing ways to optimize an experimental set-up.

Discussion: the purpose is to exchange perspectives on a topic, such as by discussing the implications of a recently published paper.

3. Set an agenda

Vague discussions on a topic rarely achieve anything, and an agenda will ensure that you cover the specific aspects needed to reach your meeting objective. At the same time, it will inform and set expectations with attendees. It is the ‘what’ of your meeting.

Your agenda might have only a few items. That’s perfectly fine as long as it is clear how each agenda item relates to your desired objective; keep your goals specific and declarative.

4. Keep it short

Your meetings should be as long as necessary but as brief as possible. Reserve five minutes at the end to summarize the discussions and agree on any next steps.

5. Get the right people in the room

Before sending out an invitation, take some time to consider who should attend the meeting. It is tempting to be inclusive, but sometimes having more people in the room makes meetings harder. Think of the minimum number of people that you need to achieve the meeting objective. Make sure that the people who are essential to your meeting are aware of their roles.

6. Circulate materials

In addition to sending an invitation stating the objective and the agenda for the meeting, circulate relevant materials at least one day before. Receiving materials in advance allows attendees to prepare for the discussion and is an opportunity to remind them of the meeting and its objectives.

During the meeting: keep the focus

7. Start on time, end on time

Time management is an essential aspect of running productive meetings. Start and finish your meeting on time, and keep an eye on the agenda and the clock.

8. Guide the discussion and manage disruptions

Guiding the discussion and managing disruptions are probably the most challenging parts of running a meeting, especially if you are not the most senior person in the room. Your role is to keep the discussion focused so that you can meet your objectives.

A helpful technique for guiding a discussion is to capture important points on a board and mark them as subsequent agenda points or flag them for a follow-up meeting. You might say, “This is beyond what we are here to discuss today. Let me capture it on the board for our next meeting.” This way, your attendees feel acknowledged, but you do not let them sidetrack or disrupt your meeting.

9. Summarize decisions and next steps

Make sure you take notes throughout the meeting. It can help to have a printout of your presentation so that you can capture the main discussion points as they come up. Wrap up at the end by summarizing the main points and decisions as well as any next steps you agreed on.

After the meeting: manage the follow-up

10. Circulate the meeting debrief

Your meeting notes will be the basis for a debrief to be circulated among attendees, summarizing the discussion points, decisions made, next steps and topics earmarked for future discussions. For the next steps, make sure that you include the responsible person as well as the agreed deadline. A best practice is to circulate the debrief within 24 hours of the meeting to keep the momentum going. If there’s nothing written down, then the results of a meeting can fade into nothing.

11. Follow up on action items

Last but not least, follow up individually on the action items if needed.

Even if you are not in charge of running meetings, sharing some of the above points with your colleagues or using these guidelines to initiate a discussion can be the first step to making meetings more effective in your research group.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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