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Why meetings kill both desire and time and what you can do about it

”I go crazy about ineffective and pointless meetings. As soon as an issue needs to be discussed there must be a meeting. Some of the participants are always late. Others will not show up or come unprepared and some don't even understand why they are there.”

How does that attitude make you feel? This is actually what I hear all the time from customers and partners. Meetings are a constant problem and it's really strange because it's so easy to actually make good use of a meeting.

First, the danger of meetings:

• They break up your day into small disjointed parts that makes it hard to focus on your tasks.
• They are usually just about words and abstract concepts, not real things.
• They usually provide a minimal distribution of information per minute.
• They usually contain at least one babble mill not waiting for his/her turn to speak and/or talks about unimportant things too long.
• They make thoughts wander in other directions instead of focusing on the meeting's purpose.
• They usually have an agenda that is so vague that no one really knows why you have the meeting.
• They require careful preparation that hardly anyone does, anyway.
• People who don't arrive on time steal other people's time.

What I am trying to say here, is that meetings in lots of different ways only invite people to waste valuable time.

A good meeting should at least:
• Be efficient - get things done.
• Be positive and fun - so the participants have fun and look forward to the next meeting.
• Have everyone participate - so that everyone is active, instead of letting your mind wander over to making plans for the upcoming weekend.
• Take care of creativity - so the thinking departs from the ordinary and challenges new areas.

Lots and lots have been written about how to think when you need to hold a meeting. This is what we usually hear:

• Start on time.
• Stop time.
• Have a clear purpose.
• Stick to the purpose.
• Have the right participants.

But where did the inspiration and the fun go?

Do you think that the words ”inspiration”, ”fun” and ”meeting” doesn't fit into the same sentence? Unfortunately many people do and they believe that meeting means boring. They go in, sit down in their usual place and prepare for the usual mumbo jumbo. Others do have fun at meetings, but instead spend their time joking and having so much fun that they don't do anything worthwhile. I’m guessing you recognize both varieties. The key is all about making it fun in the right way. It's all about your willingness to think creatively and also be willing to occasionally permit some fun.

Meetings can be both more fun and productive at the same time. Here are some suggestions:

• Most people learn by doing, so if you can - try to make the participants involved by having them actively try things themselves instead of just talking, or try to connect what you talk about to something that can be easily compared in some way. Why not submit a quiz to each participant when discussing how you will solve a problem and evaluate the outcome?

• Simply compete! If you are going to come up with something interesting quickly ,you can give participants five minutes to find a solution divided into different groups. Then vote for the best idea and award prizes in various categories.

• If your meetings are usually dominated by a few people - hand out a small pile of coins to each participant and for each time someone speaks, it'll cost him/her a dime.

• When you call people to a meeting - do it as you would a party invitation instead of a boring formal e-mail. Create expectations.

• Do whatever it takes to get the group to move once in awhile.

• If the meeting is held with a group of people who don't know each other, don't make the mistake of letting everyone present himself/herself. The only thing you get is a group of individuals who won't listen to what the others say because they are so deeply focused on what to say about themselves. Instead let the participants get a few minutes to talk to the person next to him/her to find out who they are and then that person can do the presentation of his/her neighbor to the rest of the group.

• If you show images in slides, occasionally sneak in a completely irrelevant picture to keep the listeners awake and alert.

• Hold the meeting somewhere other than at the office - on the lawn in the park, perhaps. And if you can't leave the office - decorate the meeting room differently. Put up things that makes you happy; toys, funny pictures, things that employ the hands of those who attend the meeting. Stress Balls, cozy pillows. Be creative. You have to be happy and relaxed to be creative.
New Age nonsense, some may say. Time and money, I respond. If you can inspire your participants with a relaxed environment, meetings will become a plain cash machine for your business.

• Play the theme from the movie “Misson: Impossible” at the start of the meeting if it's suitable.

• Open the meeting with something positive. If the meeting starts with whining and complaints, it will continue to be negative throughout the meeting. Why not let those who want share something good that has happened since last time, or mention the name of a person who did something good last week? Or tell people about something he/she looks forward to.

• Have a “speaking item” – a rabbit or huge teddy bear that anyone who talks must hold while speaking.

• Use water guns that everyone may use against those who are unnecessarily negative, arrive late or interfere with the speaker.

• Ignore the chairs - stand up instead - or sit on Pilates balls maybe, or on huge pillows, or anything that eliminates the school environment situation where you or someone else is standing in front of a whiteboard and talk, while participants sit and listen.

• Plan for a small break for at least five minutes every hour (don't expect the people who need to go to the bathroom to listen to what you say for very long). But here's a good thing that I've learned from a good friend – also take a two minute break every hour to stretch your legs or talk to the person sitting next to you. This is hugely effective for rigid minds and tired bodies. You can use a kitchen timer to ring every 30 minutes as a reminder.

• Use silence as a deliberate strategy. This is bold and effective because meetings are held for people to talk – wrong! Meetings are held for people to come up with new ideas, solutions, plans and decisions that are so good that you want to use them. You want the time you have sat and talked to really lead to some improvements and other good, creative changes.
So how do you do that by being silent? Some people can think while they're talking (my wife) and others do it best when it's quiet. Two minutes “thinking time” is fantastic for some (like me). This how you could do it: When you discuss something, do so by presenting facts without discussing solutions. Offer two minutes of silence and then discuss the solutions. It will feel weird at first, and maybe even the second and third time. Silence can seem intimidating as if there's something wrong because no one speaks. The solution is that everyone turns away and don’t just sit and stare directly at each other during the silent break. After a few times of this, I can promise you that it's really nice to get this kind of silence that contrasts with all the talk.

This, you must do when you attend meetings:
To begin with, you have to always ask yourself - can we do this by e-mail or phone instead? If you determine that you must meet in person, then learn to cut down the meeting time by half by telling everyone you meet that you only have 30 minutes to spare and then you all have to leave. It gets people to focus and to get to the point a lot faster.

Bring a final goal for each meeting and let the person you're seeing know in advance what the meeting is for. Stick to the topic. Decide what should be decided before the meeting is over. Not making a decision at a meeting is also a decision - a coward's decision. There are two kinds of meetings - meetings to check on each other and meetings in which you make decisions. Both types must have an agenda and if they don't, you must bring your own goals and purposes into it.

After the meeting:
This is where all the things you've talked about have to also finally happen. If you just go back to your desk and continue with the next task, you have missed the whole point of a meeting (and that's exactly what so many people do). Here are some suggestions on what to do now:

• Personal contacts. Was there one or perhaps a few people at the meeting that you agreed to meet again, or would like to meet again? There is no better time than now to call them or send an e-mail because you're both fresh off the meeting. They will be impressed that you contact them that quickly. A good way is to thank people for different things that helped you during the meeting. Maybe they made a point clear or had a good presentation. Look for reasons to thank people.

• Should you maybe send something to someone? Do it now while they still remember you.

• Who did you meet for the first time? Add that person to your contact list directly because you will probably forget to do that next time you “have a minute to spare.”

• What did you commit to do? When were you supposed to be done with it and what do you need to get the job done? Create conditions for time already now.

• Create clarity for everyone about what you talked about. Does everyone know what to do? Does everyone agree? Is it good for you to follow up, clarify and perhaps set some deadlines? Do it now.

• Fix relationships before they break. If you've argued with someone or someone argued with you, the question usually seems infected immediately after. Think about how you can help remove that irritation from other people.

• Do you need to think twice about something? Was there anything in the meeting that you need to reconsider? Has anything changed? In that case, what are the consequences? In what way has your overall view of what you discussed changed and what can you do about it now?

• Spread the word. Who else needs to know what was discussed and decided at the meeting? An e-mail to interested parties can make the job faster than calling for a new meeting.

About the author

Stefan Ekberg has worked in marketing for small business for 20 years and has written around 30 books on how small business owners can market themselves with limited resources. . In 2012 Stefan was nominated as Entrepreneur of the Year in Stockholm.

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