Published by Calendly - April 22, 2019

How to run effective meetings that drive business results

An ultimate guide to efficient meetings that improve your productivity and bottom line in 12 actionable tips.

What does it take to have effective meetings? We’ve all been in meetings that produced no results. Not just routine staff meetings, but the kind that you count on to close a deal, achieve your team’s goal or meet a huge deadline. How many times have you walked away exhausted and disappointed?

Meetings come in various shapes and sizes, including staff or board meetings, stand-ups to discuss progress, and all-hands meetings. But we also have external meetings like customer or partnership calls, demos, advising sessions and networking meetups. These meetings certainly can’t be counted a waste of time; they are the lifeblood of your business.

The truth is, your meetings do matter. And you can make them more effective. 

Guide to Running Effective Meetings

Most thorough research on meeting productivity is over 20 years old and doesn’t take into account the various types of meetings professionals today depend on.

In our own research with Calendly customers, we found that 43% surveyed think meetings are an important opportunity to forge connections and build relationships, and 30% said they’re valuable to making business and professional impact. Click To Tweet

If meetings are the backbone of our businesses, why do we experience so much frustration and disappointment around them?

Perhaps it’s because we recognize just how much actually rides on our management of meetings.

“I’ve experienced some serious pros run meetings, and when they do, everyone feels great afterward. Everyone feels like progress was made, that things are clearer than before, that there is continued momentum.” –Paul Adams, SVP of Product at Intercom

Luckily, you can become a pro too. Meetings are opportunities and we’re teaching you how to use them that way.

This guide gives you actionable solutions to some of the most commonly reported issues with meetings. It’s packed with downloads like an agenda template, meeting prep checklist and memorable tips for making meetings more efficient and effective.

While best read cover to cover, you can use the table of contents to scan and jump to sections of particular interest.

How to lead more effective meetings

1. Get clear on the goal of the meeting and clearly communicate it
2. Use meetings to drive decisions
3. Select the minimum participants necessary
4. Set an agenda for your meeting
5. Automate communication and scheduling
6. Prepare yourself
7. Remove distractions and set expectations
8. Encourage full participation
9. Make decisions efficiently
10. Assign action items and deliverables
11. Collect feedback from participants
12.Review results, iterate and improve

Before the meeting

1. Get clear on the goal of the meeting and clearly communicate it

Think critically about the purpose of your meeting and set a clear goal. Why was the meeting deemed necessary?

Meetings come in different forms, some more conversational and informal, others very deliberative and time-sensitive. Determining the goal and communicating it clearly to participants is the top priority because it shapes the agenda and prepares those attending to contribute value.

To set a clear goal, ask yourself, “How did the request for the meeting originate?” Is it just one person who needs clarity or did multiple people agree that a meeting was necessary? What is the outcome you’re hoping to achieve? What are the barriers standing in your way? These could be gaps in information, questions about workflows or resource constraints, or finding the best method for reaching a deliverable.

When you know where you’re trying to go and what is in your way, you’ve got a clear goal and purpose for your meeting. Boil it down to one sentence and communicate it to participants in your meeting request.

Quick Tip: If you aren’t sure yet about the goal of the meeting or if you can accomplish the goal by any other means of communication, then cancel the meeting.

When you determine who needs to be included in the meeting, each person invited should know the purpose and have a clear role so that they can come prepared. If you have a one-sentence, outcome-driven purpose for each meeting that you hold, you’ll see better results and be more efficient with your time.

2. Organize the meeting around driving a decision

To protect and maximize your time, we suggest you reserve meetings only for driving decisions that lead to clear actions or solving a problem. Follow-up of assigned tasks can be handled via other communications and any meeting primarily about information-sharing should be goal-driven.

In an article for Forbes, Christopher Frank, author and vice president at American Express, suggests starting your internal meetings by asking each participant to articulate in five words or less the purpose of the meeting.

If you’re meeting with a client, you can also verify with them what they would like to cover during your time together. If you find the answers are either inconsistent, at odds with what you’ve prepared or unclear, your attendees are probably not on the same page as you and your meeting is about to run off the rails.

Clearly setting a purpose for the meeting that is focused on the desired outcome will help align participants and eliminate wasted time.

If the purpose is to brainstorm, it’s best to treat that different than a meeting.

“Brainstorming should look extremely different from ordinary meetings. No criticism or evaluation should be present. Get passionate people in the room and intimidating ones out.” –Josh Kaufman, business author Click To Tweet

The sole intent of a meeting should be presenting information to aid a decision or coordinating action after the decision is made. This is true whether you’re meeting with members of your team, a potential customer or a current client you serve. In a meeting, you exchange information for the purpose of driving decision and action. Even if a decision isn’t made immediately, that is the goal.

Brainstorming requires a less structured process and more equitable roles of all participants. Everyone is a contributor and facilitator, which dilutes the likelihood of reaching a decision and executing on it.

Once you know the purpose of your meeting, you can begin organizing it. This is the simplest and shortest step, but setting a goal for your meeting is the #1 overlooked key to a productive meeting. Click To Tweet

The next time a coworker sends you a meeting invite and the purpose of the meeting or your role in it is unclear, decline it. You’ll start noticing very quickly that the norm in our work culture is to get the meeting on the calendar as quickly as possible and worry about explaining it when you get everyone together. Unfortunately, this is the biggest reason why people hate internal meetings and feel like they’re unproductive.

Would you ever email a client a meeting invite without having an explicit discussion about it first? Of course not. You would only request time with them if you’ve both agreed that it’s needed for a specific purpose. Do the same with your team and not only will they thank you; your meetings will instantly become more effective!

3. Select the minimum participants necessary

Research has found that not including the “right” people is one of the leading causes of failed meeting effectiveness. To ensure that meetings run on time and there is one clear decision-maker, limit your meeting group to very few people—five or less when possible. While odd numbers are more effective for collective decision-making and vote-taking, it’s most important that you include people who are integral to the matter at hand. Here’s a helpful checklist to determine who is essential to invite to the meeting:

  • Those with the relevant expertise
  • Decision makers or those with direct responsibility and authority over the topic of discussion
  • Those that are crucial to the implementation
  • Those most affected by the problem being addressed or their representative
  • Those with direct responsibility and authority over the topic of discussion
  • Those with the required knowledge to contribute meaningfully that is unavailable elsewhere

Most importantly, identify who is responsible for making the decision under discussion. Whenever possible, speak to that person. If there are multiple people who need to be involved, communicate before the meeting to establish who is the point of contact for follow up and who is the decision maker.

4. Set an agenda for your meeting

In your agenda, you should first list the purpose of the meeting, then all participants and their roles in the meeting.

For instance, if you’re conducting a sales call with a high-value lead and you need to include a member of the security team and someone from support, put their names, contact info and role on the agenda. This lets your invitee know who to direct their questions to and gets them feeling confident that they are in good hands with experts who are willing to take the time to meet their needs. Then, list out all your points of discussion on the agenda. You can do this in a simple bulleted format or get more detailed.

As you plan, it’s helpful to assign time slots to each topic to determine the adequate length of the meeting and maximize your time. You don’t have to include these time slots in the copy sent to a client or for more informal meetings, but it’s a great guide for the facilitator to keep the meeting on the rails.

Keep your meetings short. You may have heard of the 8-second rule, which reports that the human attention span has been reduced to a fraction of a minute. However, the truth is, our attention span is much longer. This type of research reflects the attempt to attend exclusively to one thought. But because most adults are able to switch between thoughts frequently, we are more than capable of focusing during a short meeting.

Most adults can focus their attention and stay engaged for 10–18 minutes at a time. This gives you a good framework for your meeting agenda.

We all default to 30-minute meetings because of the way they fit nicely, back-to-back on our calendar. But then we get frustrated when we have no time to run to the restroom or we discover we’ve yet to drink our first cup of coffee.

The solution? Limit your meetings to 18 minutes. This will give you padding for the inevitable run over and still leave you time to take care of yourself and prepare for your next meeting. Check out this agenda to try with your next meeting:

  • Allow 2 minutes for introductions and chit-chat.
  • Then quickly move into setting expectations and the purpose of the meeting.
  • Invite participants to add any applicable discussion points to the agenda.
  • Keep discussion items to just 3 or 4 points that can be covered in 2 minutes or less.
  • This will still leave several minutes for clarifying questions.
  • Then you can move into assigning action items with clear deliverables, dates and people responsible. Each action item should have notes about what stakeholders will be affected and how they will be informed.
  • You should also discuss what resources are needed to achieve your goal and a plan to get them in place.
  • Add these meeting notes to your project management software and include it in your follow-up communications.

Download our agenda template.

With the 18-minute rule, even if you absolutely have to run over, you’ll have ample time to finish up your meeting notes and send out follow-up communications before the next half hour. Click To Tweet

Quick Tip: Use a tool that’s easy to replicate, upload and send out for your agenda like Asana or Evernote. For one-one-one internal meetings,  Lattice provides a great way to keep your notes confidential and follow up on action items.

Of course, not all meetings are the same. Some will require more time, but the 18-minute rule is a good template to build on for effective meeting management.

5. Automate communication and scheduling

“It’s not the sexiest topic—we all want to know how to close the deal, how to negotiate massive contracts, about the latest automated hack… but the mechanics of booking a meeting are foundational and fundamental to success.” – Steli Efti, CEO at Close

Ask any professional and they’ll tell you, the administration of meetings is their biggest burden. Finding a time everyone is available and undistracted, managing reschedules and cancellations, and ensuring the communication loop gets closed is a giant headache. Unless you use tools that automate. A scheduling app like Calendly greatly reduces the amount of time it takes to schedule with someone outside your organization and with integrated reminder notifications, it increases the chance they’ll attend on time.

Try Calendly Today

Whatever tool you use to send a calendar invite, include any preparation materials that your attendees may need as attachments or link them within the attached agenda. You can use Zapier to drop the agenda of any single or recurring meeting in Slack before the meeting so that everyone gets a heads up on what they need to prepare for.

Be sure to clearly state the purpose and desired outcomes and clarify what is expected of each attendee. Even if it’s to come with a timeline for decision-making or additional questions, assigning responsibility to participants before the meeting allows them to prepare adequately and make the meeting a success! Shared accountability does wonders for engagement.

Remember to put the location or conference link and dial instructions in the calendar invite. If the meeting location is different than what is usually expected, it’s worth calling attention to that in the body of your message.

Give attendees more than 24 hours notice (or one business day) and whenever possible, don’t schedule them right after they’ve been out of the office for several days.

6. Prepare yourself

For external business meetings, using a workflow to research the client saves you even more time and sets up your meeting for success.

The team at Zapier uses a Zap that watches for partners to book a Calendly meeting, then grabs relevant information on the partner company and drops it in Slack 5 minutes before the meeting starts with: name/purpose of the call, the Zoom link, link to the CRM entry and relevant stats. You can customize when the Slack message is sent and who it goes to so all that information is handy with no additional prep work needed.

If you need help remembering these tips, use this handy checklist to prepare for your meetings.

Quick Tip: If you get nervous anticipating the meeting, try making a list of 3–5 questions you might get asked up front in the meeting. Write out your answers to those questions. Not only will you have a quick reference doc at your fingertips, but you’ll feel more confident, knowing that you really are prepared.

During the meeting

7. Remove distractions and set expectations

“One can either meet or work: you can’t do both at the same time.” –Peter Drucker

Despite the detriment to productivity, Atlassian found that 73% of attendees do other work during the meeting. While it may seem rude, the reality is that we’re all struggling to prioritize work and accomplish our goals within the same 24-hour day.

It’s the facilitator’s job to remove distractions, set expectations and rules of engagement, deliver relevant and engaging content, and mitigate disruptive behavior. That’s a tall order. But luckily, we’re giving you tips to fast-track developing those skills.

75% of professionals think it’s inappropriate to read texts or emails during meetings and yet, bringing your phone into a meeting is begging for a distraction.

Unless you have a reason to believe a true emergency is about to occur, leave your phone at your desk and ask that everyone else in your meetings do the same. If you work remotely, leave your phone in another room where it can’t be seen or heard. For long meetings, facilitators should let participants get up every 20–30 minutes for a quick mental break and leg stretch.

By starting the meeting with the outlined agenda and reiterating why everyone was asked to be there, you can set the expectation that every person invited has a role to play.

There should be no meeting attendees, only participants. Click To Tweet

Ask for any additions or changes to the agenda, add them to the doc in a place where it is visible to all participants and begin!

Remind everyone of the purpose of the meeting—the one thing you all need to accomplish and how long you have to accomplish it. Whether or not you have a hard stop after the meeting, you can make punctuality a practice by making it about efficiency for everyone involved.

Say something like, “I know you are working on important things so I want to make sure we stay within our time limit. I’ll keep a list of any uncovered topics of discussion and send it out after the meeting so we can decide if anything needs to be revisited. Sound good?” This aligns everyone’s expectations and underscores your commitment to productive communication and use of time.

Remote meetings can present particular challenges for communication. Even though we’ve adapted technology to support teleconferencing, we often don’t change our learned behavior to suit the new mode of communication. That’s why it’s so important to politely set the rules of engagement for an effective meeting.

Remember that if you can’t see participants’ faces clearly at the same time, it will be harder to pick up on non-verbal cues. Since you have to rely more on verbal communication in virtual meetings or conference calls, it’s important to prompt invitees to ask questions and familiarize yourself with their voices and natural tone of communication.

Communication habits that are relatively harmless, like interrupting, come across as more hostile via conference call and can have negative effects on your relationship. The intent may be benign, but when speakers change abruptly, the audio cuts out and the jarring effect feels like a rude interjection.

You can mitigate this effect by telling participants your plan for the call and designating a specific time for Q&A or discussion.

For large meetings, you can also ask people to use the “raise your hand” feature of the conferencing platform or use the chat window to create a “parking lot” for topics to revisit. This sets expectations that only one person may talk at a time. While it may feel formal initially, it ensures a more enjoyable conversation and better relationships overall.

8. Encourage full participation

We all want to prove ourselves knowledgeable and to share our insights. This leads us to pack our presentations with all the information we’ve gathered, our research methods, opinions and thoughts from other colleagues, etc. It’s a best practice in conducting research; it’s a worst practice for conducting meetings.

The single best thing you can do to make your meeting presentations more engaging is to simplify. Click To Tweet

What is the one point you want participants to understand? Can you distill down everything you’ve learned into the length of a tweet? It may be hard, but not impossible. And it’s effective. Convey what will directly impact the decision at hand and nothing else. And then back up whatever you present with data, whether qualitative, quantitative or both.

Quick tip: By simplifying your visual presentation, increasing white space and scaling back on copy, you can help your participants focus on your message and stay tuned in.

As the meeting facilitator, it is not your job to entertain, police or be the sole communicator. You will likely have information to share at the top of the meeting for context, but the point is to dialogue. To capture attention from the beginning and maintain engagement, follow up your statements with questions. Ask more than questions with yes or no answers like, “Do you have any questions about that?”

Some engaging questions you can ask are:

  • “Who has more insight that they’d like to share on this?”
  • “Does anyone foresee any problems with this approach/solution?”
  • “What are we not thinking about that we should consider?”
  • “Does anyone have other thoughts or suggestions?”
  • “Are there any other resources we need before making this decision or executing on this?”
  • “Who else might be affected by this?”

For meetings with current or future clients, you can ask these in addition:

  • Tell me a little more about your business… (age/stage/size, goals and priorities, etc.)
  • What are some trends you’re seeing in your industry that you’d like to stay up to date or competitive on?
  • What is the single most important thing you want to get out of this meeting? (make sure your meeting goal is aligned to the customer)

9. Make decisions efficiently

When you’ve discussed each point in your agenda, it’s time to move toward decision-making. There are two ways to enter into decision-making that will likely be determined by your meeting type.

The first is if you’re having an internal meeting where the decision makers are all present:

Collective decision-making can be simple when you’ve had an exhaustive exploration of available solutions. Once you’ve narrowed in on the best options, ask participants which responses they’re willing to commit to and what kind of success they expect to see. You can take a vote on each option to see which ranks the best and then make sure everyone can align and support that decision.

The second is if the decision maker is not present and one or more of the meeting participants will need to serve as a proxy to advocate for the desired course of action to the true decision maker:

You’re likely working with a current or future client who is gathering information and then has to make the business case to their supervisor or department head. Since the decision won’t be made during the meeting, it’s essential that you give the participant the foundation they need to be confident about the solution and champion it to the final decision maker.

“Make sure your champion is an extension of you and can articulate the value of your product.” –Justin King, Account Executive at Lattice

10. Assign action items and deliverables

Before you leave the meeting, it’s essential that you decide on next steps. Each action step should have a clear deliverable and person responsible. Assign a deadline and discuss any resource needed or barriers threatening progress and a strategy to overcome them.

Finally, identify any stakeholders not involved in the meeting a plan to communicate the results of the meeting to them. Whether your meeting is with your team or with a client, vendor or partner, chances are you need to communicate about the meeting results and possibly even ask for follow-up responses.

“Always have a super clear call to action in each email and never confuse people with multiple asks.” –Ryan Robinson, Ryrob.com

An open source tool like Asana or Confluence is best for this so that all participants have immediate access to materials and can see the combined task list and update progress in real-time. This also enables the easiest way to carry items over from one meeting to the next so that progress is tracked and actions can be followed up on.

By connecting team communication tools like Slack, project management software and your database (Salesforce, Greenhouse, etc.) you can save yourself a ton of time and put the burden of administering meeting on your technology. You can use integrations or a tool like Zapier to keep all your meeting workflows streamlined on autopilot.

After the meeting

11. Collect feedback from participants

After the meeting, ask participants to give feedback on the effectiveness of the meeting. If you’re working with a new team or a new meeting format, you might ask participants to rank the meeting. Using a scale of 1 to 10, and for anything 8 or lower, ask why they perceived it as ineffective so that you can continue approving your facilitation. Be clear that the rating is on how the meeting was conducted rather than the content or outcome of the meeting.

With any type of meeting, you can have your participants assess whether expectations for the meeting were met and how well barriers were avoided or overcome. Gauge if they had a clear sense of the decision, next steps and any plans to resolve open items.

Do the same assessment yourself and save your personal notes with date and time stamp in the same private location each time. In addition to increasing meeting effectiveness, reflection and incorporation of feedback improves your relationships and makes you a better professional.

12.Review results, iterate and improve

In addition to assessing how the meeting itself went, you’ll want to track the outcomes. This guide starts by emphasizing the importance of purpose-driven meetings. That means each meeting should be driving business outcomes like sales revenue, hiring rate, research quality, etc.

Set baselines for your meeting-related KPIs, if you don’t have them already (SLAs, time to hire, student success rate, evaluation rating, etc.). Track towards a goal, using these tips and participant feedback to improve your meeting effectiveness.

Progress towards a business goal may take time to assess and in the meantime, you’ll want to look for patterns in your meeting results. For instance, do you get more meetings scheduled on a certain day of the week or time of day? Have you found that you’re more conscious and ready to facilitate later in the day after your first one (or four) cups of coffee? Does it seem like decisions get stalled during a certain part of the quarter or phase of projects?

Look for correlations in your personal meeting notes. Do the most dysfunctional meetings include the same participant? ...an unclear purpose? more than three points of discussion?

Use these assessments to create your own handbook for meeting effectiveness tailored to your particular industry, meeting types and goals. Share best practices with your colleagues and friends and watch the productivity multiply!

To recap (TL;DR)...

To make meetings more effective, use the following steps:

  1. Make certain the meeting is necessary and can’t be accomplished through other means that might be more productive. Then, set a clear purpose and outcomes.
  2. Invite the right participants and identify the decision maker.
  3. Send out any prep materials and an agenda before the meeting that includes roles, discussion topics, and follow-up action items that describes how the meeting will be executed (topics, activities, etc.).
  4. Schedule the meeting with ample lead time for everyone required to prepare and send automated reminders.
  5. Start the meeting on time and protect people’s time by ending within the allotted time.
  6. Make roles clear with someone responsible for facilitating the meeting according to the agenda and someone assigned to each action item.
  7. Review the agenda and make adjustments at the start of the meeting; keep the ensuing discussion to the agenda items and schedule.
  8. Encourage participants to fully engage, offer candid feedback and inquire to seek clarity.
  9. Capture action items, decisions and communication plans visually (for all to see); review and send to all participants and stakeholders at the end of the meeting.
  10. Follow-up manually or using project management tools to ensure all action items are completed.
  11. Ask each participant for feedback on the effectiveness of the meeting and potential for improvement.
  12. Take time to reflect on the feedback and iterate so that future meetings are more effective.

Thanks for reading this Guide to Running Effective Meetings! We hope it’s helpful to you in your day-to-day work and gets you thinking about meetings as a business opportunity to take advantage of.

What are the things you’ve found helpful for optimizing your meetings? Share with us and join the discussion in the comments.