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  More On Surviving Meetings - Twelve Questions And Answers

In last month's Public Sector Manager we suggested nine ways to make meetings work. From your responses, this topic of meeting management is one that is important to you, so we have decided to expand upon it this month. We have organized the ideas on surviving meetings in a question and answer format.

  1. At our meetings, attendees often arrive late. How should we handle the situation? Should we start on time, or wait?

    The general rule is that you start on time, unless the key person or decision-maker is not present. If this is the case, you have little choice but to wait.

    Keep in mind that starting a meeting late reinforces late behavior in attendees and will spread to people who are usually punctual.

  2. Should the chair or meeting leader remark on tardiness, or otherwise highlight that a person is late?

    No, not usually. There is a tendency for a chairperson to make a remark, sometimes sarcastic, when a person is late. In most situations, nothing is gained by attempting to embarrass a person in public. However, if there is a consistent problem, a private conversation may be in order to determine the causes of chronic lateness, and to problem-solve.

  3. Do you have any tips on encouraging people to be on time?

    Apart from starting on time, there is one thing you might try. Apparently, research suggests that setting a meeting time that is NOT on the hour or half hour is more likely to result in people arriving on time. For example, consider starting your meeting at 2:10 rather than 2:00.

  4. I have to go to many meetings that I see as unnecessary. Unfortunately, my boss feels that I must be present, and since I haven't fallen off a turnip truck, I know that it is better to attend. What can I do?

    Obviously, your first path is to attempt to persuade the director or ADM that it is more cost-effective for you to be absent. Try finding out why you are being asked to attend, and work from there.

    If you have to go, here's something to consider. You can look at these meetings as onerous, ugly obligations, or, you can look at them as an opportunity for you to accomplish something. Remember that any gathering of people may allow you to get across a message that you would be unable to transmit in other settings.

    Even if the meeting topic is not relevant to you, it is possible to "sneak in" your points.

    When faced with a must-attend meeting that you feel is a waste of your time, prepare by looking for opportunities to accomplish something important to you or your organization.

  5. I often have to deliver short presentations (with a lot of information) to executives. I usually use a lot of visual aids, such as charts and graphs. But after fifteen minutes everyone looks like they are drowsing off. Got any tips?

    Fifteen minutes of charts and graphs is bound to make most people snooze. If you are going to use these things, remember that they are not the show, you are. Use them to make points clearer and to simplify things...not to confuse people. Also consider whether you are including too much. Include only the material that is absolutely necessary, and make supplementary material available after the meeting.

    By the way, you aren't READING your presentation are you?

  6. Even when I have to do short presentations at meetings, I get nervous, so I write out what I am going to say so I won't forget. When I read my report, everyone's eyes glaze over almost immediately, this makes me more nervous. Help?
    Reading anything more than a sentence or two is deadly. You should only need brief notes. Learning to present at meetings is not difficult to learn, but you may need some help.

  7. We hold regular staff meetings, but often we spend a great deal of time on nothing at all. How do you feel about regularly scheduled meetings?

    Meetings that occur every week, or on some other regular basis, can be useful provided that there is a clear, important and continuing purpose for the meetings. If there is a clear understanding of meeting objectives, and attendees have bought into these goals, regular meetings can be useful.

    However, this is often not the case. Staff meetings, for example, tend to occur simply because they are scheduled, and people scramble to find something to talk about. If you are going to have regularly scheduled meetings, make sure that they are really necessary. Examine the agenda before the regular meeting, and ask: "Are each of these items necessary? Must they be handled in a meeting format?"

  8. We wonder whether our meetings should be formal, following some established rules of order, or whether they should be free- form, with few rules. What do you think?

    The degree of formality in your meetings depends on your purpose, and the size and context of the meeting. In situations where large numbers of people may attend, and where these attendees only meet on one or two occasions, rules of order may be very helpful in maintaining order and saving time (but they don't seem to help in parliament).

    In most cases where meetings are small, and those attending will continue to attend and get to know each other, less formality is appropriate. That doesn't mean there are no rules. Attendees must agree on some set of rules to keep order, but they can be simple.

  9. Somehow I got roped into doing the agenda for our regular meetings. What do I need to include?

    The basic information should include:
    . Meeting objective
    . Time meeting will begin and end
    . Participants involved
    . What is expected of them in terms of preparation?

    Do it all on one page. Supplementary material can be appended.

    Consider designating agenda items as "for discussion" or "decision required". Put the "for decision" items first on the agenda, unless there is an urgent reason to do otherwise.

  10. I chair meetings where there are a lot of digressions...sometimes people end up totally off track for as much as 20 minutes. What can I do?

    Remember that most people don't enjoy wasting time, but get caught up in the moment. They want to get on with it, and will be willing to help save time and frustration.

    First, if you will be chairing the meetings, indicate that you want the right to act to save time by intervening in off-track conversations. Get the agreement of members, and then jump in consistently and often, but politely.

    Second, consider making the entire group responsible for saving time. Suggest that whenever someone goes off topic or off track, that attendees raise a hand in the air with finger extended (no, not THAT finger). When this occurs, stop the speaker, and bring the meeting back on track. It may seem strange, and a bit scary, but that will probably work.

  11. No matter what we do, our meetings go on and on and on. It's driving all of us crazy, but nothing seems to work. What can we do?

    Usually, a persistent problem has many things attached to it. Try to figure out why this is occurring. A few things you might try include:

    - Agree that a speaker may speak on any given topic or item a maximum of two times. Chairperson's judgment as to what constitutes a single topic or question is final.
    - Hold your meeting in a room with no chairs. Everyone stands, with obvious exceptions for those with disabilities.
    - Limit the length that a person may hold the floor. Choose a limit that makes sense....two minutes, four minutes, ten minutes, and enforce it with a loud timer.

  12. Because of the nature of our branch, the only time we have for meetings is over lunch. We usually either brown-bag it or bring in sandwiches, although these cutbacks are reducing that. Anyway, what happens is that we never seem to get much done at these luncheon meetings. What suggestions can you give us?

    Food and drink, and productivity don't go together. Food and drink signify to most people that the atmosphere is informal and sociable, rather than business-like and focused. If you have meetings at lunch time, consider asking that the luncheon process occur during the first fifteen minutes, or last fifteen minutes. Use that time to socialize. Use the remaining time in a business-like manner.

    By the way, breakfast meetings tend to be more productive. People are fresh, and know they have much to do during the rest of the day, so they tend to get down to business more quickly.

  13. In the meetings I attend, there is one fellow who constantly interrupts me. I think there is a personality conflict. What can I do to stop this rude behavior?

    If you think that the person has an axe to grind with you, deal with it privately, but be constructive. If you aren't interested in improving the relationship but want to stop the interruptions there are a few things you can do.

    First, when someone interrupts and starts to talk, respond with "Please let me finish" in a firm, non-hostile way. If the person increases their volume, increase yours, and repeat your line. If the interchange continues to get louder, and then stop talking so the other person is, in essence, bellowing in a silent room. This is sufficiently embarrassing that the person will realize he is looking very silly. This is a strong, somewhat aggressive tactic, but consistent interrupting requires strong measures.

    Obviously, other attendees, and the chair should be helping with this situation. If they aren't requesting that you review the meeting "rules" together.

  14. We have a good bunch of people at our staff meetings, but there is a tendency for some people to sit back, and offer criticism rather than suggestions. It's really tedious, and I would like to know how this can be changed.

    Some people have a style that is more critical, although they may not mean it as unconstructive. One good way of dealing with people who criticize constantly is to suggest that since they obviously have some strong concerns about the issue, that they develop a set of alternative ideas for the next meeting. This works best when the boss or chairperson suggests this.

    Note that we don't want to suppress all criticism, but we want to move people to suggesting alternatives if they have critical comments. This tactic works best with constant attackers, rather than occasional ones who criticize rarely.

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