A number of readers seemed to empathise with a previous article I wrote, having left comments such as:

‘My previous employer needs to read this’

‘Whew! I thought it was just me!’

‘Many companies could take notes from this article’

That article was called ‘Most meetings don’t work’ and as I empathised with all of the responses it felt appropriate to consider the issue a little more deeply. I wrote the original article because when it comes to communication in businesses some people believe that ‘poorly’ managed meetings are a relic of the past.

What I described as the less enjoyable and productive meetings were certainly highly prevalent in the height of the 80’s and 90’s when I was climbing the corporate ladder. However, as time progressed I too believed that such meetings must by now be mere remnants of history.

Over the last few years stepping in and out of organisations of all shapes and sizes as a presentation coach, I get to ‘observe’ company meetings every day.

I realised that I was wrong and that not much has changed at all.

So many meetings in seemingly highly successful brands still feel like the ‘graveyards’ I described in my previous article.

Given the critical importance of the issue and its impact on the sanity and morale of so many professionals I thought we should explore:

  • Why the culture of meetings in so many organisations hasn’t changed in decades
  • What else it would take to change they effectiveness of meetings in business today?

Why it hasn’t changed?

I’m not a business psychologist so I can only offer an explanation from my personal perspective and from my own business experience. As I mull over the conundrum I’m reminded of a very old story which I’m sure you will be familiar with as well.

The tale was of a mother who was teaching her daughter the cherished family recipe for cooking a whole baked ham. It was a family recipe that had survived generations so it was important that each time it was passed on that it was followed carefully.

Having prepared the ham with the ‘secret’ ingredients that the mother shared, they arrived at a point that the daughter didn’t quite understand.

She asked her mother to share with her the reason she cut off both ends of the ham as she expressed a concern that she thought that may make it ‘dry out’.

Her mother explained that was the way she had been taught by her mother and she didn’t know why both ends were cut.

They decided to call the grandmother and put the same question to her.

The grandmother explained that she also didn’t know and that was just the way she was taught by her mother.

Fortunately, although very old, frail and living in a home for the elderly her mother was still alive so they decided to get in touch with their great grandmother to ask her the same question.

The great grandmother knew exactly why she cut off both ends and she explained that it was simply because she didn’t have a pan big enough for the whole ham.

If you aren’t a champion of some of the meetings you attend and wonder why they are the way they are, perhaps you could have your answer. What if your boss is simply repeating what they were taught to do by their boss before them and they haven’t been challenged on its effectiveness.

No one consciously wants to run a bad meeting in the same way that no one would want their ham to ‘dry out’ so perhaps that’s one simple albeit painful explanation.

If you don’t agree take a moment to ask yourself how many things there are in your life that you do, you know you shouldn’t do but still you do it anyway.

What else needs to change?

In addition to implementing the 5 term contract I detailed in the previous article there is plenty more that you can do most of which revolves around the best practice of crafting and delivering a high impact presentation.

The similarities between a meeting and presentation are remarkable as both involve:

  • A purpose and objective; in other words they exist for a reason
  • The exchange of relevant and valuable information
  • A conversation. If it’s just one person speaking it’s a lecture, not a conversation
  • An opportunity – to move towards something positive or move away from a pain point
  • Human connection

Following these 10 presentation training skill tips that we share in our workshops will add enormous value to your next meeting.

1. Once you’ve had everyone agree to the 5 term contract in my previous article make sure that as the person who called the meeting that you are very clear on:

  • The reason for the meeting
  • How and what you want people to contribute
  • How you want them to think
  • How you want them to feel
  • What you want them to do

2. Spend a few moments before you start your agenda getting the people in the room to imagine that the meeting had just finished and that it was a huge success. Now ask everyone why it was such a success and write their answers on a flip chart or white board.

3. Make sure no one sits in the same seat they sat in last time. If that’s a challenge for you, record where they sit each time. When you take a comfort break or lunch don’t let them return to the same seat either.

4. Never open by saying words to the effect of ‘As usual, today we are going to…’ The moment you suggest you are simply going to do what you always do then you’ve lost them. Open the meeting in the same way you would a presentation; make sure you get their attention and they know they are in the right room.

5. Remember that as everyone is taking their seats you have absolutely no idea what is going through their minds or is happening in their world. You don’t have time to ask them and so you will never know. Therefore, your priority is to interrupt their thought patterns and to change their emotional state to prepare them for the discussion. There are countless ways to do that it simply takes a little time, mindfulness and creativity.

  • You might find a fun or challenging energiser or ice breaker
  • Perhaps just asking them to spend the first two minute breathing. Breathing in for a count or 5 and then breathing out for a count of 5 doing nothing but focus on their breath.
  • Perhaps you may want to ask people to simply tune in to what they are thinking and feeling at that moment and rather than say it they could express it in the form of pictures or words on the flip chart. You don’t even have to discuss it and simply use it as a means of getting everyone to really pause for a moment and think about where they are.

6. Ban the use of all mobile phones, laptops and anything else remotely distracting.

7. Help them to feel good. In my experience most things in most businesses are good yet the host of a meeting prefers to ignore that fact and focus on the negative. I’m not suggesting for a moment that you ignore everything that’s going wrong. Sometimes before we look at the challenges and opportunities its worth reminding people what’s working so well and why they can overcome this new challenge.

8. Make sure you’re in a room with natural light. There really is nothing worse than being trapped in a room with colleagues in a meeting that seems to be taking forever where there is no natural light. For many businesses the limitations on space make that a huge challenge but accepting that as something you have no control over is unforgiveable; human beings need light.

If the meeting is in anyway important don’t lock them in the basement or shut out the light do whatever it takes to let the light in. If it really isn’t within your gift to give them some light then at the very least schedule regular breaks and insist they find some for themselves

9. Stimulate the right brain as well as the left. In addition to the light the number of meetings I have endured over the years where the environment has only supported ‘left brain’ thinking is incredible. Nothing good was ever achieved using the left brain exclusively so we need to stimulate the right hemisphere too. That means as well as light we need colour, variety, props, and if its humanly possible even a little music.

10. Check in with the other people in the room. Whatever the meeting is for, it’s like a presentation; it’s never about you, it’s about your audience. So with that in mind don’t make the mistake that the chairperson of many meetings do and make it all about you. You may have your objective and agenda and once you’ve set that out ask your colleagues what they would like from the meeting and once it’s over ask them if they got it.

Like life itself, meetings are simply a work in progress and following these tips will help you greatly along your way.

I’m conscious of the fact that some people reading this may think or even say ‘that’s all well and good but I really don’t have time to do all of that.’ Having spent most of my career either attending or chairing meetings myself my response to that would be: ‘you can’t afford not to.’

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