Most people at least profess to hate meetings. They do, however, seem to be a necessary evil at this point, and they are a more confusing topic than ever, given that now, besides the traditional kinds of meetings, we now have online meetings, webinars, web conferences, etc. So let’s consider the topic, from organizing meetings, to presenting at meetings, to tools to make more productive meetings.
The Mindtools article Running Effective Meetings gets one thing exaclty right: there are good meetings and bad meetings. We’ve all beein in meetings that went well, and in others that were a waste of time. The article discusses what makes an productive meeting:
Effective meetings really boil down to three things:
- They achieve the meeting’s objective.
- They take up a minimum amount of time.
- They leave participants feeling that a sensible process has been followed.
If you structure your meeting planning, preparation, execution, and follow up around these three basic criteria, the result will be an effective meeting.
The literature on the topic of running effective meetings is immense, especially since the advent of blogs and managment consultants. Not surprisingly, they sometimes contradict each other, and the problem is that different types of organizations find different kinds of meetings useful. Moreover, the same organization may find different kinds of meetings useful for different kinds of projects. Jill Duffy, whose Getting Organized Column for PCMag is a favorite, discussed four types of meetings in her post More Productive Meetings: informational, discussion/collaboration, check-in, and working.
In the informational meeting, information is disseminated by one or more people, and there is not much interaction. Several articles on meetings mention that informational meetings should be rarely, if ever held. Information can be disseminated effectively by email or other means. However, if a manager has important information to be given to everyone, and it is important that it is given to everyone at the same time, an informational meeting can be useful. Discussion/collaboration mettings are probably the most common, often for problem-solving or brainstorming. Information flows in all directions. Check-in meetings are often most useful for a team working on a project with specific deliverables, and allow the project manager to gauge if the project is on track and what problems are causing delays and what the possible fix might be. In working meetings, work actually gets done.
In my organization, I have participated in all of these kinds of meetings with different groups of colleagues. My department has twice-weekly meetings that combine all four types. My library has committees around varying functions, such as meetings for everyone involved in collection development. There are campus committees that librarians can be elected to, and there are state and national professional organizations that have committees that one can join. In this respect academic librarians are not much different from faculty and students. Public, school, and special librarians can also have committee work as part of professional development. Meetings therefore are ubiquitous, and most professions have an abundance of them.
One of the more difficult problems with meetings is highlighted in Paul Graham’s post: Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. A couple of friends who are IT professionals have pointed me to this article. It points out that managers work with a meeting-heavy schedule, as they need to understand the progress being made on the projects they oversee. But for knowledge workers whose job centers around creating something, meetings interrupt the sustained workflow necessary for that process of creating, whether it be writing a computer program, creating a class, writing a dissertation, etc. Managers really must be sensitive enough to this to hold meetings as infrequently as possible, and scheduled such that their workers have at least 3-4 hour blocks of time free during the day, two of them per day on those rare occasions this is possible.
When meetings are required, making them productive means having a plan in mind for that meeting that fits best with the type of meeting. Create an agenda that explains (a) the topic for the meeting, and (b) the items to be covered. Share the agenda with the participants at least a day before, so they are prepared with any information they need to provide. A good meeting organizer follows the agenda, and acknowledges remarks that would throw the meeting off-track, promising to come back to that topic later. Another nice idea is from 4 Expert Tips for a Productive Meeting. It is the idea of having a closing round, where each participant speaks for 30 seconds, ensuring that everyone has a say and can give their best thoughts on the topic of the meeting.
Everyone is bored by Powerpoint, and has seen joke presentations that make the point of how bad it is. Microsoft over time has over time made improvements to Powerpoint, but effective presentations still come down to effective design. Other presentation software is appearing, such as Prezi, which can make for more dynamic presentations. Personally I dislike Prezi because I have vertigo and Prezi presentations literally make me dizzy – and I’ve heard this reaction from others who don’t have inner ear problems! Covering presentation design and tools would be a post in and of itself, which we will do at some point. For now, if you have to give a presentation, just remember everything you’ve hated about presentations you’ve seen and don’t do them. 😉
Notetaking in meetings is an art. The post How to Take Notes in Meetings by Stever Robbins is a bit overly cute in tone, but has excellent advice that includes useful links and a summary at the end:
Use a pencil and paper so your attention stays in the room, not in your lap. Record a summary at the end of the meeting. If you need your notes electronically, type them in. Review as you type, and group the to-dos, decisions, and reference information so it’s easy to view at a glance. Consider using fun technology to capture hand-written notes electronically, and file everything labeled and tagged in your filing system.
Why use paper and pencil? There is some evidence that writing something improves recall better than typing it. However, it is not clear that this evidence is solid and, if typing works for you, by all means type. If handwriting works better for you, then how best to digitize the notes? You can, of course, type from what you have written, which gives you the chance to organize the notes better and to be sure your notes emphasize the decisions, to-dos, reference information, people assigned to tasks, and has a summary at the end.
The note-taking technologies that Robbins suggest are (1) Evernote, because you can scan or take a picture of the notes and Evernote will search words within the image (OneNote has similar capabilities); and (2) Livescribe digital pens. Livescribe digital pens are the most popular brand of digital pen in the U.S. and will save what is written for downloading onto a computer. Similarly, a lot of tablets and even smartphones can be used with a stylus so that you can write directly onto the device. Evernote has teamed up with Penultimate, the handwriting app for iPads.
Mario Armstrong in a post suggests two other useful software programs for meetings. One helps schedule meetings, and the other tool he suggests is mind mapping software. If you have read this blog for any length of time you already know that we are all big fans of mind mapping, as it can bring clarity and organization to ideas. As applied to meetings, it can present clearly what was discussed and the decisions made, capture action items and who is assigned to accomplish each, and export the resulting maps into word processing or slide software.
Another post, The Complete Guide to Taking Notes Effectively at Work, also makes a lot of excellent points. One is that not everyone is good at taking notes and listening at the same time. I know this first hand, and don’t usually take notes for this reason. However, I am not good at recalling what happened later, either; some of the audio recording technologies can be helpful for people like me. The post suggests to individuals leading a meeting that a brief break after each agenda item increases note-taker’s ability to capture the important points of a meeting.
So what makes an effective meeting? Preparation, effective presentation design, and efficient capture of important decisions are the strongest elements.
For Further Exploration and Insight:
(1) Write a comment on your best tips for effective meetings.
Baker, S. C. (2013) Make Library Instruction Zoom: Prezi as a Presentation Tool. ULS Blog. For those interested in using Prezi, this post provides a good introduction.
Bates, S. (2013). 5 Steps to Pain-free, Productive Meetings. Bates Communications. This post focuses on the interpersonal aspects of meetings, such as making sure that everyone provides input.
Cobert, A. (2013). From Chaos to Control: How to Lead Super-Productive Meetings. Forbes.
Duffy, J. (2013) Tips and Tools for Managing a Project. PC Mag. Different from the Duffy column listed above, this has additional good tips on effective meetings.
Norback, J. S. (2013). Oral communication excellence for engineers and scientists: Based on executive input. San Rafael: Morgan & Claypool. Written by a Georgia Tech professor, this book has many ideas for creating effective communications.
Wikipedia. Comparison of Notetaking Software. Compares around 40 software programs.