Even a well planned meeting requires attention to detail to
stay on course and accomplish its objectives. As the meeting
organizer, you're responsible for managing the course of the
meeting and its final result.
Not just at highly structured meetings, but at many
meetings, seating arrangements (published or unpublished)
matter. Place guests of distinction in view of presenters,
whiteboards, projection screens, or other points of visual
interest. As organizer, you have an opportunity to determine
where the most important guests will sit. If they choose
their own seats, let other guests fill in afterward.
Latecomers can fill in empty places.
Set a beginning and end time for your meeting, and do not
exceed it. This is a good way to keep people on track, and
give you the leeway to put a courteous end to conversations
that are not adding value. You can say, "I'm sorry to
interrupt you, but I want to make sure and keep to our
scheduled time." In addition, set an approximate time for
each item on the agenda.
If anyone is expected to be late, say so at the outset to set
everyone's expectations. If you know you will be late to a
meeting, tell the organizer as soon as you know.
At the outset, let people know what you hope to accomplish
in the allotted time. Even though the agenda is printed and
distributed, it will help to restate the objective in your
Meetings have different formats, each of which suggests a set
of ground rules. For example, there are no bad ideas in
brainstorming sessions, and speakers may or may not be
permitted to interrupt one another. Participants should
understand whether they are expected to contribute to the
conversation, or just listen. If you set clear ground rules
at the beginning, it will be easier to keep the meeting on
To avoid interruptions, put telephones on "do not disturb"
and turn off mobile phones or set to vibrate.
If any guests at the meeting have not met one another,
introduce them. And if anyone's presence is likely to
intimidate some of the guests, put them at ease by explaining
the reason the person is sitting in. If the person is there
to deliver bad news, get underway quickly.
When a new participant is asked to join a group, particularly
a standing group that has already worked together, the
facilitator or a competent team member should give the new
member an overview as the participant first joins the
meeting. Otherwise the group runs the risk of having to cover
old ground. Then, the group can be invited to add anything
else it thinks the new member needs to know.
The Organizer's Role
The person who leads a meeting is only a facilitator whose
opinion is best expressed through a restatement of or
agreement with comments from others. This encourages the
group to take ownership of what is decided.
The most effective facilitators also bring lots of energy to
the meeting, and a sense of humor. Even the most intense
discussion can benefit from a little levity at key moments.
The best facilitators are able to advance the agenda
gracefully without participants' realizing they are being
guided. Here are some suggestions for seamless participation.
Be a model of honesty and integrity in the meeting.
Use the agenda, but don't refer to it outright. Let the
words you say steer the conversation so that it's clear you
are leading the meeting, not the piece of paper.
Give everyone an opportunity to contribute, and if someone
isn't participating, offer them the floor. In doing so,
though, try not to let the person feel put on the spot.
Don't let an awkward moment arise as the person tries to
think of something to say.
When asking for input from the group, let each person speak
for a set period of time, for example, 2 minutes. The
people who talk a lot will usually try to continue beyond 2
minutes, but will still feel the pressure from the group to
limit their comments.
Hold people to things they've said or committed to earlier
in the meeting or in previous meetings.
Point out contradictions in what people say, by way of
encouraging the group to determine ways to resolve those
Examine body language for nonverbal disagreement, conflict,
anger, or other signals that not everyone is in synch.
Let people finish what they are saying. If someone
interrupts, direct the conversation back to the previous
speaker to let him or her finish.
Ask follow-up questions that show the speaker's point was
heard and that challenge the speaker to finish an
If someone steers off course, acknowledge the valuable
nugget in what was contributed but show how it can be
applied to the topic at hand.
Handouts and Presentations
A presentation is what you say. Overhead materials and
handouts should underscore the message you're there to
deliver in person. With that in mind, here are some tips on
using materials effectively, whether you're the meeting
organizer or an invited speaker.
Arrive early to greet other attendees and get a sense of
Figure one slide per minute, maximum.
Put only a few words or one picture on a slide.
Distribute handouts only when you are ready to use them.
Otherwise, people will read through them instead of
listening to you.
Don't leave people in the dark. When you are speaking, the
attention should be on you. Don't darken the room so much
that people can't see you. And don't turn the lights off
and on - leave them the way you need them for your
presentation, and turn them back on at the end.
Use only as much time as you're given for your
Forget the formula that says you have to tell a joke at the
beginning. If you want to start with something light, spend
the extra time thinking of a personal anecdote that will
resonate with the people at the meeting.
Determine in advance whether you will be expected to handle
questions from the audience. Practice answering the most
difficult questions you expect to receive.
Handle unexpected problems with technology, car alarms
outdoors, or other unscheduled occurrences with grace and
If you did not organize the meeting, thank the people who
invited you to speak.
- Jo Schlegel, Editor-in-Chief