How to Run Engaging Meetings

By: Nicki Weiss

Meetings can be either useless, energy-sucking wastes of time or a platform for lively
discussion and the exchange of interesting ideas.

As we all know, because we have sat through too many of them, the first type is far
more common than the second. And the blame mostly lies at the feet of the people
who preside over these exercises in frustration.

Frankly, many leaders and managers don’t know how to manage meetings, and the
lack of these skills is an expensive liability for their companies. Think about the cost of
labor involved in the time people spend in meetings and the lack of productivity when
nothing is decided. Learn how to run meetings and your value to your company will

As my editor Pat commented, “If this article prevents one more horrid meeting then it
has done a great public service.”

There are three different types of meetings:

1. Sharing information
2. Learning something (a skill or a new process)
3. Making a decision

Try to avoid setting up meetings just for the purpose of sharing information. By
definition, they are mind-numbingly dull. Instead, try to find alternate ways to spread
the information, such as through an email, or make sure the meeting lasts no more
than 30 minutes. Possibly you could incorporate an information-sharing agenda item
into the other two types of meetings, but give the speaker a tight time limit.

Here are a lucky 13 other ideas to keep meetings alive and participants awake.
Believe me, your colleagues will be grateful.

1. The Meeting Leader Should Contribute NO Opinions

The person leading the meeting has the most power in the room. If you are running a
team meeting, and you are also the boss, you are doubly powerful. If you make your
opinions known from the front of the room, you may wonder why no one else is

As the meeting leader, you should be neutral and focus on the process of running the
meeting, not on the content. If you have strong opinions about the topics being
discussed, ask someone else to facilitate so you can add your voice.

Better still, rotate the responsibility of leading meetings with everyone on your team,
and watch the energy level perk up.

2. Have an Agenda

You already know this. I am amazed at how many meetings I attend that don’t have
agendas. Always email a proposed agenda the day before, then give structure and
focus to the meeting by reviewing the agenda and agreeing on its content at the top
of the meeting.

3. Establish and Uphold the ‘Rules of Engagement’

At your next meeting, ask your team what ground rules they would like to establish to
keep meetings on track and to discourage negative behavior. These “Rules of
Engagement” can cover areas such as time limits for agenda items, freedom to speak
out on sensitive issues, what to do about technology (cell phones, blackberries,
laptops), and methods for resolving disagreements.

Be sure to explore the details of whatever ground rules the group establishes through
questions such as “What kinds of behaviors would make our meetings run well?”
“What does everyone think of this suggestion?” “What would this rule be difficult to
uphold?” and “What would make it safe for everyone to speak out?”

Post the rules on a flip chart for everyone to see. If you are running conference-call
meetings, email the rules to everyone involved and refer to them if a meeting starts to
go off the rails.

4. Start With a Fun Icebreaker

Lead with a quick icebreaker so people can learn more about each other, have fun,
and start the meeting off positively. A few of my favorites are:

a. What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
b. Tell us about your name (how you got your name, nicknames)
c. Tell us three things about yourself, two of which are true and one is a lie. As a
group, let’s figure out which one is the lie.

Ask team members to share the responsibility for leading the icebreaker. For ideas,
they can refer to:

5. Ask For Success and Failure Stories

As much as success stories buoy confidence, failure stories are good teachers.
During meetings, allow people to talk about their failures without making them feel
foolish or marginalized. I’ve trained many of my clients to think of “failing forward” to
take the sting out of their revelations.

6. Stop Being An Air Hog

Resist the temptation to lecture or to be the expert. Your job is to make sure that
people are participating, not just listening to you. Everyone in the room has ideas and
opinions they’d like to share and keeping your personal air time to 40% or less will
give them the space to do so. Hints 7 and 8 will help you to close your mouth and
open your mind.

7. Ask More Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions usually can’t be answered with just a “yes” or “no.” They start
with “what,” “how,” “tell me about,” or “explain” and elicit much more information. Try
“What does quality mean to you?” or “How would you implement that idea?”

8. Count to 10

Wait a full 10 seconds after asking your questions (counting one, one thousand; two,
two thousand). If there is no response, rephrase or ask your question again. Manage
your impulse to break the silence (hard to do and takes practice). Someone will feel
compelled to speak, and then your discussion will take off.

9. Give Verbal Reinforcement

Use neutral phrases such as “Thank you,” “I’m pleased you brought that up” or “We’re
off to a good start” when meeting participants speak up. This method reinforces their
involvement, not the content of what they said.

Resist the urge to add a judgment such as “great idea” or “excellent”. You run the risk
of saying this only to some people. Those who don’t get your “high five” response will
notice and stop participating.

10. Use Small Group Discussions

Find ways to get people talking to each other rather than only interacting with you. For
instance, you could ask the group to: “Take a few minutes and ask the person next to
you how they might use this idea.” Each duo would then report back to the entire

11. Defer to the Group

Rather than responding to and answering questions yourself, let the meeting
participants offer their expertise. You could say: “What about it, group?” “What is
important about having a standard way to follow up with our customers?” or “What
would be difficult about implementing this?”

Then let the group decide as a whole which ideas they’ll use. If people have a hand in
deciding policies or procedures, they have more of a stake in seeing them work.

12. Brainstorm

To generate a lot of ideas, pose a question and give people one or two minutes to
write down their ideas before sharing them. Don’t let anyone call out ideas
prematurely; you will get better responses.

13. Make a Decision in Every Meeting

Last year I read an article in Business Week magazine about how companies gain
competitive advantage. The leading organizations require that every single meeting
end with at least one decision. Taking more actions also means making more
mistakes, but well worth it.

Take your meeting management skills seriously and implement these
suggestions…and you’ll distinguish yourself while driving higher engagement. Let me
know how you do.