12 tips for having an effective meeting - updated 2020

Years ago I was mostly against all meetings. I was the "I just want to work" kind of type. Being behind a screen and programming was what I wanted to do. I think it was because I felt that most meetings added little value, and took too much of our time. That made me think about how meetings could be improved. Today I have a more relaxed view on meetings and I see it as a part of our time management. Here are my 12 tips on how to improve and have effective meetings.

1. Location, location, location.. or tools, tools, tools..

Like in real estate: it is all about location, probably more than we think. Remembering to book a meeting room - if needed - is a good start. It also has to be a large enough room and with the right equipment. Needless to say, nothing kicks off a meeting in a bad way, than if there is no screen to share on.

The meeting could also be held in a more informal way. Sometimes in an open space or an empty office. You can even take a walk while having a meeting, this is done too little in my opinion.

Some companies only work online and most (due to the Corona pandemic) have been forced to work online. This really puts your company to the test whether it has the adequate tooling for online meetings and collaboration. Whether you use teams or zoom, these tools need to work flawlessly in order to have an effective meeting.

2. Create an agenda

It is always a good idea to have an agenda for a meeting. This lets attendees prepare if they need to. It also gives the attendees a heads up on what is going to unfold. Another valuable trait of an agenda is that people can decline the meeting if it is irrelevant for them. This way no one shows up to a meeting they were not supposed to be in. Having an empty agenda leaves attendees clueless whether they have to go or not. This is especially the case if the meeting is organised by their boss, as employees will usually attend what their boss invites them to.

An agenda also serves as a guideline throughout the meeting. How do you know if you are off topic, if you do not have an agenda? Meetings without agendas have a tendency to go off-topic (which is odd as there is no topic) and ends up being another meeting than you anticipated. An agenda serves as a guideline for the meeting, making sure you discuss the right topics in a prioritised manner.

3. Be prepared

Alright, so the agenda is one part of the preparation. Other things need to be taken care of as well, you want to make sure that you have the technical part covered. Do you need video chat for this meeting? Does the meeting room even have a screen or board you can use? Ask yourself how many times you have attended a meeting where someone needs to get a laptop or a board marker as the first thing. There is also the eventual case where the powerpoint was left on another computer. These are all time wasters.

I have started many retrospectives with the scrum master or agile coach getting up trying to locate some sticky notes and ball pens.

If the meeting contains some sort of demo or presentation make sure it is rehearsed (depending on the formality of the meeting of course). I always have a backup for my technical demos. So if everything fails I have at least some screenshots to show. One thing to remember is that meetings consist of several people and it has to be worth it to get all these people together.

4. Don't try to solve everything - Stay on topic

This tip also ties into agenda. In short: many issues often arrives when you discuss certain topics. These are often more detailed and require certain knowledge. Maybe you are in a meeting with 8 people. You end up discussing a detail and it is really just two people discussing. Does this sound familiar? Details should be discussed in separate meetings and the meeting should continue on the main point. If the detail is a show stopper you could hold the meeting until it is resolved or allow people to leave if they have no input. But in my experience that is rarely needed.

The meeting might have the characteristics of a brainstorm. These can take you away from the topic, but usually this is usually the topic from a new angle or in a broader sense. The meeting will still focus on the issue at hand.

5. Invite only the necessary people

Have you ever received an invite to a meeting that you had no idea what was about? I believe we have all been there. Some meeting organizers invite way too many people. Often meetings with too many people end up with a handful talking and the rest losing focus.

It is good practice to reduce the number of participants. If you have a team of 6 colleagues with the same skill set, then there is often no reason for all to discuss the same topic. Having a discussion with 2 or 3 representatives and then having an informal presentation to the rest, is a time saver. This strategy has to be communicated, so nobody feels left out, this can be informally done by asking who wants to participate.

Some people might think it is rude to decline a meeting because it seems "irrelevant". But I think it is our responsibility to avoid irrelevant meetings and other time wasters. There is also no harm in asking the organizer if he or she thinks it makes sense that you attend. This may be different depending on your organisation's culture.

6. Start on time but end whenever

This sometimes come down to culture in the organisation. But in most organisations people should be on time, as starting the meeting late can push the agenda. Which might end up creating a second meeting. A valid excuse should be in place if you are late to a meeting and you end up delaying it.

I was once in a meeting that was supposed to be an hour long. We finished the meeting after 40 minutes. But something odd happened, people stayed and just chatted. They had booked an hour of their time so that is what they were going to use. Exactly after 20 minutes they went back to their desks. Needless to say.. You do NOT have to spent all the time booked for the meeting. When the agenda is done the meeting can end and everyone can get on with other tasks.

Sometimes it might be useful to spent extra time in a meeting. Going a few minutes over time is fine if people do not need to be elsewhere. The alternative is booking another meeting, which might just be 5-10 minutes long.

Also - if you have to leave the meeting early let the rest know this right away, so you can prioritize your time. You may be needed for something at the end of the agenda.

7. Have someone take notes

Have you ever had a meeting twice? - I have. Not exactly the same meeting. But sometimes you have a meeting and some time later attendees are no longer aligned on what decisions and agreements were made.

You can have someone take notes of what was discussed and what agreements were made. This isn't a contract, but merely a reminder on what happened. This can also be useful for people who could not attend the meeting to know what transpired.

The notes could be compiled into a summary and emailed to everyone who was invited to the meeting. This way everyone has it and can easily sign off, or reply with an objection if needed. The formality of the email of course depend on the audience.

Notes are also great if you have a meeting on a task, but you do not get around to do it until half a year later. One of the outcomes of a meeting may be that the task could be down prioritised. Then when you get around to do it you have forgotten all the important decisions, in this situation notes will be of great value.

8. Make sure everyone needed attends

I mentioned earlier that it is important to trim down the number of attendees, this is true, but you do not wish to miss out on an important attendee. These are colleagues with expertise knowledge in the field, that you are having the meeting about. Maybe the meeting is about redesigning a system. For this meeting it would be wise to have the creator of the old system on board - along with the lead developer of the new one.

Sometimes one attendee is the break or fall for a meeting. I believe we have all been in a meeting with someone not showing up. Which made the meeting end after 5 awkward minutes - with no progress. Therefore we need to try to identify who is important for this meeting to be of value.

9. Take a break!

I cannot stress this enough. Meetings spanning over several hours should have breaks. I would normally have a 10-15 minute break for every hour after the first hour (meaning 2 hours one break, 3 hours 2 breaks etc.). I was told a couple of months back that there are no 5 minute breaks. A 5 minute break always end up taking at least 10 minutes. Use the break to open a window to get some fresh air, grab a cup or coffee, or take a short walk. If you stay too long in the same room discussing the same thing then you lose focus.

I always prefer small concise meetings over long meetings. This way you do not even need breaks. Instead of having a long meeting you could try and schedule a short one instead and see how far you get. But some meetings are meant to be long. Just Remember to put in some breaks. If possible to you can schedule several smaller meetings.

10. Avoid meetings

So, how do you have an effective meeting? Well sometimes you do not need to have a meeting at all. I am not saying you should go ahead and decline all meetings in your calendar. But sometimes you just need to reach out to a colleague for a couple of minutes. Booking 30 minutes next Tuesday would just be a waste of time. Having an "informal meeting" might be a better fit, this could also just be known as a short conversation.

I believe almost everyone have recurring meetings. These are often important - like a weekly or monthly status. But sometimes recurring meetings have gone on for so long that you forget just why you have them in the first place. It has become a part of the job. If your recurring meetings have become more of a monologue and less of a discussion. Maybe they are not that necessary anymore.

11. Ask for feedback

Alright. The tips I have presented can never replace the best way for you to have future effective meetings. That is to evaluate the meetings you have. You could take 5 minutes at the end of a meeting for feedback and ask if something should be changed. This will give you an indication on the value of your meetings. This can be the most important tip on this list.

12. Wrap it up good

If not feedback, the last minutes of the meeting should be used to wrap up the meeting. Such as who has actions points to take, who will send out notes to everyone or who will call for a new meeting if needed. Sometimes you leave a meeting believing everyone knows who should do what, only to find out a week later that there is no progress and calender time is being wasted.

That's it!

That was my 12 tips for an effective meeting. Did I miss any? please write in the comment field below. You can also write if you have any corrections or applause!

ps. I was thinking about mentioning bringing cake to boost morale and participation..