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How to make meetings effective and useful: 6 ways to actually get stuff done

These techniques will help you stop wasting time on pointless meetings and start having fruitful discussions that lead to effective decisions.
white woman with long brown hair in a braid presenting
Image: Morsa Images/Getty

Whether you're working from home or the office, modern professional life is dominated by meetings – and sometimes it feels as if these get-togethers are never-ending and utterly pointless.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Business leaders share their best-practice techniques for creating meetings that matter.

1. Set an objective

Lee Cowie, CTO at Merlin Entertainments, says anyone calling a meeting needs to be really clear about why it's happening and what's it for. 

"Think about what you're going to achieve from this meeting – what is your goal and be really specific and focused on what the purpose of the meeting is and the outcome that is expected. I think if you've got that line of sight, it becomes much easier to keep the meeting on track and focused," he says.  

SEE: Microsoft says this is how to improve your Teams meetings

That's a sentiment that resonates with Emma Frost, director of innovation at London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), who tells her people to never book a meeting unless they know exactly what it is they need to get out of it. 

"Even if the person at the other end then has to spend five minutes thinking things through before they click 'accept', it has to be the right reason for coming together. So, make sure you write down in the meeting invite what you need to get out of that meeting," she says. 

2. Keep the numbers tight

Once you've agreed on the need for a meeting, be careful to ensure the right people are sitting around the table.

We've all been in meetings where there's simply too many people that don't need to be there. One or two people dominate the chat and others are left wishing they were making more productive use of their time.

Mark Bramwell, CIO at Saïd Business School, says too many people fail to keep the numbers tight. If you don't get the best people at the table, you're unlikely to come to the right decisions for the business. 

"I find that there's a horrible propensity to overpopulate meetings," he says. "People say, 'we'll just invite X and we'll just invite Y because they need to be there'. And often, many of these people don't really need to be there. I think the key to success is often about making sure you always have the right audience with the right decision makers."

3. Prepare the ground

Cristiane Muller, digital marketing manager at Midea, says successful meetings are all about strong foundations.

"No one wants a meeting to prepare for the meeting," she says. "So, when I send an invitation, I always send an agenda. I say who is responsible for certain topics and I outline what we are going to talk about. I also outline what I expect people to bring for the meeting."

Merlin's Cowie also believes effective preparations are crucial. Consider carefully why the meeting needs to exist and don't call a get together for something that could be dealt with through other channels.

"You see meetings that end up in your diary that you could just do through a five-minute phone call," he says. "You don't need to bring 10 people together to achieve what could be done by two people with a five-minute phone call. Make a decision and move on." 

4. Be ready to go off-piste

Aims and objectives are crucial to successful meetings, but sometimes the whole point of the meeting is simply to catch up – and Cowie says that's totally acceptable. 

"I have a meeting with my team and my direct reports every Monday," he says. "I've got no fixed agenda. It's just a touch point to say, 'Hi, how was your weekend?' Those type of meetings are all about engagement. They're about making sure that everybody's healthy and OK. In those situations, you can let them ramble a bit."

SEE: 'Striking a balance': How one company is rethinking the office for hybrid work

Matthew Lawson, chief digital officer at Ribble Cycles, says most of his team remains fully remote. Informal chats that bring the team together help ensure every meeting isn't transactional, where people only focus on targets and agree to achieve specific outcomes. 

"We talk about things that are interesting," says Lawson. "I talk about business issues, so I increase that circle of trust in the team. We also talk about who's been brilliant this week; we all nominate somebody and we talk about our reasons. It's all about engagement and it feels more like a live stream or a YouTube video than a traditional meeting."

5. Keep to time

Professionals around the globe have spent much of the past two years in back-to-back video-conference meetings. One thing everyone has learnt through this process, says Ian Rabagliati, product and experience director at Eurotunnel, is the importance of breathing space. 

"Having an agenda and trying to keep them to 25 or 55 minutes is something that I advocate," he says. "That five minutes of space at the end of the meeting forces people to stop and think about whether we've covered everything, so that you don't just spend five hours sat in back-to-back without leaving your chair. I think shorter meetings – and being willing to cut them if they're not going anywhere – is important."

SEE: The future of work: How everything changed and what's coming next

LLDC's Emma Frost takes a similar approach: always leave time between meetings and aim to be even more concise if you can.

"I never book a meeting in for a whole hour. I always book it in for 45 minutes and wait for someone to try and change it," she says. "And then – if it has to be longer – it becomes 55 minutes. But ideally, it starts at 45 minutes and then becomes 55 minutes if it has to. Now, that approach doesn't always work, but it's a good starting premise." 

6. Reach a conclusion

Saïd Business School's Bramwell says the big thing to avoid is a meeting that becomes like "a talking shop". Referring back to your aims regularly will help you stay on track

"We need a clear idea of what the objective is and whether are we going to make a decision. And if we're going to make a decision, we make it at the meeting. I think they're guide rails for any good meeting," he says. 

Midea's Muller says sticking to the agenda is crucial if you want to reach a suitable conclusion. She also summarises the chat and uses follow-up points to ensure the next meeting stays on track, too.

"By the end of the meeting, have a quick review about the topics you went through and what everyone in the meeting has to do afterwards. Then, have final conclusions. I note down the next stops and say that the next meeting is going to be to the same agenda, but with the updates we've agreed in this meeting," she says.

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