Essential tips guaranteed to improve your meetings

People sat in a meeting
Unnecessary and overlong meetings can be a blight upon our working lives. To help you make sure those meetings matter, we got some valuable tips from Caroline Webb, a former leadership coach at McKinsey and Co. who specialises in behavioural science…

In 2016, a survey of over 1,000 British people who work in an office environment revealed that they spent 3 hours and 42 minutes a week in meetings.

Over the course of a 40-year working career, those meetings will take up two years of their lives.

The survey, commissioned by eShare and carried out by TLF Research, also revealed that 30% of respondents thought most meetings were either inefficient or should be shorter, while more than 45% admitted that their minds tended to wander away from the agenda.

So, how can you ensure that your meetings are productive and worthwhile, rather than leaving your audience to think, ‘that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back”?

Caroline Webb is an economist who spent 12 years as a partner and leadership coach at renowned management consultants McKinsey & Co. In 2012, she founded Sevenshift, a behavioural science firm, and is the author of How to Have a Good Day, which Forbes named as ‘one of the must-read business books of 2016’.

She says: “We often focus attention on what we’re discussing – the document we’re sharing, the decision we need to make, the message we want to get across – and very little to how we’re having the conversations.

“The number of times I’ve seen smart people spend long weeks putting together a presentation, followed by just a few minutes – often on the way to the meeting – on how to make the most of them… It’s a huge missed opportunity.”

Here are half a dozen of Webb’s essential tips to holding a successful meeting…

1. Preparation

Set out your intentions beforehand, including your main priority for the meeting. Challenge any negative expectations and decide where you want to focus your attention.

“Which specific actions will help you make those intentions a reality, and what’s going to get in the way of things going as you hope?” she asks. “If you’re stressed about the meeting, use physical feedback loops – smile broadly, breathe deeply, spread yourself out – shoulders back, head up, feet firmly planted.”

Webb also advises you to think about the timing. “Make it slightly shorter than an hour or half hour to give people some mental recovery time. And don’t run over 90 minutes without a proper break.”

When it comes to the agenda, she says: “Try listing and introducing items as questions, not statements: for example, ‘How can we improve team communication?’ rather than ‘Team Communication’.”

2. Start on a strong footing

If you find that meetings stray from the agenda or finish without a conclusion, then Webb’s advice on collaborative goal settings could prove useful.

“Ask, ‘Where do we want to be by the end of this meeting?’ and ‘What’s the best way to achieve that?’” she suggests, even if you are not formally chairing the meeting. And if a positive attitude can help frame the meeting then try asking people to share their recent successes.

She admits to setting up a ‘smartphone day-care’ box “where people can voluntarily deposit their phones” as part of a no-devices rule. “Otherwise people will use up some of their brain’s precious working memory on monitoring their phones and tablets, making everyone just a little bit dumber than they would be if they were concentrating.”

3. Making your mark

Using anecdotes that show an effect on colleagues or customers will help make your contributions memorable, says Webb.

“With longer comments, break your points into clear chunks to make it easier for people to process what you’re saying. If you need to disagree or raise a concern, help others stay in open-minded discovery mode as you share your views. Say what you like about the idea on the table. Be very specific. Then say, ‘What would make me like it more is…’”

4. Improving the discussion

Avoid groupthink, says Webb. “It can feel great to reach a quick agreement. But if you’re talking about something important and there’s no challenge, you’re probably missing part of the picture.”

She suggests picking holes with questions such as, ‘If person X were here, criticising our idea, what would they say – and what would we need to reassure them?’

If a meeting closes without agreement on all points, Webb recommends promoting calm by clarifying what you can agree on, and if you can agree to disagree on the rest. “If not, do your best to summarise each position objectively, doing justice to each idea.”

5. Handling challenging behaviour

“If people are being annoying, remember they’re probably feeling threatened by one of the common triggers: exclusion, unfairness, feeling unappreciated, a lack of autonomy or competence, a threat to their values, or uncertainty.

“Even if you’re not the chair, you can make them feel included by expressing interest in their views, and you can make them feel heard and respected by referring back to something they’ve said.”

6. Wrapping up

Where possible do a positive round-up. Webb suggests taking time to recap key decisions, reflect on insights from the meeting and agree on steps that each person will take.

“You can combine it with a ‘next steps’ summary from each person, by asking everyone to say one thing they were interested or inspired to hear in the meeting and what they’re committed to doing, by when.”


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