How to Maybe Lead a Good Meeting

| 10 min read
#productivity #meetings #leadership

Something that's come as a surprise to me, I've collected a bit of a reputation and an ability to run a solid meeting. I've gotten feedback about how the meetings I run are energizing and feel useful.

Running a successful meeting feels great. I thought that I would try to put together some ideas about how to make your meetings more successful. One of the biggest misconceptions I see is that a successful meeting means following a set list of items. Stuff like creating an agenda, setting time limits, taking notes.

These are necessary, but not sufficient, components to meeting leadership. Meeting leadership is a skill that requires practice.

image You, too, can be as successful as this obligatory stock meeting image

Before We Begin, a Caution Sign

A well-reviewed or poorly reviewed meeting has minimal relationship with its effectiveness.

Let me restate that for emphasis:

How well your meeting is reviewed has a little to do with how valuable it is for your team or your company.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

Humans are bad at judging whether they've learned something

As books like Make it Stick show, learners rate professors' content as more enjoyable and more effective when they lecture. But lectures are some of the least effective ways to pick up new information and concepts. For example, fuzzing the text on a document makes it more likely you'll remember it. This is because when it's harder for us to understand things, our personal mushbuckets (our brains) assumed it's more important.

Does this mean we should go ahead and make all meetings miserable? F*** no. But there are different ways to make meetings enjoyable and make meetings effective. Some of these techniques will help with both, but they are different outcomes.

Humans Like Being Around Other People

While engineers grumble about being in meetings, they love chatting with other people. (This can come in the form of coffee breaks, hallway meetings, or Slack conversations). So, when we talk about if a meeting was successful, we have a built-in bias towards keeping them.

Meeting Feedback Has As Much to Do with that Person's Week As It Did with that Meeting

This honestly deserves a separate article. But… basically, a meeting's length and timing has a larger impact on our perception of its value more than its content or outcomes.

A poorly run meeting on a Friday will be more enjoyable than a perfect meeting in the middle of a Wednesday.

End Caution

Even with all this being said, you should try to run good meetings. Feeling productive (and being productive) is important. And if you can run meetings that are successful and fun, your techniques will be more likely to spread.

The Overview

Here's the Tl;dr. Six skills you should try to focus on.

  1. Meetings should have a point (and culture meetings work only so many times)
  2. Your subject should be specific
  3. Keep control of your meeting
  4. Be explicit about what participation looks like
  5. Use status on a team and within an organization to mimic good habits
  6. Restate takeaways liberally

As a meeting facilitator, you will need to take proactive action to change other people's behavior. This could put you in disagreement with the people around, which can be uncomfortable. Often focusing on these goals means focusing less on the content of the meeting. That's ok. The goal isn't to take control for the sake of asserting control. The goal is to use each of these as a tool to help people share ideas and reach their goals.

1. Meetings should have a point

One of the first things you'll hear about good meeting leadership is to set an agenda. Before that, you should visualize what a good meeting looks like. If it's a presentation, how do you want people to respond? Should they ask a lot of questions throughout? Do you want them to do something after the meeting? (Like write code or designs) If it's a discussion, what would a successful discussion look like? Do you want to retrieve information from a specific person? Is there a stakeholder in the room who you need agreement from?

Every meeting has a point, and it's worth visualizing what that looks like, beyond the agenda.

People will tell you it's important to set all of this out in a document in advance. And you absolutely should if you can, but it's more essential you have the picture in your head before you start. And then once you start, you can compare the picture in your head to what's going on. And that gives you the ability to guide the direction of the meeting. You can choose to bring it back to your original vision or let it flow in the new direction.

Danger Zones: Pushing Information (Company Culture Meetings and Presentations)

No one likes information pushed at them. The "this could have been an email" can seem like a helpful note on a different way to communicate. That's a lie. This "could've been an email" means it's getting trashed or archived, and the time was useless.

Look, sometimes you absolutely have to make sure that information comes across. Sometimes you need to do meetings for culture or to push critically important stuff because it's the least "lossy" format you have.

But often, for meetings that "could have been an email" or that are pure "information pushing". It means that you haven't thought enough about what you want participants to get from you.

I've learned the hard way that having meetings just to keep people informed or "in touch" isn't that effective. Maybe you think you're rolling out some new technology that other engineers need to know about. Maybe you think various departments know what everyone else is up to. But giving some contextless mush is going to make people tune out.

You should spend a bunch of time trying to figure out what your participants care about and why. If you're thinking to yourself (crap this means I have a lot of work to do), yes it absolutely does. The larger the audience means the more time you're taking up, means the more time investment you should put in up front to make sure that time is well spent.

2. Your Subject Matter Should be Specific

I think we all have this belief to reach the widest audience possible we need to generalize. First Focus, Then Simplify has a great discussion on why this is such a bad idea.

For one, if you're abstract, you're going to get a bunch of abstract aphorisms back. For example, if you ask a developer what the best database is you're going to get an answer about their favorite pet database.

I would advocate for two steps towards meeting and topic participation:

  1. Broadly frame the problem you are trying to solve or the thing you are trying to do.
  2. Quickly use specific examples for help, support, or explanation.

This can feel incorrect. If you don't give your participants all the necessary information up front, how will they know how to participate? In most of my experience, giving participants every piece of info, means it's framed in a way that I find is useful, and not what they find understandable. Jumping to examples, gives meeting (and presentation) members, the chance to ask questions. And those questions will help them understand your issue better than how you could have explained it up front.

There's some amount of "feel" to this, knowing how much is too much or not enough. I would err on the side of providing people less information and letting them ask it rather than overloading them. I promise it won't make you look stupid and will actually get participants engaged in the process.

3. Keep control of your meeting

No one wants to be the asshole that tramples over other people's thoughts or time. Especially not publicly. But the opposite is a meeting that loses the thread or runs out of time.

Acting as a facilitator means keeping an eye on how long people have been talking, considering whether their topic is relevant to your goals, and taking proactive action to correct this as necessary. This can include interrupting people, even mid-argument. It also means keeping an eye out for people who haven't spoken, reading facial features (or intent in texts). I've found saying something like "Hey your tone is making me think you have doubts, is that accurate?"

While time is an important component of this, it's the first step. A quick statement that doesn't contribute to the meeting goal should be scrutinized. It either means your goal needs to change (which is ok!!) or it means you need to discuss it elsewhere.

This sort of facilitation is also helps improve equity within the conversation. Keeping control means you can pause for questions and to restate critical points.

What to Avoid: Cursed Conversations

Some people call it swirl, others call it circling, I call them cursed conversations. These are moments in meetings that are high emotion and low outcome. Where everyone feels attached to what happens but little control over changing it.

Ironically, meeting schedules are a perfect example of cursed conversations. People often have slightly different schedules which makes coming to a group consensus hard, and they feel emotionally attached which makes compromise feel impossible.

My recommendation here is to find someone to make a decision and move on. It can feel rough, but cursed conversations are best resolved by ownership and experimentation, not consensus.

4. Be explicit about what participation looks like

For most people, meetings feel most effective when the narrative of the meeting feels like they got from point A to point B emotionally.

This can look like one of the following: a. They learned something they can directly apply to their life. b. They learned something that adds to their knowledge about something they care about. c. They felt like they were able to meaningfully contribute. d. They got to spend time getting to know the people they care about and thereby enriching your life.

Your job is to make sure that your participants… uh… participate in a way that helps them get to one of those goals. (While still meeting your objectives).

To that end, it's helpful to plan out what type of participation you think your meeting (and goal) fits best. Then, you can work backwards to create an agenda that gets you to those points. This can also give you a signal for guiding a meeting productively. If people are trying to meaningfully contribute where they only have actionable takeaways it tells you something. Maybe you need to frame the conversations, so they have more ownership of what's happening. Maybe you need to give up more control. Or maybe, you need to pull back and clarify that this is a decision that's been made, and you're looking for engagement through feedback about the results.

Meetings Are Culture

One of the weirdest parts of online business culture (i.e. LinkedIn) is the concept that Company Culture is sacred. But also, there are a million how toes on the best way to copy someone who interned for Jeff Bezos once and wrote a medium article about it. In my opinion, meetings are a primary way that company culture gets defined. So if you care about your company culture you should really care about your meetings.

If you want your culture to be loose and friendly, you should be able to envision people cracking the occasional joke without getting off topic. If you expect your company culture to be formal, efficient, and always on topic, you can be prepared for that too.

5. Use Status To Set Good Examples

One mistake I see get made a lot is by people who kick of meetings and who want broad involvement. So, they throw out fun words about how everybody is invited, and it’s open season for anyone to contribute. And then shocker you get a lot of blank faces and not much involvement.

While it makes us uncomfortable in tech, the reality is the manager, or Senior, or Staff next to our titles means something. It means that people will have a different way of thinking about your behavior. And we can use that to our advantage. High status individuals can set the standard for behavior we'd like to see out of a meeting.

I don't think we talk enough about the fact that once you're in an "important" role, there's a lot of pressure on you to continue to appear "important". This can take the form of behavior where high status individuals only contribute to things comfortably in their domain. It also can take the form of not asking questions that might appear novice.

I think leaders should take more time to carefully and thoughtfully display the sorts of risk taking behavior they would like people to see. Think Again by Adam Grant differentiates two types of confidence: social and knowledge-based confidence. Often humans tend conflate the two, but they are very separate. Someone can show low knowledge confidence while retaining high social status. They do so by signaling their social comfort in the situation while being open about their gaps of knowledge or uncertainty.

This can also take the form of inviting disagreement. For a large portion of meetings disagreement is a key form of productive behavior to gather the best ideas and also create unity. When leaders speak it can create a defacto "right answer". As Being Wrong discusses, one way to achieve this is through "self-subversive" thought. Basically, you couch your statements, in "I think" or "Maybe" or "In this context".

The irony is that most writing on the internet is the opposite of this. We're taught to go forth boldly and say what we mean lest other people not take us seriously. Especially in meetings and group settings, leaders should do this more to make sure other people feel comfortable contributing.

6. Restate takeaways liberally

I think people occasionally have a fear of repeating themselves. We tend to associate repetition with age and the mistakes that come with losing our faculties to time. But… the reality is, participants will not understand what they're learning the first time, or the second time, or the third time. This means when key points and action items pop up you should repeat them. Repeat them so everyone knows what's happening and then repeat them at the end, so we all know what we learned.

You should absolutely throw the brakes on a meeting where you aren't 100% certain everyone is on the same page. And this is true if even if you aren't leading the meeting.

Lemme repeat that: if you have sincere concerns that people aren't all on the same pages you should feel empowered to slam the brakes. Jumping in to say, "Hey, that felt important, and I'm not sure we're on the same page, here's what I heard [restate what you heard]" can make sure everyone is hearing the same things from a conversation.

I would recommend using a template for this:

[X Person] is going to do [Y Thing] by [Z Time]

-- or --

We all agree that [X Project] is going to use [Y approach] instead of [Z Approach]

Say this when you first come to the conclusion, and then again at the end of the meeting. At a minimum.

Bonus: Trust Your Participants... Seriously... Trust Them... It Will Be Ok

A lot of modern meeting design focuses on pushing information to people who are aggressively disinterested in what you have to say. As though the main goal of getting together with other people is that they should have memory retrieval of a specific bullet point or phrase that you said.

That’s frankly stupid. You need to put in the effort to make sure that people you invite to your meetings can be successful participants. If you can't think clearly about why someone wants to be in your meeting, it's a decent signal that they shouldn't be there in the first place. Making your content simpler and creating an agenda isn't going to help if you don't know why everyone is there.

So let me just say this:

You work with a bunch of smart and thoughtful people.

Lemme repeat that again

You work with a bunch of smart and thoughtful people.

Create a vision of the type of meeting you want to have. Build a picture in your mind of how you want people to participate in the meeting. Use your status to promote that behavior you want to see. Learn from the meeting and improve for the next time.

It's a genuinely hard problem to solve, but it doesn't require tricks, or feints of hand, or sleights. Once you manage that you can have fun meetings that are also productive.