Masterclass: Effective meetings - Something to talk about

6th March 2009 at 00:00
Meetings needn't be a chore. By keeping them short, productive and tailoring them to your audience, you'll leave satisfied

Jacques Baeyens, the French consul general in 1958, said that "if men ate souffle before meetings, life could be much different." You probably won't have souffle, but a good supply of coffee and biscuits will help entice colleagues to get to your meeting on time.

For many, meetings intrude into the working day. Colleagues may feel that they're better off being left to their own devices, doing "more important" work. For meetings to be successful there must be a feeling that something will be accomplished: positive outcomes and actual decisions.

Make sure that there are only one or two major items per meeting so that you have enough time to discuss them. Publish an agenda and stick to it as much as possible. If people need information, make sure they have it in advance. If issues from other teams are being discussed, make sure the information is passed on before the meeting.

Choose a location for the meeting that is comfortable. Avoid classrooms or laboratoriesworkshops if at all possible. Ensure that tea, coffee and biscuits are on hand before the meeting starts. Never underestimate the lure of a chocolate biscuit.

There are several character types that you will come across in meetings and managing them can be difficult, but not impossible. Certain personalities can derail a meeting, here are ideas for handling different types:


- Use direct questions to others.

- Avoid looking at the dominant person when asking questions.

- Privately chat to them and make them aware that they are disrupting the meeting.

Argumentative people

- Revert to questions from an open forum.

- Point out when they're wasting time.

- Offer a one-to-one meeting another time.

- Overlook them if they are not intrusive.

- If they are dominating, invite an open discussion of the issue they are debating.

- Remain silent until the group "twigs".

Timid people

- Know their areas of expertise and ask direct questions.

- Involve them in meeting preparation.

Antagonistic people

- Clarify the purpose of the meeting.

- Offer a short "no recriminations" free expression period.

- Discover problems on a one-to-one basis.

Every department has, at some point, a cynic who's seen it all, done it all and condemns any new idea as a failure before it even gets off the ground. To defuse their cynicism, ask them before the meeting to prepare a list of problems for what's being suggested. That way, the meeting can be directed at solving the problems rather than moaning. You will also know beforehand what the negatives will be.

Finally, end your meetings on time. If you have prioritised your agenda, when time runs out, move the "could be" items to a later meeting. Don't forget to record any decisions and make a note of who agreed to do what. Issue the minutes for meetings as soon as you can.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex Next week: Handling recruitment.

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