5 Ways to Keep a Meeting on Track

My worst Office Space moment involved sitting in a cubicle with a few teammates, as one literally read through a printed powerpoint presentation. When I finally glanced at my watch discreetly under the table, I realized we were already 20 minutes past our allotted time—and yet I still had no idea who was doing what, by when or why. Frustrated, I turned to two mentors and asked them a single question: how do you end a meeting on time?

My male coworker looked at me with surprise and said bluntly, “Uh, I put my phone on the table and say we’re out of time.” My female colleague, on the other hand, nodded in weary recognition. “It’s tough to interrupt without being rude,” she said. “I try to verbally note when there is 15 minutes left to make it less awkward.”

Now, without delving into the prominent gender differences in their two responses or getting on my “men v. women in the workplace” soapbox, I think we can all agree that meetings can either be insanely productive and useful forms of collaboration and conversation OR the absolute worst waste of time. But keeping people on track, and on the clock, takes a little practice. Here are 5 tips to successfully end a meeting on time.

1. Stick to 30 Minutes

I learned this general rule of thumb years ago, and it hasn’t failed me yet. When you’re setting up a meeting, give yourself 30 minutes—no more, no less. Why? Because people will almost always use up whatever time they’re given. If it’s a 60 minute meeting, people will keep talking out of a need to fill space and based on the assumption that the conversation “needs” every minute. This might be true, but it’s usually not.

The beauty of this tip is that you can always set up another meeting. Always! Seriously, though, in that first half hour you will quickly figure out if you actually do need more time to talk or if you would be better off emailing each other later, or so on. You may discover, as I did, that with a shorter timeframe, people tend to be more efficient and intentional. (Myself included.) Also! You can end a meeting early. Crazy, I know.

2. Invite the Right People

Early in my career, I sat in many, many, many meetings where I wondered why I was there. I felt too afraid to ask that question aloud, for fear of looking like a lackluster team player or seeming unprofessional, but then I noticed how often meetings seemed to drag on because too many people were silent or one person seemed to be dominating the dialogue.

People will invite you to meetings to “keep you looped in” but that doesn’t mean you have to attend. If you’re not adding value, you shouldn’t be at the table.

I finally started asking the same question in a different way: what’s my role at this meeting? And it helped, immensely. At least a third of the time, the other person paused, cocked his or her head to the side, and said, “You know what? You can actually skip it. We’re good.” The other two thirds of the time, I received clarity regarding how I could contribute to the conversation, which made the meeting much better.

I’ll say this slowly but emphatically: people will invite you to meetings to “be nice,” or to “keep you looped in” but that doesn’t mean you have to attend. My theory is that if you’re not adding value, you shouldn’t be at the table; if it seems like a waste of your time, it probably is, and you have permission to decline. This holds true for every single person in a meeting, whether you’re the inviter or the invitee: if you ask the right people to be present and participate, then the chances of productive, to-the-point dialogue are infinitely higher.

Source: @rebeccataylornyc

3. Always Request an Agenda 

I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve attended with vague descriptions such as “Discuss communication plan” and “Brainstorm content ideas” with no agenda to tackle. Sure enough, later on, there’s been quite a bit of talking with very little useful output. These directionless meetings are inclined to be the worst offenders in terms of time management.

The tricky thing about meetings in general is that they’re frequently either for doing or planning. It’s important to know which type yours falls under, so you can prep accordingly. Without an agenda for a brainstorming meeting, for example, people will likely show up assuming the time will be spent talking about ideas—not necessarily presenting the ones they’ve already come up with.

You don’t necessarily have to list every single detail, and sometimes it doesn’t make sense to get too far into the weeds, but at least take the time to consider a loose outline to guide the group. Providing an agenda, or reading it beforehand, creates an awareness that helps everyone prioritize goals and results for that particular exchange.

4. Know Who Is Doing What and When

In every meeting and interaction on a project, pause and take a moment to identify some key details: who is responsible for what? What are the objectives of the work being done? What sort of timeframe sets the pace? Who is taking notes? And so on.

Be specific on how to move projects forward, even in the middle of conversation. It’s really easy for people to move full-speed ahead without answering these simple questions, and part of being a leader means being the one to clarify when necessary and help keep everyone—even yourself—on track.

5. Designate a Facilitator

On that same note, have you ever been in a meeting where the conversation seems to circle around and around to . . . nowhere? Me too. It can be helpful to pick someone to facilitate remarks, which can be as simple a role as paying attention to the rhythm and cadences of interactions. If you’re the facilitator, you would function like this: you notice that someone on your team always stays quiet, so you ask for their input; likewise, if colleagues get cut off or interrupted, you backtrack to them to help make space for their point of view.

Above all, watch out for meeting ninjas. Don’t laugh—I’m serious. These are real, and you know them: the guy cracking constant jokes under his breath, the girl gossiping about her weekend, the boss complaining about crazy deadlines, the manager piping up every two seconds with an opinion. Meeting ninjas are technically harmless, considering they’re often just strong-opinionated folks who are anxious to add their two cents about, well, everything. However, they will 100% hack your careful agenda for their own benefit if you aren’t careful, which results in precious time lost over topics of conversation that aren’t a priority.

The good news is that you can politely interrupt with phrases like, “I’d love to bring the group back to . . .” or “We’re getting a little off track, but it sounds like we’ve agreed upon . . .” or “What I’m hearing is that there’s a problem regarding XYZ.” If there are prevalent spin-offs, then those topics aren’t tangents, they are things to be addressed another time.

The bottom line? Don’t be afraid to set guidelines around how to respect everyone’s time.

Your turn: what’s the worst meeting you’ve ever experienced? How do you keep meetings on track and on time?

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