How to have fewer, more effective meetings

Published on January 26, 2020 - Tagged: #management #collaboration

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According to research by Professor Steven Rogelberg 50% of meetings are seen as engaging - of course this means that 50% are not.

From my own experience I would have to agree that many meetings are not very useful. There are too many organisations having meetings that would be better as an email or a wiki document.

There are good meetings…

Not all meetings are a waste of time. Regularly getting together in person is great for teams and for working through problems. These should be meetings where everyone needs to provide input.

Whiteboarding problems with peers generally leads to better solutions and running things like project kick-offs in person is a wickedly effective method to start a piece of work with an engaged team.

Some of the things I always do to run a productive in-person meeting:

  • Send out an agenda. make sure there is a specific problem to be addressed. Actively limit the scope of the meeting.
  • Limit mandatory invitations to the right people, make invitations optional for other people.
  • Actively facilitate - make sure no one is left out and that no one dominates.
  • Ensure the agenda gets resolved.
  • Take notes. Send out a summary - private if applicable otherwise share widely for feedback and communication. If potential attendees know that they will get a summary they can choose not to attend but still get all they need from the meeting.

And wasteful meetings…

There are some common types of communications in organisations where the default mechanism is create a meeting but you might be just as effective by sending a written communication:

  • Status Updates
  • Information Sharing
  • Decision Making

To handle these scenarios you should instead write a document (or email) and ask for feedback. Maybe afterwards you can organise a meeting to discuss feedback but start with a well researched and written document. Even the meetings you run in person are far more effective if you write appropriate material before and after.

  • Writing encourages you to think through the problem before involving others.
  • Reading a written communication is asynchronous, allowing your consumers time to digest your message and do any exploration and investigations themselves.
  • Writing, sharing and asking for input as a response or comment can make costly meetings obsolete and opens the discussion up to a much wider audience.
  • Written communications provide a knowledge-base and record of decisions for the entire organisation.
  • You’re not monopolising time

You compliment writing with relevant meetings afterwards. They will re-enforce your message. You’ll be surprised how little you need to do these follow-ups.

Writing to replace meetings

I use the following steps, systems and checklists to avoid meetings and write effectively .

Start at the end

You need to start with writing down the specific outcome you want. Start at the end. What is the pain for the organisation that you’re trying to relieve?

Write down who your audience is and target the contents to them by identifying how the change or information will benefit them.

Remember this writing is not going to be about what you want, but instead how it will benefit your audience.

Think about what they are optimizing for and how you can help that. You should try to target one audience at a time. For example this document…

Desired Outcome Audience Benefits to them
More peers using the written form instead of ad-hoc meetings Leads of creatives Less time in meetings, increased audience, better decisions

If you’re struggling to frame the content as benefits to the audience, you might be shouting something no one wants to hear. Reconsider sending the content.

Research notes

Researching is very specific to your content but I personally need a storage system. I’ve tried microsoft one note, evernote and notion in the past but I keep going back to Trello for all my notes. It’s just simple, fast and it works.

I’ve heard amazing things about Roam Research for organising content recently but I’ve been too cheap to buy it for now.

The actual writing

The writing is going to be very different for different organisations, topics and audiences.

I’ve taken some amazing lessons from the book On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

For technical writing you should try to start with a summary that is easy to digest. Present a single piece of interesting information. After presenting the audience with one piece of new information think about what question they will have. Answer that question in your following paragraph and provide another nugget. Repeat.

Here are some other structures/systems for how to approach content.

AIDA - Attention, interest, desire, action or agreement

Start by getting the readers attention. Then build their interest - what’s in it for them if they continue to participate? Speak to their desires and finish by specifying the action they need to take next.

Try to elicit the audiences’ emotions, but never be manipulative.

Borden Approach

Your audience will go through states as they consume your content. When you start they wont care much about what you’re saying. Again you need to catch their attention, fill in the details and finally specify the call to action.

  • Ho-hum: introduction, the audience is bored, get their attention
  • Why bring that up? - build a bridge to get the audience to understand why it relates directly to them
  • For instance: give the audience specific concrete facts and stories to get them thinking
  • So what?: The call to action. what do you want them to do?

Past, present, future

For this type of writing follow this pattern.

“There was a time when, but today things have changed, as we look into the future…”

Review your message before publishing

Now that your piece is complete give your writing some time to settle. Do not write last minute because you want to review before publishing.

  • Do at least 2 passes to simplify the writing.
  • Get a peer review.
  • Review your publishing checklist
  • Confirm this actually provides value and needs to be sent.
  • Send 🚀

I use this checklist when reviewing my writing

  • Content: Do I absolutely have to send this?
  • Content: Is there an obvious audience?
  • Content: Does it focus on what the audience needs to hear?
  • Content: Do you address all the points you wanted to?
  • Content: Is it as short as possible?
  • Content: Is it factually correct?
  • Content: Are you engaging the readers emotions?
  • Structure: No long paragraphs?
  • Structure: Uses simple words?
  • Structure: Uses precise verbs over adverbs?
  • Structure: How does it read out lout?
  • Outcome: Will the audience need any further support
  • Outcome: Is it clear how and what the audience needs to do next?

Conclusion

Writing more will reduce the number of meetings you have to facilitate and attend.

Writing is not better than meetings where collaboration is key. I love a good whiteboard session or project kick-off with all stakeholders in the same room!

Writing well is difficult and takes practice. Use systems to help!

Darragh ORiordan

Hi! I'm Darragh ORiordan.

I live and work in Sydney, Australia building supporting happy teams that create high quality software for the web.

I also make tools for busy developers! Do you have a new M1 Mac to setup? Have you ever spent a week getting your dev environment just right?

My DevShell tooling will save you 30+ hours configuring your dev environment with all the best modern tools. Get it here

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