What if you could wave a magic wand and make all your meetings wonderfully effective?
Well, there’s more under your influence than you might think.
With a little strategic thinking and some thoughtful maneuvering, you can make a big difference. Even if you are not the team or meeting leader.
And better meetings can make your day more productive, more enjoyable, and more satisfying. It will help everyone else too.
Let me explain.
The problem with meetings
There can be many problems in any single meeting, and they can feed off of each other.
The purpose of the meeting may not be clear. The right people might not be in the room.
It could be that the timing is awkward–either too much or too little has taken place between meetings. Or perhaps this meeting just happens to be randomly crammed into some other overly busy time for many people.
Discussions can go off topic, go on too long, or lack any real purpose.
Some people might be venting rather than contributing. Or maybe some are focused too narrowly on their own little world or too broadly on all the world’s problems at once.
The meeting might come to an end early but the group just wastes lots of time until the hour is over. Or the meeting might run out of time with important items left unaddressed simply because the clock ran out on this meeting.
Does any of this sound familiar?
My guess is that it does. And I imagine that you could probably add a few more things to this list.
You could probably place blame for these issues one a range of people, from the meeting participants to the meeting leader and all the way to the top of the organization.
But placing blame is not going to help you very much.
Instead, you’ve got to understand the core issue causing all these problems and then determine what you can do about it.
The core issue is lack of preparation.
And this is where you can make a difference.
What is the best way to be prepared for a meeting?
Your typical work week might include meetings that cover a wide array of issues, challenges, and opportunities.
Your meetings probably cover a range of topics and include a number of different people from different teams and different parts of the organization.
Adding a lot of preparation work might seem like a lot more work.
But what we are talking about here is developing an approach that will work for just about any meeting. And, as you apply this to all of your meetings (especially the important ones), you might be surprised at the results.
Over time you will hone your style, taking lessons from one area and applying it to others. You will start to see and understand larger trends and context in your organization more clearly. And connecting those dots will help you to be even more effective.
This is not a quick fix. But it is a highly effective one.
And it will change the way you work forever. Because it will help you grow as a professional. Which is always the strategic path to follow, and the best way to escape the mundane repetition of being in “survival mode.”
The path of professional growth sets you up to learn a lot, and to be able to apply these lessons the rest of your career. You will not be limited to dealing with the quirks of the particular job or organization you happen to be in right now.
Your professional growth in this area may end up leading you to new career opportunities.
So, what is the best way to be prepared for meetings?
I believe it comes down to one simple act on your part: thinking things through.
Because it is your analysis of the situation, strategic insights, and vision of a path forward that will make a difference–both in those meetings and in the work beyond.
The more you focus at this strategic level, the more effective you will be.
All the checklist methods, calendar tricks, and note taking tips in the world can’t help you as much as your ability to think things through.
That’s the place to start.
Thinking things through
Your value as a professional, and your ability to have the sort of impact you were hired for, comes down to your ability to analyze a situation, decide on a course of action, and advocate for your choice.
In order to do that well, you must see the big picture, understand the details, assess the political landscape, evaluate trade-offs, and choose methods of influence.
You must think things through.
Adopting this approach puts you in a learner’s mindset and sets you up for a more strategic approach.
You are going on a bit of an exploration to perhaps discover new knowledge and insights. And you are determining a course of action from a broad vantage point.
Of course, to do this you will need to dig into the details.
Should you prepare differently for different types of meetings?
Absolutely. The type of meeting and your role in it makes a big difference in how you should prepare.
There are four types of meetings that require diligent preparation:
Status Update Meetings
These round table discussions tend to require input from most participants in order to assess and manage some sort of ongoing project or initiative.
For this type of meeting, you want to be prepared in two ways: to listen carefully and to convey messages strategically.
Information Sharing Meetings
This type of meeting is focused on one person (or perhaps a small team) making a presentation to a group.
For this type of meeting, you want to be prepared to listen carefully and also to ask strategic questions.
Decision Making Meetings
These meetings are focused on a clear outcome: for a group (or an individual) to make a determination on a course of action. The whole purpose of the meeting is to make a decision, usually an important one.
For this type of meeting, you want to help guide that decision. You need to be prepared to take a position and defend it, while at the same time being open to insights from others that could influence your opinion. Together you need to aim for the goal that is in the best interest of your organization.
Problem Solving Meetings
Sometimes a meeting is called to address a specific problem or challenge that has surfaced and needs to be resolved.
For this type of meeting, you want to be prepared to do some analysis and to guide some critical thinking. Understanding the big picture as well as the small details will be important.
How do you prepare for all of those types of meetings?
There are many basic tasks that will help you in all of those meeting types. Let’s cover those first.
To go in well-prepared, you should pre-brief yourself as much as possible.
Gather, review, and organize all the information you can on the topic at hand.
- Go through your notes from the last meeting.
- Sift through your inbox to relevant email threads.
- Go back to earlier documents that launched the project or a particular area of focus.
- Think about recent conversations with meeting attendees
- Consider relevant conversations you’ve had with those who are outside of the project team
But here’s the key. Don’t be passive.
This isn’t a multiple-choice test you’re preparing for with memorization. The point of this “self briefing” is to make sure you understand as much as possible. And that you find gaps in your knowledge.
You are analyzing all of this information. So you need to ask yourself lots of questions. You need to “connect the dots” between different pieces of information and make sense of it in a way that deepens your understanding of the situation.
A good way to be active in this analysis is to make yourself a fresh new set of notes on the topic.
You could re-summarize by considering:
- What are the key points?
- What was the sequence of events that leads up to now?
- What is the context of the situation? (politics, perspectives, other initiatives)
- What is critical to address now?
- What is important to keep in mind for the future?
Studies have proven this type of approach to be more effective for students, and the same strategies will help you in your work:
“The majority of students study by re-reading notes and textbooks — but the psychologists’ research, both in lab experiments and of actual students in classes, shows this is a terrible way to learn material. Using active learning strategies — like flashcards, diagramming, and quizzing yourself — is much more effective, as is spacing out studying over time and mixing different topics together.”
This is a big part of thinking things through, and a common oversight. Too much “thinking” is left to happen real-time in meetings rather than tackled separately and individually so that the meeting can be more productive.
Which leads us to an important point at the end of that quote – cramming is far less effective than studying over time.
The way to effectively think things through is to chip away at it. You will be surprised how just a few minutes how far a little reflecting on some of the questions above will go, even if those few minutes are during your commute, while waiting for your sandwich, or while doing laundry.
And that’s another key. This isn’t all about more desk time grinding it out. You are not trying to produce another widget or fill out another form. You are contemplating, synthesizing, and strategizing.
You are feeding your subconscious plenty of raw material, letting it churn and simmer, and then actively working on it here and there.
Eventually, your mastery of the topic increases monumentally.
What’s a good way to organize your notes for a meeting?
After you’ve done all this thinking, you need to get organized. Put together a simple bullet point list of:
- Your key takeaways
- The points you view as most crucial
- Questions you want better answers for
- Ways you might validate all of the above
That fourth point will lead you to more research. Perhaps you could chat with some colleagues, do a little Googling, or review more information you already have to fine tune where you are at on the topic.
Then, you can determine what course of action you think is best.
At this point, I think it’s helpful to pretend that you are totally and 100% in charge of the world. From that vantage point, what would you do?
- What is the best course of action?
- Who’s opinion would you rely on?
- What other information would you require?
- How does it look from a probabilistic viewpoint (where there is not clear “right” or “wrong” answer?
- If your choice is a good one, how great is the upside?
- If your choice is a bad one, how bad is the downside?
Once you have a good sense of where you would like to see things go, you need to become an advocate for that choice.
How can you influence others in a meeting?
Although you’ve done a lot of analysis, that alone is not helpful. You don’t hire a lawyer to list out the pros and cons of particular choices. You expect them to know that, to use that knowledge along with their knowledge of your situation and to advise you on the best course of action.
You need to have an opinion. And you need to be able to argue in support of it.
Now that you are well-informed, that will be easier. Mostly because you will have convinced yourself.
You can remain open minded, but others will need to have a pretty strong case to convince you. If they’ve done their homework, you will have a great discussion and debate. You will probably end up on a very good path forward.
Being so well-prepared will help you to be more influential. People can tell when someone knows what they are talking about.
But you should also be mindful of general persuasion tactics that can further assist you.
There are six “weapons of influence” developed by Dr. Robert Cialdini in his landmark book Influence that can be a helpful guide.
Just like people in any situation take cues from others (you go to the busy restaurant versus the non-busy one), so do organizations. Knowing what your peers are up to and presenting that as supporting evidence can be very powerful.
People are conditioned to be deferential to those in uniform (white lab coat, police uniform, etc), and they will do the same at work. Yes, dressing professionally can be influential. But so is your title and position. People expect you to speak authoritatively from that standpoint.
People are influenced by people similar to them. Ever wave to a random stranger just because you drove past them in the same make and model of car? Putting a little focus on things that are similar with others can go a long way.
Commitment and Consistency
If you can get someone to agree on a small thing, they are much more likely to agree to similar things in the future. People want to be consistent with their past selves, otherwise they have to admit that their past self made a bad decision.
Doing small favors for someone leaves them feeling indebted to you. This is a natural in the business world, and being a little more aware of it can help you be influential.
Sale ends at midnight! This one is probably the most over-used, but it is still effective. Some sort of pressure will influence decisions.
You are now prepared to have a great meeting. You should be feeling confidently well-informed and strategic.
You are also prepared for all of the tasks for any type of meeting – listening, asking, analyzing, strategizing, and convincing.
Meetings are increasingly important in today’s world of work. Unfortunately, too many of are unproductive.
You might feel overwhelmed and discouraged. Meetings pile up all day, all week, and all month, yet little seems to get done.
And while you can’t change all of that overnight, you can change a lot by preparing differently for your meetings.
You can think things through.
You can analyze the situation, reviewing your notes and checking your facts. Your analysis can uncover new insights, gaps in knowledge, and spark new ideas.
As you assess all of this information, you can develop ideas on the strategy you think will work best.
Once you’ve convinced yourself, you can advocate for that choice. And you can work to persuade and influence others in order to make that happen.
None of this requires that you be in a position of formal authority or even the person running the meeting. It’s a matter of being the best professional you can be by doing your homework, applying some critical thinking, and then speaking up appropriately.
You will be rewarded in many ways. You won’t always “win” your position, but you will certainly consistently grow as a professional. And you will help everyone around you to do the same.