Your calendar app pings a notification: you’re invited. A sense of dread washes over you. Another meeting! Is it really necessary? Will it go on forever?

Meetings are a necessary evil in today's workplace, whether remote or in-person. But they don't have to be a hassle, and can in fact be highly productive, effective and enjoyable. All it takes is a little planning.

Here’s a few of our tips for having better meetings for when it's your turn to send out the invites.

Set the topic based on the outcome

As in, literally set it. When you email the meeting invite, name it based on the outcome you want.

So, rather than a 'Meeting about Christmas leave', choose a more specific title like 'Meeting to agree on sales team leave dates for Christmas & New Year'.

And then in the email invitation, elaborate on the outcomes you want. Then at the start of the meeting, remind everyone of those outcomes.

It sounds a bit patronising and repetitive, but for a good reason - to keep everyone focused and prevent it becoming a free-for-all. If you have colleagues who are frustrated about something and want to chat it out, make time for a chat in a separate setting. Let them get it out before having a timed meeting which can easily run over if debate gets a bit heated.

Have a conversation manager

As Ray Dalio suggests in his book Principles:

“Make it clear who is directing the meeting and whom it is meant to serve. Every meeting should be aimed at achieving someone’s goals; that person is the one responsible for the meeting and decides what they want to get out of it and how they will do so. Meetings without someone clearly responsible run a high risk of being directionless and unproductive.”

So really, the person who calls for the meeting needs to take control themselves, or specifically name someone else to do it.

We all know that loudmouth in the office who likes to dominate meetings and speak over everyone else. They speak quickly and confidently, often without really contributing much. It’s best to whip 'em into shape early on and make sure they know it’s not their meeting to run. Manage their expectations of how they’re supposed to behave, or else they’ll continue to disrupt things.

Decide on the meeting style

Another bit of preparation that can really help everyone focus in the meeting - Ray Dalio shares more wisdom:

"If your goal is to have people with different opinions work through their differences to try to get closer to what is true and what to do about it (open-minded debate), you will run your meeting differently than if its goal is to educate."

There are different styles in which meetings can be run. So you could aim for:

  • a lecture
  • a presentation
  • an open debate
  • an idea-generation session
  • a critical feedback session
  • a progress check
  • a telling-off

Deciding in advance what style and structure the meeting will have is crucial in getting to the point - and so is sharing the aim with everyone else before it kicks off, or else it might be over before it's begun.

Even a 10-minute stand-up meeting can get derailed. You might want to quickly update everyone on your activities for the day, but if you've got a group of chatty colleagues with opinions to share, that 10 minutes can easily become 20.

And is the information you're going to discuss totally confidential? Or is every word free to share? Or, if it's a more open debate, will you be playing by the Chatham House Rule? Again, decide in advance and let people know, so there's no chance of an embarrassing misunderstanding.

Watch out for topic slip

Probably one of the most common meeting problems is running out of time at the end because you've overrun on certain topics. This means you either have to waste more time covering the topics you missed, or you get chucked out of the room because someone's booked it after you. Then you have to book another meeting, and soon enough nobody's getting any work done. Dalio refers to the agenda falling apart as 'topic slip':

"Watch out for 'topic slip.' Topic slip is random drifting from topic to topic without achieving completion on any of them. One way to avoid it is by tracking the conversation on a whiteboard so that everyone can see where you are."

You could also track this digitally in the chat box of your video conferencing software, if you're doing it remotely. A really useful tool for this is Timeblocks - with this, you can pre-decide which topics you're going to talk about, and decide an amount of time for each one. You then set the timer going, and it beeps when it's time to move on to the next topic. Progress bars and a 15-second break between topic changes make it easier to see where you're headed. Great stuff.

Finish with a plan for the future

If you say “we need to do this at some point”, nothing will get done. But if you're specific with everyone's responsibilities, then it will have been a useful meeting. Instead of summarising with:

"The sales team need to let us know when they've changed the referral process"

Try something like:

"The sales team are to prepare a presentation on changes to the referral process, and present to the marketing team on December the 4th at 2pm."

Then follow up with a summary email to the attendees, with everyone's tasks and deadlines. Then nobody can say "I didn't know I had to do that!"

Maybe don’t have a meeting at all

This is an easy one. Something to ask yourself when crafting a meeting invite is "does this really have to be a meeting?" Even though you might feel like sitting down and having a chat, if the end goal of the meeting could be achieved by sending an email or Slack message, maybe it's better to do that instead.

In case of emergency, nod enthusiastically

Finally, here's something for when you're stuck in a meeting that you really shouldn't be in.

Sarah Cooper's 9 Nodding Strategies For Your Next Meeting shows you how creative nodding techniques can help you blag your way through even the most demanding of meetings. (Or you could even take Elon Musk's advice and just walk out.)

Main photo by rawpixel on Unsplash