Dear planners: I love you, but our meetings suck. That might hurt a little to hear, but the good news is I’m here to tell you why it’s not our fault (entirely), why we suck (specifically), and how we can do better.
I am a regional transportation planner. Before that, I worked in the sales world for 10 years. As an inside sales rep I grew $10 million in national accounts to $15 million over three years. As a local sales rep I grew a $600,000 local territory into $1 million in one year, and I managed $6 million as a national sales rep. The company I worked for would eventually became so successful that they were purchased by and incorporated into The Home Depot. I’ve distilled the most important things I’ve learned about designing good meetings into this article.
So why do our meetings suck? Because the system is set up that way. A sales rep works tirelessly for weeks, months (years sometimes), to get just 15 minutes of their prospect’s time. And when the sales rep finally gets that 15 minutes, they must discover the information they need, or effectively communicate the information the prospect needs to know. If they don’t, the sales rep doesn’t get paid. They can’t pay rent, can’t buy groceries… you get the idea. The sales rep lives or dies in those 15 minutes, and there are rarely second chances. The stakes are high.
Now let’s take a planner. The planner has a plan they’ve been working on. So the planner calls a meeting to talk about the plan. Some people show up, the planner talks about the plan, people (maybe) ask some questions, and then everyone disperses. What happens to our planner if no one at that meeting learned a thing? Or if our planner didn’t learn a thing? Often, nothing. At least in the short-term. Our planner still collects their salary at the end of the week, pats themselves on the back for another great meeting, and goes about making another plan. Many times, the stakes are about as low as you can get.
So it’s not really the planner’s fault. The system is set up to reward mediocre communication, and the consequences of ineffective communication are long-term or non-existent. That said, you should still design engaging and effective meetings even though they are not so closely tied to your ability to eat. Below are some common mistakes I see and some general advice for how to communicate more effectively in your meetings.
You don’t visualize yourself attending your own meeting and try to think of creative or innovative ways to do it better:
This is probably one of the most effective things you can do to design better meetings. Think of your meeting like a paper. When writing a paper, you: brainstorm, write rough drafts, revise, ask for feedback, and rack your brain until everything’s just right. Do the same thing for your meetings! Picture yourself attending the meeting as you’ve currently got it planned and try to think of ways to make it more engaging. Where might you lose them? Where do you have too much monologue you could break up with a check-in question? These are the kind of questions you should be asking yourself. For example, if you’ve got a plan that features many projects: don’t hit your audience with the 20 bullet points that make a project eligible for your plan. Tell a story about a specific project that perfectly fits all the criteria of your plan. Tell the story, and then tell why it’s a perfect example of the kind of projects in your plan. People are more likely to remember stories, and then they can work backwards from the story to recall what you wanted them to learn about your plan. Simple tweak, huge impact.
You haven’t realized that how you communicate through print is not an effective way to communicate in person:
A well-organized list of bullet points, supporting graphics, and tons of great content to support your ideas can be a fantastic way to communicate information in print. It is (usually) not an effective way to communicate in a meeting. We’ve all been to this meeting before. The speaker fires up the PowerPoint (or not) and speaks for 60 minutes straight. The speaker occasionally check in with the audience, but none one responds, so the speaker just keeps going. After a few short minutes of listening to the presentation, you find other thoughts start to creep into your head, or something the speaker said sparked an idea, and suddenly you find yourself unsure of how much time has passed since you were actively listening. We’ve all been to this meeting, yet we continue to conduct them ourselves. Don’t! People have short attention spans. Their ability to focus on any one speaker drops quickly and sharply. As a rule, if you have talked for more than a few minutes without engaging your audience or pausing to let your words sink in, their ability to absorb anything is almost nonexistent, unless it’s very relevant to them. If you must communicate a lot of information, break it up. Check in with questions. Ask for feedback. Poll with a show of hands. Have people reference something specific on a handout. Do something! Pro tip: if you ask for questions or thoughts and no one speaks up, call on someone. There is a reason that every high school teacher you’ve ever had did this. It works, if only by putting everyone one else on notice they could be called on next.
It’s hard to get everyone together, so you try to cover too much:
When I sat down the write this piece, I had 19 common mistakes I wanted to address. But if you’re like me, the first thing you do when you find an interesting article is skim it to determine how long it will take you to read. If I have time to read it then, I will. If I don’t, I must decide to let it go or bookmark it to read later (assuming I don’t forget). By putting everything I had to offer out there at once, the number of people who didn’t have 20 minutes to commit to my article at that time would learn absolutely nothing. Instead, I’ve decided to break this article up into a few different pieces. Do the same thing with your meetings! People can only absorb so much in 20, 30, or even 60 minutes. Break your information up into multiple meetings, or communicate it in different ways if that’s not possible. For example, cover the most important or complicated points in person, and provide the rest of the content digitally. If they can follow, understand, and remember what you cover in person, they will be more likely to read your follow-up email or link to further detail.
You talk when you should listen:
Some of us may have been to this meeting before. The speaker has booked 20 minutes. And when they rehearsed the talk in their bedroom it was more than enough time to cover everything they wanted to cover, start with a joke, and even take a few questions. Then, meeting day comes, they’ve gotten through 2 slides and a dialogue starts up. The speaker is happy to have some engagement. But after 3, 4, 5 minutes of discussion, you see them looking frantically at their watch and mentally calculating how many slides they have left to cover, and they start to break out in a sweat. At this point, they have a choice to continue to facilitate this dialogue, or snuff it out like a candle at bedtime and turbo through the rest of their slides. You should use your best judgment, but I would encourage you to let the dialogue run its course if you can. After all, you’ve sparked interest and it’s likely everyone will learn something from this dialogue. Could you let your meeting run late or schedule a follow-up meeting to cover the rest of your information? If you’ve invited these people to your meeting, they’re likely colleagues or stakeholders, and either one of them likely has relevant information to contribute to your work. Everyone will probably benefit more from this active dialogue than you blasting though the rest of your slides like an auctioneer and actively evading any questions or input on the rest of your content. Pro tip #2: no one likes to dedicate their time to come to a meeting only to feel like their voice is not important enough to be heard.
You haven’t thought enough about what I want:
I recently attended a meeting with a municipality that had been promoting one of their projects by touting all the great things it was going to provide for their community. After failing to get it off the ground, they regrouped and came to the realization that their approach was like a salesman talking about all the great things they are going to buy with their customer’s money once the sale is completed. They decided that they instead need to talk about their project in terms of benefits to the funders. There is a valuable lesson to be learned here. Most people spend a good amount of time thinking about why they want you to attend their meeting but not enough time considering why you would want to. My time and my attention are valuable to me. If you want either of them, you had better offer something in return that is at least as valuable to me. If you have trouble getting attendance at your meetings, this is probably the culprit. You haven’t given people a compelling (enough) reason to show up. Spend time thinking about who you want at your meeting, what they want, and how you can both benefit from your meeting. And then package it to them that way!
Those are the five most common and impactful mistakes I’ve seen my colleagues make when designing their meetings and some ways to avoid them. Just remember, it’s not (entirely) our fault, the few common mistakes many of our peers make are easily avoidable, and by making some of the small tweaks suggested above, we can do better.