Communication is the oil in the engine of any business and yet it is often neglected, careless or squandered – especially in meetings. Few people look forward to business meetings because they are frequently felt to be unproductive and a waste of time.  But, all too often they are also reluctant to put in the required effort to prepare in advance, be on time and stick to the agenda!

You can’t have it both ways
If any of the meetings you attend are unproductive; what are you doing about it?  Are you contributing to the late starts, lack of focused agendas or digressions that make the meeting run over?  A little self-discipline and efficient time management can transform the effectiveness of meetings, improve decision making and develop powerful teamwork.  But it is all about keeping the fundamental principles in mind.

There is a popular and often misquoted piece of research from the 1950’s by George Miller, that the maximum number of items a person can hold in their mind at once is seven.  More recent findings show that actually we can only hold about 4 items or concepts in our mind at any one time.  It reduces rapidly to only one if things get more complex, if we are tired or if we are over or under-stressed in any way.  For example, you may find it easy to keep 4 numbers in your mind, but can you recall the four sentences in this paragraph without rereading? 

No wonder meetings often seem so chaotic and full of misunderstandings – no one can really understand what is going on!

Keeping you on track
There is a bewildering amount of information out there about how to run a meeting but I like to keep things very simple – the way your brain likes it!  So here are the four fundamental principles of effective meetings to keep you on track.

1. Why? – Are the purpose and outcomes clear?
2. What? – Is there a clear Agenda with specific times allocated for each item?
3. Who? – Who really needs to be there? What contribution will they be expected to make?
4. When? – Is the timing appropriate? For attendees and availability of information: i.e. time of Day, Week, Month, Year?

Keeping the above in mind when planning for a meeting, or considering them when you are invited to a meeting, may help you decide if it will be a productive use of your precious time, or not.  Can the outcome be achieved without holding a meeting?  Will a phone call or brief one-to-one chat suffice?

A little more detail
Keeping to the theme of simplicity, let’s look at each of the four principles in a little more detail.

1. Why? – Are the purpose and outcomes clear?
Regularly reviewing the purpose and effectiveness of meetings is a healthy activity.  Things change and evolve so the original purpose of the meeting may no longer be relevant; this is especially true in Small and Medium businesses. 

2. What? – Is there a clear Agenda with specific times allocated for each item?
There are really only four key purposes for a meeting and it can be helpful to identify each item on the agenda with one of the following:

(I) For Information

(Di) For Discussion

(Dc) Requires Decision

(A) Requires Action

Some other tips for the agenda include:

Keep it short and have stated objectives including the coding above: know what you want to accomplish.

Put the difficult or contentious issues first.  Otherwise time runs out and they get conveniently avoided or put off.

Use a logical order of items.  Check if any items require other items to be completed first.

Give a specific amount of time to each agenda item.  This is one of the most critical skills of the chair.

Avoid allowing too many items under Any Other Business (AOB). If possible, avoid AOB altogether, if it is not on the Agenda it needs a separate discussion.

Consider what sort of record or ‘minutes’ you need from the meeting.  Most meetings only require the agenda, who attended and the key action points agreed.  There should also be a strict rule about when the minutes will be distributed, ideally within 24 hours of the meeting.

3. Who? – Who really needs to be there? What contribution will they be expected to make?
If you find that there are people in the meeting who are not contributing, it is important to ask why they are there.  Are all people attending required to contribute?  If not, why not?  Perhaps they only need to be there for part of the meeting.

It can be very useful to have a revolving Chair and Scribe.  This means that at each meeting there is a different member of the team taking the minutes / action points and they become the chair for the next meeting.  This is a great way to empower team members and give them an understanding of the challenges of running an effective meeting.  It also has the added value of them respecting the Chair and Scribe roles and being a better participant.

You can also consider the costs of everyone attending, including the ‘lost opportunity’ costs.  If you want to know just how much a meeting costs try the free ‘Meeting Miser’ web clock from salary comparison website PayScale.  It uses a simple calculator to estimate salaries of everyone in the room and provides a running cost of the meeting as the seconds tick by.

4. When? – Is the timing appropriate: for attendees and availability of information: i.e. time of Day, Week, Month, Year?
Businesses usually have a particular rhythm including management accounts, sales and marketing activity and production / service cycles.  It is good to plan the meeting on a regular basis so it becomes a deadline for the collection of relevant data, reports and actions.   Most of my clients use a monthly senior management meeting to review the Key Indicators of Performance and the Actions to address specific issues.  This is where they hold each other to account and identify allocation of resources to specific problems.  Many also have a longer quarterly or 6-montly off-site meeting to look at specific issues in more detail and take some time to work ‘on’ the business rather than ‘in’ the business.

Continuous improvement
Making a number of minor improvements is easier and less disruptive than implementing major changes so why not review and evaluate your own meetings with our simple Meeting Evaluation Form (Click here to request a copy). You can distribute it to attendees and ask them to complete it at the end of the meeting to get some instant feedback.  Then simply choose one area to tweak at the next meeting and measure the impact with the same form.   This is particularly useful feedback for the Chair when you implement the ‘Revolving Chair’ idea mentioned above.

If you would like to know more about how to implement effective meetings and improve communication, or learn about our robust yet practical system for avoiding common problems and driving performance please contact Gloria on to arrange a no-obligation call to discuss your needs. 

Remember . . . Stay Curious!

With best regards
David Klaasen

David Klaasen is director and owner of the niche HR consultancy, Inspired Working Ltd.  (
If you have a communication or performance problem and would like some objective advice drop him a line at