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How to Make Meetings More Meaningful

November 2017- by Carl Pritchard, PMP®, PMI-RMP®

What am I doing here? Why does this even matter? I can’t believe I got sucked into another life-draining excursion into Hades.

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Sound like your last meeting? It doesn’t have to be! Meetings are a wonderful opportunity to build hope and promise into virtually every endeavor we do. It’s merely a function of building the right meeting. I’ve compiled a few tactics to help you see the light at your next dreaded meeting.

Tactic 1 - The Purpose

Every meeting really needs to have an outcome. When the meeting is done, the participants will walk out with…WHAT? If there’s not a specific goal, there’s no reason to have the meeting. All too often, individuals say that a meeting is being held to generate a common understanding of where the project is going and why it’s going there. But if they don’t understand how that guidance builds in a clear, shared output, it’s still a tough sell. Understanding how to make good chili doesn’t really serve you. A warm bowl of chili does. In soliciting meeting participation, we need to sell the steak, not the sizzle.

Tactic 2 – Participation

A truly great meeting facilitator doesn’t “run” the meeting. S/he runs the clock. They coordinate the opportunities for conversation and enlightenment. They engage the participants. Meetings have a nasty habit of turning into one-person shows. That’s not a good plan. The more you can engage the other participants, the better. And if you can’t directly allow them to participate (perhaps because of the limits of the virtual world), at least acknowledge them. Instead of saying, “everyone here knows the value of…”, try something a little different. “If I were to take Monique and Pat aside and ask them about this, they’d be able to tell me the true value of…” Note the distinction. It’s not about some generic “everyone.” It’s about individuals. Individuals matter in meetings. (By the way, this is also a great way to wake up someone on the other end of a conference call who’s not participating).

Tactic 3 – Timing

Anyone who knows me knows that I am an anal-retentive, clock-watching zealot. I believe in the power of the clock. If you want people to think that your meetings are amazing, inform them of what to expect from the clock. If a discussion is supposed to last 20 minutes, it’s important to keep those limits in mind, and ensure that those in attendance know that the clock matters. “We only have about six more minutes to cover this, and I wanted to make sure…” Phrases like that affirm your role as supreme time-keeper. In that role, you have the ability to win hearts, as very few people ever have said “Wow! I wish that meeting had gone on longer!”

Also, if your meeting is commandeered by a senior executive who just wants to make a few points, let her. But as you hand off the proverbial baton, tell those in attendance that “We’re going to make some modifications to the schedule so Senior Executive can cover some content that’s very important to us all. If we run too late, I’ll reschedule the rest of the discussion for a later date.”

This sends messages to all concerned without denigrating the executive. It also lets the executive know that you had a plan and that s/he fouled it up. But by deferring to him/her, you’re doing your duty as an organizational team player.

Tactic 4 – Document, Document

Keeping minutes is one thing. Keeping action items is another. Minutes go from the sublime to the ridiculous. In many instances, minutes tend toward long, drawn-out missives that rehash the battles of the day. On the opposite extreme, they are a shorthand version of task assignments. The sweet spot, as you might imagine, falls somewhere in-between.

The simple test to find out if you’re doing documentation well is as follows:

  • Does each item reflect the conclusion of the discussion on the topic?
  • Is there an ongoing topic owner or action item recipient?
  • Is there a date specified for revisiting the outcome, or are we done forever?

If it meets all three of those criteria, we have arrived.

Tactic 5 – Keeping It Alive

Most people just want meetings to end and go away. Instead, we should strive to keep every meeting alive. Thanks to the action items generated above, people should know what’s going to happen with the gifted insights they generated just moments ago. They should be clear on when and where the discussion points will resurface and how they’ll be used effectively. Most of all, they should have individuals that they can reach out and touch base if they’re tracking what’s going on with the issue(s) under discussion.

Without the last tactic, meetings garner a reputation for being a life-draining descent into Hades. Why? Because participants feel like they are left with only their own thoughts about the meeting and nothing of value. Certainly nothing that propels them into a better future.

By simply closing each meeting with a simple forward-thinking promise, the meetings become inherently more promising. Saying, “If you have any questions about anything we discussed today, I’m (or your appointee) your best resource. I will get back to you within 24 hours and will do my best to clarify anything that didn’t seem inherently clear, or I’ll put you in touch with someone who can help.” Giving participants somewhere to go after the meeting is virtually as important as starting the meeting in the first place.


Carl Pritchard, PMP®, PMI-RMP®, is an Apex Systems Contributor and an internationally recognized author, lecturer and trainer. He is the author of seven texts in project management, and serves as the U.S. Correspondent to the UK Project Management magazine, Project Manager Today. He welcomes your feedback at carl@carlpritchard.com. Follow him on Twitter at @carlpritchard and @pmpprep

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