I had my moment of realisation a few years ago, sitting in another meeting with Worthing Borough Council to discuss the arts-led regeneration of the town. I can’t remember the exact order of the agenda, but I do remember looking around and thinking ‘this is how these people earn a living – by being in meetings. Every other person here is paid, except me, just to be in this room. And they think that having a meeting is the same as doing something.’
It’s not, of course. Meetings are, all too often, a substitute for useful activity, a way of covering the lack of any action with a veneer of ‘we’re doing something – look, there’s an agenda and there will be minutes’.
I’ve been reminded of this a couple of times recently. I went to an open meeting a couple of weeks ago. Nobody I spoke to before the event started was quite clear what the meeting was about. The organisation who’d called the meeting were hard to fathom; their structure wasn’t clear so it was hard to know how outsiders could get involved. And the meeting spoke mainly to insiders anyway, with in-jokes and jargon that made it hard to catch up.
And a colleague reported on a meeting she’d travelled the country for, from the north to the south coast. She arrived to find the people she was meeting didn’t really want to talk, and to make that point had scheduled just one hour after all that travel.
I’ve spent hours, days, probably months in meetings. I’ve run open, public events and chaired closed committees. I’ve been a keynote speaker at conferences and brought people together in coffee shops. I’ve held events in the Houses of Parliament and in backstreet art studios. I’ve spoken to global corporations about leadership and to local groups about anarchy. So – how can we reclaim the meeting as something useful? Here’s how I think we can make meetings matter:
1. Don’t have a meeting unless you need to. That sounds obvious, but too many meetings are held because we need to be seen to be having a meeting, bringing ‘partners’ and ‘stakeholders’ together. Call a meeting only when it’s useful, not out of habit. Is there an alternative – a meetup in a coffee shop, doing an activity together?
2. In advance, be clear about who should be at the meeting and why. Don’t invite everybody – invite the people who can contribute and who will take action. Everyone else can be briefed afterwards. If you’re holding an open meeting, make it really clear – ‘You should come to this meeting if you’re interested in a, b, or c.’ Tell people what they should read in advance, what they need to understand and how they will contribute to the meeting.
3. If it’s a big, public meeting or an open workshop, be really clear at the start about who’s brought the meeting together. Say why you’ve asked people to come. Lay out a clear purpose – ‘at the end of the meetings we’ll have decided n and will agree to x.
4. Welcome people as they arrive. And if people arrive late, welcome them too. Don’t worry about how many people turn up; the people in the room are the right people. Make sure you have their contact details so you can follow up afterwards.
5. Have a timetable. ‘We’ll spend 10 minutes on this, 20 on this…’ And stick to it. If something looks like it’s going to need more time, that’s a separate meeting for the people interested in that part of the discussion.
5. If your meeting is open and has a wide audience, avoid in jokes and references to things outside the meeting which other people might not know about. If a reference is useful, make it clear. Avoid jargon, acronyms and the like; even if you think everyone understands, they may be interpreted differently by different people. My NPO is a Not-For-Profit, yours is a National Portfolio Organisation, and theirs is the National Preservation Office.
6. Make your meeting open via social media. Encourage people to Tweet or talk to people outside the room. It isn’t rude that people are Tweeting; it’s open and democratic. But more importantly, allows other voices to be heard and means more people can contribute, or learn from what you discuss. Watch the hashtag during the meeting and bring comments into the room where useful.
7. To make 6. easier, give everyone the wifi password and tell them what the hashtag is. Both of these should be written at the front of the room and visible throughout.
8. If there are questions and answers between speakers or presentations, make sure they are questions – not lengthy statements or position pieces. Define what a question is, if you have to!
9. Let people escape. Make sure there’s a door leading out of the room which people can use without embarrassment – that is, it should be at the back of the room not behind the speaker. There are legitimate reasons for leaving – to take a call or use the toilet. But it’s also good to be able to escape if you realise, it’s not a meeting you need to be in.