Meetings that Actually Work

Last year, my organization (Iowa Campus Compact) decided that since we facilitate so many meetings and events, it was time to get a few more tools in our toolbox. We often have challenges with engaging everyone actively and keeping on track. In December, we attended a Facilitation Lab led by See What I Mean, a consulting and training firm that focuses on meeting design and visual facilitation.

Cut to this spring and a site visit with some of our program participants and supervisors. These meetings in the past have typically involved us asking some open-ended questions (How is the program going for you? What could we improve?) and…crickets. This time was different. My staff designed the meeting around the goals for us and the goals for those attending. They designed activities that helped people with different styles (introverts and extroverts, etc.) contribute to a robust conversation where we encourage each other and generated new ideas for some of our biggest challenges. No crickets could be heard, only great ideas.

Every meeting we have planned using the principles and techniques we learned through the Facilitation Lab has been more engaging, more productive, and more professional than anything we’ve done in the past. At last week’s YNPN discussion group, I shared some of the ideas and resources we learned through this training.

Design the meeting

This seems simple and yet often doesn’t happen. See What I Mean encourages you to think about both the organizational and “people” goals of the meeting and to design activities, including openings and closings, that help you reach those goals. Good design helps you stay on time as well, which to me is critical. Start on time and end on time, no matter who is in the room!

Use activities, not open-ended discussion

Let me tell you, this is a hard habit to break. I am still working on it, despite having seen just how much difference a well-planned activity can make. To design the right activities, you have to really think about the organizational goal of the meeting. Whether it is generating new ideas or making a difficult decision, you can find activities that help everyone engage, feel heard, and stay on track. Need some ideas? Gamestorming is a great resource.

Show, don’t tell

Whenever you can, think about how to visually represent your goals, concepts, and the information generated through the meeting. Visual tools are more engaging and help participants develop a shared understanding of concepts and plans. To help practice this skill, our YNPN group tried to draw “how to make toast.” Try it!

The YNPN group also used a Brainwriting activity (great for including introverts) to generate their own ideas for great meetings. Here are a few:

  • For a group that meets regularly, consider working together to create your meeting rules and expectations
  • Send agenda and “homework” in advance to attendees
  • Offer “office hours” to answer questions prior to the meeting
  • Close all meeting with a recap of action items, assignments, and timelines (include what was decided at the last meeting on the next meeting’s agenda)
  • Send out meeting notes after meetings
  • Practice active listening
  • Create a “parking lot” for questions that are off-topic

A final thought for anyone organizing or facilitating meet is the greatest wisdom I learned from See What I Mean: have empathy for participants. Build in breaks, offer food and drinks, create a comfortable space. People who have their basic needs met are more likely to share their ideas and be fully present!

What are your meeting tips?

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  • Alicia Huguelet
    commented 2016-05-02 21:02:50 -0700
    Great article! Another meeting tool/format is Lean Coffee – You create the agenda together and it allows you to prioritize and time box your topics. We’ve even used this format remotely – it’s pretty rad.
  • Stephanie Clohesy
    commented 2016-04-29 09:52:08 -0700
    Thanks, Emily! Glad to know that good meeting practice (resulting in fantastic meetings) is spreading through your wonderful work!

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