How-To: Hold a Meeting and Survive

How to Hold a Meeting and Survive

Adam Sulewski

“A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.” – Milton Berle

We all have had the pleasure of attending a poorly-run meeting. Hopefully, these experiences will motivate you to ensure your own task-driven gatherings do not earn the same evaluation. Meetings can be effective tools to pool resources and accomplish tasks, but they do not just magically come together. One needs to learn how to run them. If you are calling your first meeting or wish to refresh your skills, remember that you will have to do more than lure people into a room with cheese and canned soda. They require a lot of work, both in preparation and in performance.

Think of a meeting like an automobile – a useful tool there get you where you need to go. However, a driver also needs to fill up the gas tank, watch the speed limit, keep passengers entertained on long trips, and turns his or her eyes off the road at their peril.

As the state does not issue learners’ permits for meetings as they do for student drivers, this list of check points will have to suffice (I was vetoed in having a driving instructor’s brake installed).

– Identify Why You Are Calling the Meeting

Just like cars and clothing, meetings take various forms and serve many purposes. Thus, it is very important that you establish why you are calling people together. You may be meeting to brainstorm new ideas, to make a decision, to evaluate past performance, to give a presentation, etc. Determine the goal of the meeting and the purpose of gathering the people you invite.

One you set the goal, ensure that only this aim is pursued, and no excess information or tasks are included. Try to avoid the “Well, as long as we’re all here…” mantra.

– Preparation

The vast majority of work that a meeting requires should be complete before anyone ever enters the room.

Understand the parameters in which the meeting can operate. Make sure that relevant parties are included and present. Do not hold a decision-making meeting when then people authorized to make the decisions are absent. Do not try to meet anyway – an additional meeting will be required regardless to bring the decision-makers up to speed and cast the final verdict.

Collect all the information needed to accomplish your goal. If the meeting is informational, prepare your presentation beforehand. Rehearse your speech, and ensure that handouts are printed in sufficient quantity.

The purpose of the meeting should dictate the setting. For example, a brainstorming session should take place in a conference room, a presentation in a place with the proper audio-visual equipment, etc.

Time the meeting for when all the relevant players are capable of attending.

Do not be afraid to delegate preparation duties as necessary. Holding a meeting can be a collaborative effort. A group effort will more likely meet success when more of its members are invested in a good outcome. The best leaders identify strengths in others and utilize those strengths for the group’s advantage.

– Reach the Meeting’s Goal

There are few things in a workplace more demoralizing and frustrating than a meeting whose purpose goes unmet. Know the extent of what the meeting can accomplish.

Set an agenda for the meeting. Lay out in advance the steps that the meeting will take, and the intended end-result. Go so far as to state: “The purpose of this meeting is…” If you cannot meet the intended end, then do no meet. Wait until all the information and people necessary to move forward are present.

– Establish Meeting Rules

A meeting’s agenda should be set prior to the meeting, and stuck to during the gathering.

Depending on the size and form the meeting takes, it may be appropriate to take minutes. If you are going to be meeting with any regularity (such as with a committee), minutes can greatly aid the group keep track of past decisions and activities.

Meetings often get off track or run long – anticipate this and try to prevent it. Simple things like setting time limits go a long way towards ensuring speakers stay on point and concise.

– Take Charge of the Meeting

As a leader, it is your role to steer the meeting’s course. People will look to you for guidance, and will also test, consciously and subconsciously, the grasp you have on your leadership skills.

If you have the authority, ban electronic devices from the room. You will also need to police interruptions and side-conversations. Ensure that the speaker at any given moment is being respected and listened to. In extreme cases, go so far as to direct speakers to hold a specific object – say a ball or stapler (or a conch) when talking. Only the person holding the object should then be allowed to talk.

If you feel uncomfortable taking charge in this way at your meeting, then you really need to reconsider why you chose to take the lead in the first place. Leadership takes a little bit of guts. Sometimes, the best lessons are learned when you feet are at the fire. Have a little bit of courage and see where you can lead your group effort.

Finally, if your meeting goes poorly, do not take it too hard. Sometimes the mistakes we make are the best teachers – you likely will not repeat the same errors in your next meeting.

GovLoop Resources on Holding Meetings

– Robert Gates Runs Effective Meetings, Why Can’t I (https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1154385%3ABlogPost%3A437134&commentId=1154385%3AComment%3A437609)

– “Most meetings contain a very high % of “Mental Masturbation” which can be significantly reduced by the chair creating and following and agenda” (https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/1154385:BlogPost:83437)

– Soft Skills – Solid Results

– GovLeaders group with discussions on leadership: (https://www.govloop.com/group/govleaders)

Additional Resources
As this Google search reveals (http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&source=hp&fkt=1547&fsdt=5078&q=how+to+hold+a+meeting&aq=f&oq=&aqi=g10), there is a lot of advice (both commercial and free) out there about strategies for holding effective meetings. Read up on the tactics others utilize and experiment as necessary. Find your own style.

For formal meeting rules, Roberts Rules of Order is the quintessential go-to in terms of parliamentary procedure. http://www.robertsrules.com/

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

David Dejewski

Adam, This is really excellent. Thank for making the time to write this down. The advice in this post is practical, right on point, and relevant.


We spend so many hours in work meetings that there should really be training in holding effective meetings. This is a great resource instead…

Love this comment – Think of a meeting like an automobile – a useful tool there get you where you need to go. However, a driver also needs to fill up the gas tank, watch the speed limit, keep passengers entertained on long trips, and turns his or her eyes off the road at their peril.

Steve Guengerich

In the spirit of “establishing rules” a fun reinforcer to avoid the tendency to get off track with a group whose members are comfortable with one another and enjoy meeting might be having everyone load this little baby up in a corner of their browser and setting the average hourly cost to $40 or so: http://isthismeetingreallyworthit.com/