Harvard Business review

10 Tactics to Keep Your Meeting on Track

Many meeting effectiveness tips — whether the gathering happens in a room or on a Zoom — are well understood by now, including starting and ending on time, creating efficient agendas, establishing clear roles, and remembering when you’re on mute. Even if you don’t know the basics, a quick Google search will reveal them.

But some of the most valuable meeting tips may also be the least well-known because they’re not about the meeting structure, participants, or even the agenda; they’re about how the meeting leader prepares for the meeting and communicates throughout it.

As with almost any work project, a meeting’s success relies on the success of leadership communication.

Below are 10 communication tactics that can help both meeting leaders and executives attending meetings make sure those meetings accomplish their missions.

1. Prepare Your Points — Not Just an Agenda — in Advance

An agenda is a helpful meeting roadmap but not an effective tool for conveying your key points. So, in addition to creating an agenda, conceive and prepare a few brief but valuable points in advance.

Some questions to ask yourself that can help you develop these points:

  • “What ideas do I want to raise at this meeting?”
  • “What challenges do I or we need help with?”
  • “Who deserves praise or mention?”
  • “What questions do I most want this group to discuss and consider?”

Bring these answers to the meeting and share them at the start or when related agenda topics come up. Remember: a topic is a piece of paper. A point is a paper airplane. You can have both on the table, but only one delivers your idea.

2. Provide the Purpose

At the start of the meeting, share the meeting’s purpose — what needs to be decided, reviewed, or accomplished as a result of the meeting. Avoid vague purposes like “exploring” or “addressing” an issue. That only promises talk, not action or advancement. (Even in Zoom, talk can still be cheap.) Stating a clear purpose at the start of the meeting will help to ensure that it gets met — or at least checked — by the end.

3. Guide Your Listeners

Leaders often — and should — kick off meetings with greetings, sentiments, and important updates. If your opening comments cover several topics, provide a preview: “Before we start, I’d like to quickly cover last week’s forecast announcement, our DEI internal survey results, and some new team members who will be joining us soon.”

Also, use internal transitions (“The second thing I want to suggest is Y”) and conclusion statements (“As you can see, X, Y, and Z are critical to our success”).

This preview/transition/review scaffolding helps your team 1) know what to expect, 2) follow you, and 3) understand their key takeaways.

4. Be Ready to Listen

For a meeting leader, listening and appearing to listen are essential values because while dialogue is vital, you also want to be seen as caring and appreciative of your colleagues’ contributions. Here are some quick tips to both actively listen and demonstrate that you’re actively listening:

  • Always face your audience and try to maintain direct eye contact when listening. In a virtual meeting, that means looking into the camera, not at the people grid.
  • Demonstrate that you’re listening by nodding. Nodding is the most effective way to show support because it indicates, “I hear your point and am buying what you’re selling.”
  • Don’t use listening time as an opportunity to plan what you’re going to say next. Misunderstanding a question because you didn’t adequately hear it can damage your credibility and trust.
  • Avoid interrupting speakers or finishing their sentences. Sometimes we think we’re affirming someone else’s point by finishing their sentences for them, but even if that’s technically true, we’re still stealing their time and appropriating their point, which is rude.
  • Consider reflecting questions back to the speaker before immediately offering your perspective or jumping in with a solution. For example: “I want to make sure I hear you correctly. You’re saying we have too many meetings, especially on Fridays. Is that correct?” This powerful conveyance of acknowledgment builds trust and demonstrates empathy.
  • Finally, keep an open mind and resist the urge to defend. A meeting is about dialogue, not debate, so focus first on understanding your team’s perspective, not making counterarguments.

5. Prepare Questions

In dialogues between executives and their teams, leaders can boost learning by asking probing questions. In the Harvard Business Review article “Being a Strategic Leader Is About Asking the Right Questions,” Lisa Lai contends that asking strategic questions like “Why are you doing the work you’re doing?” and “What does success look like for our team?” can help leaders encourage their teams to think more strategically.

Having questions in your pocket can also fill in meeting gaps when attendees are slow to ask questions or need someone else to break the ice.

Leadership questions can fall into several types:

Strategic questions

  • “What do you hope to achieve?”
  • “How can we apply that approach throughout the company?”

Recognition questions

  • “Who helped you with this project?”
  • “How did you come up with the idea?”

Helpful questions

  • “What can I do to help?”
  • “What resources do you need to take your project to the next level?”

6. Keep Detours Brief 

At times, you may be tempted to leave your train of thought to discuss something unrelated, whether the idea suddenly pops into your head or is raised by someone else in the room. One second you’re talking about leveraging social media, and the next second you’re talking about your favorite Instagram celebrities. This off-ramp is perilous because, when it drags on for a while, it wastes critical time and other minds begin to wander.

If you introduce or entertain an idea that’s only tangentially related or unrelated, “get in and out” quickly so you can return to the points you came to make.

7. Know When You’ve Finished Your Point

Some speakers have a pesky voice in their heads that says, “They don’t understand it yet — keep talking!” This inner voice — springing from your insecurity — is often wrong, so don’t trust it. Once you’ve made your point, stop and move the meeting forward. If people have questions, they will ask. This approach also ensures others in the meeting will have time to speak.

8. Give Concise Credit

It’s always a good idea for leaders to share points of praise, support, and encouragement with their teams, but the impact of those sentiments decreases the longer you go on. And on. And on. Then it gets awkward.

Nothing kills a good point more than rambling, so keep your thanks structured and limited to 15 seconds or less. At the same time, realize that the two words “thank you” never have much of an impact. Always supply the “why.” A good template for giving credit or appreciation is: who did it, what they did, and what impact it had on organizational or team objectives.

9. Help Others Stay on Point

If, during your meeting, a staff member delivers a formal presentation without a clear point or proposal, gently prompt one by asking politely, “What do you recommend?” or “What do you propose we do?” The more you ask those guiding questions, the more likely that person will eventually realize the crucial leadership communication skill of conveying points — not just sharing thoughts.

10. End With a Meaningful Action Step

You sustain post-meeting momentum when you end the meeting with clear next steps, including who’s taking the actions and when. That actor can be a manager, an administrative assistant, a committee, or even yourself, but make sure it’s someone who not only records and files the ideas but advances them.

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Too many meeting leaders think their job ends when the meeting starts or that they merely serve as note-taker and “agenda police.” But a leader is a leader, whether you run a meeting or a team, so use all the communication tools at your disposal to make sure critical points are raised and discussed as effectively as they are efficiently.

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