Most meetings don’t matter. While you may dismiss this reality as “part of the job,” think about how 15% of your work time, according to consulting firm Bain & Co, is spent in those time-sucking meeting. Change needs to occur and I have an idea.

But first, we need to be clear about how bad the problem is. For most of the meetings you are called into, being there is no different than being absent, except for the fact that less air and carbon dioxide gets exchanged, fewer eyes get rolled and your doodling of that cool logo you would use if you ever get up the courage to open your own business remains in your mind, not on the notepad sitting blank in front of you.

If you are like most of us, you know as you walk into a meeting – often 3 minutes or so late because the coffee maker wouldn’t work or it took you that long to talk yourself into going because “I have to” —  that you’re about to waste valuable time. It’s time you could be fighting fires (do firefighters have meetings?) or planning or the list could go on and on.

Meetings as Punishment

One person I know scheduled weekly staff meetings (the worst of the worst) for 4 p.m. routinely, figuring that if he was going to waste an hour that the best one to waste was the last one of his work day.

Another person I know attends a Friday afternoon meeting every week, even his vacation weeks, because it’s required. Talk about punitive and counter-productive. No one’s going to bring their A game to a Friday afternoon meeting, where every debate means that much longer until the weekend.

Holding a good meeting these days is challenging. Getting the right time, the right people, the right agenda, the right tone to encourage an open exchange, and on and on. I have coached leaders and teams on these matters.

A New Approach

A few weeks ago, I shared my strategy for creating better meetings on our award-seeking podcast, The Serious Soft Skills Podcast. Compressing meetings to the bare essentials seems to encourage the most effectiveness. I’ve tried stand-up meetings, fewer meetings with longer agendas, more meetings with shorter agendas and various other techniques.

But the Rule of Fours seems to work best. My Rule of Fours suggests that whatever time you are going to devote to meetings, cut it by four. If it’s slated for one hour, then cut it to 15 minutes. If it’s a half hour, then cut it to 7½ minutes. (If it’s a 15-minute meeting, scrap it. Do one-on-one, in-person meetings instead.)

This rule, which I have shared with a few people to good results, works for several reasons. Most importantly, the Rule of Fours shows you mean business. You want to get to the core of the matters at hand. No chit chat, no long stories, no bad jokes, no grandstanding, no crazy PowerPoint presentations. This approach doesn’t even allow for time to dim the lights, which is a guarantee for a bad meeting.

Taming the Meeting Madness

Second, this rule forces you focus on one, maybe two, main topics. Too often, with the exception of a brainstorming meeting where wild ideas are encouraged, teams take on too much in one meeting. It’s all issues on the deck, when focused meetings show success.

Third, if people have booked the hour for a meeting and get out after 15 minutes, they actually might have time to work on their action items from the meeting. Too often we leave meetings frustrated and after planned, which forces us to consign any action items we had at the meeting to later. If we even document them at all.

In our hyper-competitive business climate, wasted time costs us dearly. Making meetings matter again could help you regain the advantage you are seeking against your competitors.

Communicating with people who are not in the same location as you for a meeting is complicated. As more meetings occur with people working from home and in remote offices, ensuring that online meetings and conference calls remain effective takes on new importance.

These challenges came up after I spoke to a group about how a speaker can take charge of the room, how to establish and keep focus, methods for assessing your audience’s understanding and interest, and other keys to effective communication. Afterward, an attendees asked if I had any tips for when attendees aren’t in the room where the meeting is taking place.

The issue is that so many of the cues we use to guide whether our thoughts and ideas are reaching the audience disappear when we cannot easily or interact closely with others in the audience.

Altering the Feedback Loop

(In the case of this meeting, two people listened to my presentation online. And in retrospect, I didn’t engage them at all, nor did the team-building activity we did in the conference room work well for them because they could not participate. Had I known in advance of the remote participants, I would have changed the activity up. Now I know to ask in advance.)

The big question is how do you overcome the fact that you cannot use eye contact or body language as clues for someone’s interest or engagement?

You have to shift your approach. Rather than using your eyes, you have to use your mouth and ears more. Instead of seeing if your words are landing as you hoped, you have to solicit from the remote attendees whether they are landing. Moreover, you have to listen to what they say in response to inquiries, as well as what they may not say.

Tips for Remote Attendee Feedback

Here are some hints for getting the same information as eye contact and body language offer when one or more people is outside the room:

1.    Ask along the way if the people online are following and if they hear. Invite them to speak up if they get lost or if people are talking over one another.

2.    Have someone coordinate with remote attendees. The group I spoke to assigned a member to monitor written messages from remote attendees.

3.    Specifically and strategically invite feedback from out-of-the-room attendees.“John, do you have any thoughts on the topic?” or even “Anything to add, John?” Not only will this ensure they can contribute, but it will keep them on notice that they could be called at any time.

4.    Go slower. People who are not in the room are not going to get the hand movements and other gestures and facial expressions you use so their ability to process the information you are sharing may be slower. Slow down to give them time to process.

5.    Tailor presentations to the realities. People who are out of the room cannot be in small groups so those types of activities are best left out. Nor can they easily see slides that are presented so provide them with the slide deck in advance.

6.    Ask for takeaways. One way to ensure that everyone is engaged is to tell them at the beginning that near the end, you plan to ask everyone for one takeaway from the presentation.

This old teacher’s trick works to keep everyone engaged because they now realize they have to say something intelligent about the presentation. They will listen more intently because they know they have to share. No one wants to fail at this test or say something wrong or silly.

Dealing with an audience that’s in more than one location is an acquired skills. But as more people work remotely, the demand on being an effective communicator in spite of this challenge will only increase.

The soft skill of working independently, or with minimal supervision, fosters better teams and trust, two keys to success in any organization. People who can model this soft skill position themselves for greater career opportunities.

Cohosts Dr. Tobin Porterfield and Bob Graham, authors of The 55 Soft Skills That Guide Employee and Organizational Success, talk about a variety of aspects of this soft skill, including:

  • Letting go of micromanagement
  • The idea of ownership of projects and knowing when to share a project or take it to completion ourselves
  • Strategies for ensuring independence and appropriate intervention
  • The tug-pf-war between independence and either delegating or drawing on others
  • Independence varies by role and by supervisory style
  • Where entrepreneurs can overcome inherent independence to ensure greater success
  • The power of proper delegation
  • How we can take monkeys and push them away to get work done
  • Working with minimal supervision
  • How to ensure that minimal supervision yields maximum results
  • How more meetings may enable greater employee independence

Does your organization or team need help in putting soft skills to work for them? We want to help you. We do webinars and workshops, online, on the phone and in person, to help teams become more successful. If you or someone you know could use our help, contact us at podcast@serioussoftskills.com today. Or call 937-SKILLS5.

Next week

Next week, we will explore the soft skill of being able to work under pressure. Relax, we will make it easy. Look for new episodes every Wednesday.