Have you ever left a meeting feeling totally drained? So much so that it disrupts your flow of work or you need to take a break afterward? Chances are you experienced meeting recovery syndrome: when “employees lose additional time and productivity mentally recovering from a bad meeting.”
Bad, ineffective meetings are not just annoying—they negatively impact business. But rest assured, running an effective meeting is a skill that can be learned and sharpened.
Before we dive into those best practices, it’s important to make a distinction between efficient and effective meetings.
An efficient meeting starts promptly and stays on track due to good time management.
An effective meeting delivers outcomes and creates value for those in attendance.
Not all efficient meetings are effective—so your goal should be not just to use the time wisely but to drive towards actionable outputs or next steps by the end of that time.
Best Practices for Meetings
To achieve that effective status, let’s break down our tips into three stages: before, during, and after the meeting.
Before the meeting
- Determine if a meeting is even necessary
Before you even think about hitting send on that calendar invite, it is necessary to interrogate whether a meeting is the right vehicle to achieve the outcome you want. This handy flow chart, while also hilarious, surfaces some practical and relevant questions to ask yourself when determining if a meeting is required. Reflecting on why you are calling a meeting allows you to define the objective and expectations of said meeting. You may uncover that you simply need to communicate an update that can be done over email or a tool like Slack, or that you are mentally stuck or procrastinating and need to do some brainstorming to map out a plan before pulling other people in.
- Define a clear purpose and agenda
If you include one item in your meeting invite, it should be the purpose or objective of the discussion. A good way to frame this is to ask yourself: what do we need to accomplish in the meeting and what does success look like at the close of the meeting? In addition to the purpose, you may also want to include a more specific agenda. This is particularly useful when you have multiple topics to cover in a single meeting. If it’s a dense meeting, include who owns the topic and the timebox for the discussion if necessary. This agenda can also serve as your checklist as you’re stepping through the meeting, so you can stay on track.
- Ensure the right people are in the room for the right amount of time
With a clear purpose and agenda, you can move on to determining the right set of participants and the length of time needed for your meeting. Often, people tend to err on the side of more people and more time for meetings. I challenge you to buck this tradition and aim for fewer people and shorter meetings.
Regarding people: adding more people to a meeting for “visibility” isn’t a polite move—it’s an indicator that you haven’t really done the work to determine the what and the why of your gathering. You are giving someone such a gift when you exclude them from a meeting if they are not needed! My tip: use that “optional” button for folks who are not critical, but you think may want to hear the discussion and communicate that as such.
Regarding length: don’t get lazy and default to the 30-minute or 60-minute standards. Have a pretty succinct message you need to communicate or clarify? Book 15 minutes. Need more than 30 minutes? Set the meeting for 45 minutes instead of an hour. Those 15-minute increments are underutilized!
During the meeting
- Set the tone
The tone that starts the meeting will likely carry through the whole meeting. If your meeting topic is something particularly contentious or requires delivering tough feedback, be mindful of how you approach the conversation. Hostility will likely be met with hostility, so exercise empathy and create a plan for how you want to handle the discussion before the start of the meeting.
The other way a meeting often starts? Small talk. Small talk to start a meeting is fine; in fact, it can almost serve as an icebreaker to get people warmed up and ready for discussion. Just know when to transition to the agenda. The owner of the meeting should serve as the facilitator (more on that below) and should be in charge of corralling the conversation to the matter at hand.
- Be a good facilitator
Facilitators are not just for workshops. A meeting facilitator’s job is to keep the meeting on track and direct the conversation, ensuring everyone has a voice and the issues that surfaced at the top of the meeting are answered. Proper meeting facilitation could be an entire post in and of itself, but you can essentially think of this role as the pilot of the meeting. They know the destination the meeting needs to get to and have communicated that to all passengers coming along for the ride.
Good facilitators share meeting objectives, expectations, and guardrails up front. They assign roles like notetakers and timekeepers if required. They use tools and techniques like timeboxes and parking lots to manage the discussion. They navigate the dynamics of groups across those who might be dominating the conversation and those who are not sharing (or being given the opportunity to do so).
- Restate goals and decisions for clarity
Every meeting should begin by restating the purpose and agenda to get everyone in attendance on the same page. It may come as a shock but not everyone reads a meeting description before meeting. Practically, starting this way grounds the meeting so folks who have been running back to back or are asked to join at the last minute have the context for the conversation right at the onset.
During the course of the meeting, it is critical to ensure clarity on decisions and the next steps that are agreed upon. As a frequent facilitator, one technique I often deploy to do this is to pause to restate a recommendation or decision back to the group in my own words to reduce ambiguity and achieve alignment.
After the meeting
- Provide timely notes and recaps
If anyone attending the meeting was unclear about what comes next, a meeting recap is there to put it in writing. These follow-ups should include:
- A summary of the specific decisions made
- Notes on any remaining open items or parking lot topics to be addressed
- A list of agreed-upon action items, who owns them, and the deadlines
Meeting recaps are best sent on the same day as a meeting occurred, ideally within a few hours of the meeting while the content and discussion are still fresh in everyone’s mind.
- Create accountability
Documenting due dates and ownership creates an actionable plan to execute once the meeting ends. Participants should leave a meeting empowered to take action or the next step. If another touchbase is required in a week to check back on progress, schedule that follow-up immediately after the first meeting concludes.
If an outcome from the meeting is to create a recurring weekly meeting for the length of the project, repeat the previous steps to ensure that a recurring meeting doesn’t become a drag that happens just because it was previously determined as necessary. You gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.
- Embrace feedback
Every meeting is an opportunity to practice the skill of meeting management and facilitation. You can improve through repetition and by asking for feedback from peers and meeting attendees. I am not suggesting each meeting ends with an informal poll, but by expressing your openness to feedback, you might gain some valuable insights from others. Additionally, if you tend to assume responsibility for leading most meetings, why not offer the opportunity to another team member so they can work on this skill too? You can learn just as much by observing other styles of management.
For me, being present in an effective meeting can feel like a unicorn sighting — special, inspiring, and rare, bordering on improbable. But brushing up on basics like effective meeting management can pay dividends across productivity, morale, and churn. There are tons of valuable resources that explore this topic in more depth: from other articles and books to trainings and templates. It’s up to you to put in the work to hone your meeting skills so we can all say goodbye to bad meetings.