Keep it brief! How to keep your meetings under an hour

I recently came across a saying; “If you want to actually get something done, then ask a busy person.” I can’t think of a situation where this is more apt than in a business meeting, where the scope to keep talking can sometimes feel limitless.

I recently came across a saying; “If you want to actually get something done, then ask a busy person.” I can’t think of a situation where this is more apt than in a business meeting, where the scope to keep talking can sometimes feel limitless.

Most of us would probably claim to be too busy for meetings, and yet, an inordinate amount of our lives are intrinsically tied up in them. We’re all aware of the familiar anxious feeling of watching the hands of the clock move past the time that we had mentally allocated to a meeting – that constriction in our throats as we are as mentally harangued by time that we can’t afford to waste.

Meetings are an unavoidable, essential element of the workplace, so, what are our options?  The objective here, like with most aspects of business, is to achieve maximum results from minimum resources. This is where thorough planning can come in and help you to save your sanity – poor planning prior to a meeting is a sure recipe for anxiety and stress, as well as a meeting which will likely meander and achieve very little in a bloated amount of time. If you are prepared, your meeting will be relevant, interesting, and most importantly, brief.

Preparation in Advance

People attempt to avoid reputations in the workplace for obvious reasons, but this is an area where you should consider breaking the mould; develop a reputation for conducting meetings or conference calls which are efficient, well thought out, organised, and succinct. It’s not as difficult as it may initially seem – practise makes perfect, but it does require strict adherence to the rules! To begin with, the most obvious method of keeping a meeting brief is to dedicate a strict time limit to it. Literally apply zero flexibility to this time limit, which likely means that you may have to be a bit ‘Trunchbull-ian’ in regard to your approach, but nevertheless, it will mean that your meetings will remain within a constrained and set time limit.

However, ensuring that your meeting is productive as well as brief may require consideration of a few organisational elements. To begin with, give some consideration to who is Chairing your meeting. If you yourself are not Chairing, then you should choose someone who you know will have a cut-throat style in regards to the attention-grubber in the room (if you don’t know who that is, it’s probably you….). The Chair needs to be able to move through the agenda like a fire spreads through gorse.  

Give your meeting a clear objective. This will help you to identify whether it is actually needed at all. Furthermore, when you’re clear on the objectives of the meeting you are more likely to define a succinct agenda which addresses the topic of the meeting with no frills or add-ons. Identify the most salient issues that you wish to discuss and put them to the top of the list of items on the agenda, then, if you do need to cut the meeting off when time runs out you will have already covered the most important topics.

Be as judicious as a ten-year-old handing out invites to a birthday party when selecting the attendees for the meeting. Ask yourself whether they will need to have a speaking role, and if not, then why would they need to be there? Cutting the fat means that there will be less available voices to take up valuable speaking time – leave that for the people who strictly need to be in attendance.

Once you have the attendees and the topics in mind, disseminate the agenda approximately one week beforehand. This gives everyone the chance to be prepared in terms of their role (because, remember, they won’t be invited unless they have one), and it gives you the chance to bring everyone’s attention to the strict time limit. Write it in bold, write it in capitals – just make sure you write it, and also that it’s at the very top of the agenda.

Preparation on the Day

On the day of the meeting, rehearse the topics that are necessary to discuss (especially if you have a presentation in mind). Be there early in order to set up the space – for a meeting this brief I would recommend not providing refreshments; it takes up too much time as people dilly dally at the refreshments table engaging in small talk which will interfere too much with the dedicated time line of the meeting. However, If you do choose to provide tea and coffee, be prepared to have a prison-guards-resolve in terms of strictness in regards to moving people to their seats in order to get the meeting started on time.

If you are Chairing, assign the task of minute-taking to a colleague, as this will free up precious time in order for you to move through the topics as efficiently as possible. If you are succinct and to the point in your approach to the discussion of topics, then others will likely copy your form. If they don’t, it is up to the Chair to intervene with some carefully placed interruptions such as; “as relevant as this is in general, we may have to discuss it at a later date.”

Oftentimes, there may be an unresolved topic that will cause a meeting to stretch on – resist the temptation to let this happen, no matter how engaged you are in the issue at hand! Remember, you are setting an example for future brief meetings, and allowing yourself to be pulled into the tar-pit of an unresolvable issue will unravel your aims. If this happens, call the formal part of the meeting to an end and remind people that they are free to discuss the issue in their own time, or else if its particularly salient, organise another meeting to resolve it.

Before the meeting is called to a close, reaffirm all the action points that have been decided upon. At this stage, it should only be the Chair speaking in order to solidify in attendee’s minds what the action items were, as well as who has agreed to what, and by when.

Remember, your time is probably the most valuable commodity that you have to offer, besides yourself. If, despite your adherence to all the above action points, your time is still being usurped by a meeting that feels like it is never going to end, remind attendee’s that you had communicated your limited availability, and politely excuse yourself. It is entirely your right to leave a meeting if it is stretching into other responsibilities.

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