Some enchanted meeting

October 1, 1998
Roz Usheroff

Pharmaceutical Representative

How to host a perfect meeting.

Have you ever attended a perfect business meeting? One that started on time with everyone present and prepared, with every agenda item vitally important and participants contributing only carefully considered, relevant remarks? One that ended on time?

If you've participated in such a meeting, then chances are you remember it well because such sessions are so rare. In fact, most of us don't attend meetings…we simply endure them.

However, when it's our turn to hold a meeting, we run into the same problems that we wish we could avoid when others have them. Fortunately, there are guidelines you can follow to help take the oxymoron out of the phrase "productive meeting."

Make your dream come true

Schedule fearlessly. Set time limits for each item on the agenda. Allocate time according to each item's relative importance, or impose time limits on how long and how often each person can speak about a given topic.

Encourage punctuality. Schedule the meeting for an odd time or one that doesn't fall on the hour. For example, instead of scheduling the meeting for 9:00 a.m., try scheduling it for 9:15 or 9:20. Your attendees will be more likely to remember it.

If one of the presenters is a chronic latecomer, schedule him or her to be your first speaker.

Never recap for the benefit of late arrivals.

Make introductions. If those attending the meeting have not met, and the meeting group is small enough that introductions seem necessary, make introductions quickly and gracefully.

Remember names. Ask for business cards at the beginning of the meeting and arrange them in front of you according to where they are sitting. If this is not possible, prepare a rough sketch of who is sitting where.

Don't let breaks 'break' you. Make coffee or refreshments available outside of the meeting room to avoid disruptions and downtime. For longer meetings, schedule breaks every 45 to 60 minutes. Again, select an odd time when determining the length of the break. For example, tell the group: "Let's break for 11 minutes."

Maintain control. Control seating arrangements with place cards. This is an effective way to separate those who prolong meetings, pals who prefer to talk to one another, jokers who like to entertain the entire group and antagonists with scores to settle. Put opponents on the same side of the table, making it harder for them to make eye contact.

Enforce time limits. Don't allow speakers to engage in monologues or venture into uncharted waters. One strategy for dealing with culprits is to break eye contact. Another is to remind them, "We don't have a lot of time. We can come back to that if we have time later or we can talk during the break."

If one of the participants is a notorious time-waster, consider holding the meeting in their office so everyone else can leave.

Never end a meeting with the question: "Is there anything else you wish to discuss?"

Establish authority. Choose your own seat with care. Avoid sitting near the door, refreshment table or telephone. These types of seating arrangements lead to distractions and undermine your authority. Also, never sit next to the boss because they may unwittingly intercept questions directed at you, which keeps you from having a voice.

As a general rule, sitting at the end of a long, rectangular table imparts status and dominance. Middle positions attract consensus-building leaders who already have some status within the group. Corner seats are not strategic positions and afford occupants few opportunities to be heard.

Handle conflict. If a meeting attendee is hostile to you, try not to react. His or her behavior probably has nothing to do with you. Be proactive. Rather than judge a person, shift the judgment to their behavior. Then you will be able to deal with the situation professionally rather than emotionally.

Also, shift your eye contact. When you answer a hostile question, don't fix your eyes on the questioner, as it could lead to a one-on-one argument.

When countering aggressive or hostile attitudes, always agree before you disagree. Openly admit that if you were them, you would probably feel the same way. Once you are on their side and supporting an idea that is common to all of you, you are in a position to suggest other options.

Avoid pitfalls. Don't use audiovisual equipment you can't fix. You should not depend on your audience to help you out.

Never look at your watch while hosting a meeting. It may look like you want to "hit and run." Invest in a small clock with large numbers that only you can see.

Listen to your intuition when you are hosting a meeting. Pause before you say anything critical. Rephrase statements that your gut tells you might be too direct or antagonistic.

Tie up loose ends. To insure that everyone has had a chance to speak, ask for comments from those who appear disinterested or quiet. For example, you could say: "I'd like to hear Bill's ideas."

At the conclusion of the meeting, shake everyone's hand and thank them for coming. PR

Roz Usheroff is an image consultant and president of Signature Style, Toronto.

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