What Makes a Meeting Worth Attending? (And How to Fix Yours)

When asked what they want most from the meetings they attend,
people ask for clarity.

We asked this question at the start of our most recent meeting survey–

“What do you feel makes a meeting worth attending and a good use of your time?”

–and the replies included 136 detailed answers to this question. Of those, 62% included the descriptors “clear”, “specific”, “defined”, and “concrete”.  “Relevant” was another popular adjective.

On the noun front, “agenda” was neck-and-neck with “outcomes”, as in “clear agenda” and “concrete outcomes”, suggesting that people not only want to know why they’re meeting, they also expect to get something out of the deal.

Leading to the question that drives nearly everything we do:

How can you achieve this clarity in your workplace meetings?

In 2017, we published several in-depth articles about understanding the business function of meetings.

Working with experts from several disciplines, we published comprehensive guides for running specific kinds of meetings. We shared a glossary, a taxonomy, and resources galore. It’s a start at answering this question.

In this vast realm of meeting possibilities, we’ve scratched the surface. It’s a nice, deep, keyed-your-car kind of scratch, but there’s still much more to key into.

So to finish up 2017, I spent time during my holiday break reading 3 new books about meetings. As always, I learned something new from each of them.

Mostly, though, I found myself feeling a bit overwhelmed and frankly, inadequate. 🙁 There are so many things to get right! So many interesting and nuanced techniques to learn! So very many ways that meetings can go all screwy!

How is it that an activity we all take part in so often, that drives so much of our collective work, and that most people feel very little need to spend any time or effort trying to master – how can this be so very complex?

The number of things you’re supposed to know if you want to lead a good meeting can be quite daunting: establish ground rules, sit in a circle, arrive early, send an agenda with pre-work, start with a check-in, break into smaller groups, cover the most important topic first, assign a timekeeper, use a parking lot, ask three part questions, end early, hear from everyone, keep it short, share appreciations… the list goes on and each tip is a good one!

Good tips for leading good meetings… and good luck remembering all that!

In the research world, they survey people’s feelings about a meeting and report the findings using one of two acronyms: PMQ (Perceived Meeting Quality) or PME (Perceived Meeting Effectiveness). As far as I can tell, they use these concepts interchangeably.

In our survey, we ask about perceived meeting effectiveness as well, but not for meetings in general. Instead, we ask people to rank meeting effectiveness for different types of meetings they attended in the past two weeks.

In general, client meetings are rated as highly effective and board meetings as largely ineffective
Ratings of meeting effectiveness by type of meeting

Looking back at it, I now find this use of the word “effective” a bit confusing, because we aren’t asking people about whether these meetings accomplished anything. Remember, people say they want clarity about the meeting they attend and clear results. If a meeting has a high PME, where were those clear outcomes that people claim to care about most?

I think it’s very hard to say that a meeting was effective unless you can say what it was effective for. It’s like describing a wonderfully effective cure, but failing to explain whether it’s a cure for a broken arm or an upset tummy. Calling something effective assumes that the context is known and that it is effective for achieving some goal; an effective technique for lifting heavy objects, an effective strategy for getting out the vote, an effective meeting for finalizing a contract, or an effective treatment for a broken arm.

Hint: Ginger ale is no good for broken arms! And asking a prospective client to agree to your ground rules at the start of a sales call meeting isn’t really a great idea either.

There is a lot of advice out there about running “effective” meetings (even here on this blog) that doesn’t deal with what the meeting is meant to accomplish.

Most advice about meetings tells you how to do the work in meetings rather than how to use the meetings in work.

Clarity Means Knowing Why: What is this meeting for?

We also asked people to share stories and insights. Here’s a response from our survey.

“Several years ago I attended a 1 day workshop called “Facilitating for Results.” The seminar was all about preparing for, and facilitating effective meetings. I’ve used the techniques from this seminar ever since, and have shared several of the key concepts / tools / techniques, with many of my colleagues. One of the most important take aways was to start by identifying the purpose and desired outcomes, and to include both in the meeting invitation. The agenda and attendee list will naturally follow. Prep work will also become clear once you know what you’re trying to accomplish with the meeting!”

When you start with the purpose and desired outcomes—or the “why” of a meeting—yes, you’ll more easily discover the agenda and attendee list. You’ll also know which of the many meeting tools and techniques apply.

It turns out that you don’t actually need to remember that whole big list of best practices for every meeting. Those aren’t requirements – they’re ingredients. The ones to use will depend on what you’re cooking.

Reviewing our survey responses this week helped alleviate some of the anxiety I felt after reading all those meeting books.

Yes, there are some rules that should be followed for every meeting, just like there are some rules in the kitchen, but this list isn’t so intimidating. In the kitchen, keep things clean and bring food to a safe temperature. In meetings, the basic rules include being clear about why you’re there and confirming outcomes before you leave. No, the basics aren’t enough to give you a truly engaging meeting or a delicious meal, which is why we turn to our recipes, but only the ones we need for that day.

I realized that I know how to cook, so what does it matter that I can’t remember all the recipes in every cookbook? Similarly, there’s no need to remember all the tips and techniques in every meeting guide. That’s why people write things down – so we can look them up when we need them!

Going forward in 2018, the Lucid team will continue to share what we learn about designing meetings that are not only good meetings, but meetings that are good for something. We have some inspiring meeting templates coming that will teach you how to achieve your goals, and exciting plans for the Lucid software platform to make it easier than ever to run the right meeting at the right time. All of which we’ll be sure to capture in a way that makes it easy for us all to look it up when we need them.

For now, take a moment to get grounded in what matters most. Here’s a word picture of answers to our first survey question.

What do you feel makes a meeting worth attending and a good use of your time?

Here’s the full text of survey answers so you can draw your own conclusions.

Clear agenda and the right people in the room | Knowing what the aims of the meeting are and how I can contribute. Having the right people there. Having an agenda in advance | Well thought prior, closely managed | Good meetings (a) have an agreed purpose and agenda, (b) have the right attendees and no more, (c) focus on decisions and information dissemination that requires verbal interaction (e.g. can’t readily be emailed). | Well prepared, by all the participants, | If there is a result at the end (decision , new idea, action, …) | When it gets my ✋ work moving. | Clear objectives. My ✋ skills are required. I need to be aware of the outcome of the meeting/ I need to influence them | specific outcome , decision , or plan – commitment | Set agenda, effective person leading the meetings | Clear meeting outcomes , focused process, thoughtful conversation, decisions . | Well structured | When there is a clear agenda and its clear why I have been invited, i.e. what I’m supposed to contribute with. | Need face-to-face or to share physical resources (models) | Well-structured before, clear goal/aim of specific meeting, Safe psychological climate, outcome = action list | Set agenda, reporting, goal setting | Whenever we actually move forward on some item (big or small) instead of talking about it yet again at the next meeting. | It has a good mix of administrative, strategic, tactical and culture building/non-sense. I put those percentages at 10%/20%/60%/10%. | when the right people are in the room, and decisions are documented and clear | Meeting is good to discuss ideas. It will be worth if I can benefit from it for the progress of my ✋ job. There are meetings which may not be necessary for my ✋ level, and I will not be contributing to them and just listen to the unwanted discussion, then it is waste of my ✋ time. Planned agenda, short meetings to share the status of the work and what to do next will be sufficient. | The passing on of information essential to carrying out work tasks | When we accomplish something tangible rather than simple discussion. | My ✋ opinion is not left out. | well facilitated, well prepared, clearly defined agenda and goals/results expected at the end of the meeting | A meeting is worth attending if I get good information and/or updates, decisions are made AND work is delegated with delivery dates. | something results from the meeting – some action | Plan requiring action | Interaction with people, preferably in person, (web conferencing and phone not as good but usually necessary) to explore ideas, make decisions , build group relationships. | Small number of attendees, clear agenda, goal oriented attendees. | Productive and engaging conversation | worth = pressing issues, value = resolutions | It’s relevant to my ✋ role and goals, and/or I bring value to the meeting outcomes . Time is used efficiently. Discussions are managed and curated well and tangents are quickly refocused. | Well organized agenda with balanced dialogue and clear objectives. Also good record keeping and crisp delineation of action items and decisions . | clear agenda discussion to clarify actions to be taken, responsibilities assigned and no waste of time on peripherals, looking for rooms, poor environment, people unfocussed, stupid discussions about unrelated topics | outcomes | When it starts with the end in mind, uses good process to achieve it and ends up with clear actions and responsibilities. | Information & context is shared which I couldn’t get through email or another written form. Decisions are made. | when no other means can offer the info available | The topic is relevant to my ✋ job. The agenda is set and followed but open discussion is encouraged | A clear purpose, desired outcomes , thoughtful attendee list, agenda and prep that support the purpose and desired outcomes …and an effective facilitator who keeps the meeting on track. | When decisions are made and directions are given. | If it’s more effective than sending and email or summary of information that is being shared. Nothing worse than seeing slide after slide of charts and graphs with someone reading every bullet point – stating the obvious. “This month #s are up” etc. | An agenda that is explicit about what, who, how long each item will be discussed so you know how long a meeting will last for. A meeting facilitator that maintains a flow to the discussion so that everyone is clear about points discussed and tasks yet to be completed. A meeting that has some levity, finishes on time, makes sure the minutes are out immediately after if not at the meeting. | clear purpose, mutually understood, and of mutual interest. clear agenda. Energy, attention, focus and creativity brought to the agenda. no rushing, no dragging. Start and finish on time, without preachiness about it. | action items | Current events | Reach objectives set forth in advance, good facilitation, good participation, tools to assist conversation | clear objective with outline of tasks to tackle | Wrap up all the decisions that need to be made. | all participants have active role, want to see desired outcome , – meeting logistics dialed in: agendas, meeting minutes, good facilitator, no hiccups w/audio/video, – meeting takeaways, follow-up action items agreed to, assigned, and actually OCCUR | A clear purpose and agenda, the right people being there and good leadership keeping everything on track | Project details discussed and proper escalation | reach the objective of the meeting | A good outcome | a list of actions at the end | clear purpose | A meeting is a worth attending when it is clear: 1. objective. 2. I can contribute | Accomplished a purpose. Didn’t involve people talking bs. relevant to everyone there – everyone contributed or learned commensurate with the time spent. Schedule in a timely manner. | Defined, short agenda; do it; get out! | action was taken | clear objectives that will add value. | agenda items and actions items | All relevant stakeholders make a good decision/s , in a short space of time. | Written schedule, certain people not attending | An agenda and a clear time box for the meeting. | if we look at data and make a decision , with solid next steps that are accomplishable by the other person | An outcome agenda with expectations for participation or background information included so that I know exactly what’s expected of me and of the meeting. | clear agenda with topics that are relevant to my ✋ work and which I have value to contribute to the conversation or should be part of the decisions-making process. | Open, exploratory, e.g. Lean Coffee stand up meeting to get feedback for change.” | Productive, organized, stay on track | Collaboration is very important in business, when a meeting invites people to collaborate rather than be fed information, that is a good meeting. | communication skills of each participant | Concrete outcomes | Consulting with experts to find answers | Covering topical issues, resolving problems and food ! | Decisions are made and discussion moves problems and issues forward to resolution | Clear outcomes , advance prep, improved team relations, feeling energised. | Defined purpose, no wasted time, achieve goals | direct agenda, clear objective and intended outcome , my ✋ input is valued and necessary | Effective communication of objective and achieving the objective. | Either it helps a group of X to get a common understanding of a topic or each other, or it helps to get decisions on a certain subject. | faster approach to finish item by avoiding misunderstandings | Focus, must have a facilitator, a planned agenda with time for each agenda item, start on time, end on time, ground rules, parking lot, action items with individual/team responsibilities to implement and report, meeting minutes recorded and distributed, share content, evaluation of each meeting, etc. | Clear outcomes | Focused, clear agenda, minimum number of participants – at most four. | Getting things done | clear goal, respect for time, getting a real result at the end. | if my ✋ input is necessary for clear decisions or outcome s and next steps are captured as action items and assigned to responsible parties with deadlines | Getting to the point and really being clear, fully understanding the topic being discussed | clear objectives with a neutral facilitator. | Giving everyone a chance to be heard and listening to what they say. | Good beer , good b.s, | Getting things done; decisions , tasks, etc. | Learn something new; Make a consensual decision | As an attendee, I am looking for (a) information I don’t have, (b) commitments I can’t readily get or make otherwise, and (c) discussions and decisions that move me closer to my ✋ goals (WIIFM).” | Having a goal | Good notes | Having a goal to accomplish during the meeting. Having an agenda | having and agreeing on a mutual outcome | Helps the progress of my ✋ work | If a decision is made with clear outcome s and deliverables. | If I can get results, answers, approvals, the right people engaged to move forward with the task/project. | My ✋ skills are required, I’m not just there to be informed (I can read the minutes of meeting for that) | If it gives me a clear idea of what I need to do to get my ✋ job done. | clear outcomes , advance prep, improved team relations, feeling energised. | If it is results oriented and people only speak when they have some added value to share | clear purpose with agreed required outcomes (i.e. owned actions or specific deliverables). | if the meeting results in clarification of issues, and work tasks and if it contributes to establish a good working together and mutual trust | Important decisions to be made | Information is passed along that is critical to my ✋ job performance.The meeting is focused and respectful of everyone’s time. Everyone invited is a relevant stakeholder and gets a chance to contribute, express a concern or voice an opinion. There’s a plan of action at the end and a decision is made. | Information or action items specifically relevant to my ✋ role | It has to have new information or some value add, and it should be offsite when possible | meet the goals of the meeting | It is worth my ✋ time when the leader keeps us on task and we have specific goals. When we leave everyone understands the outcomes and has their assignments and deadlines. | leader runs the meeting and their is action or solution at end. | Learn something from it, gain insight to improve your daily career functionality | meeting agenda defined | My ✋ input is necessary. agenda items are tackled swiftly. action items will be assigned. | new information and decision-making | A clear purpose for meetings and a process for achieving the goal | Lots of information given and retained | Organization and following a pre-planned agenda. | Positive | Pre-meeting agenda, stated goals | real outcome | Successfully sharing of information and action plan. | That people understand what the meeting is about, what their role is and there is someone keeping people on topic. | A meeting where tasks are delegated, but then each task is carried out individually | The objective of the meeting is clearly defined | Clear subject, facilitated, conclusions; or | The right people, the right topic, starting and ending on time, good discussion, decisions and outcomes . | There is a clear reason why I am there and I can contribute something. | to learn new things, give and take opinions. | we go in with a clear lists of problems in advance – and always end up moving forward on the issue / question / problem we had in the first place. I can’t remember a time when things didn’t progress to final resolution (disposal)… | Clear results, specific action items for follow up, plan for meeting next

And finally,

There are many wonderful ways to do great work in meetings.
This year, let’s put those meetings to work.