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How to Master Your Next Meeting

This story appears in the March 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Meetings are crucial, sure. But also, they’re absurd.  

Let’s work! … by not working. Let’s get something done! … by mostly being quiet. Let’s sit around a table and have a conversation! … and end it arbitrarily regardless of how much we’ve gotten done.  Let’s meet! … about scheduling a meeting.   

But there’s a certain kind of meeting that is not so absurd. At least for you. And that is the meeting in which you are the star. You may not be leading the meeting—or “facilitating” it, as the meeting experts so clinically put it—but you’re the star. You’re fully aware of your role. You’ve had time to prepare. Perhaps you’re pitching something. Or unveiling something. Or briefing people about something. All eyes are (or should be) on you. 

There are still absurdities involved, but you’re the one controlling the level of absurdity. The inherent stiltedness is something you’re in charge of. And since you’re in charge of it, the first thing to do is harness it. Because people don’t mind stiltedness and formality. They just need to know that there’s a point to it all.

The central truths of meetings

In psychologists’ studies of meetings, two important principles arise.

1. People want to have their expectations met. This is why an agenda is key. It’s a confirmation that what’s discussed will at some point resolve. Since people hate meetings (and all available research suggests that people hate meetings), the most important thing to
do early on is establish an end point.

2. People want to feel that their presence is crucial. “No one likes to attend meetings unless you can make sure it helps a person accomplish his or her tasks, and it’s part of the job and not an extra thing,” says Alexandra Luong, associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “The research suggests that it’s not the big things that annoy us, but the small daily hassles that throw us off and cause us to develop negative attitudes.” 

So even if you didn’t decide who would be at the meeting, it’s important that you speak to everyone who’s there. That’s best accomplished by making sure your message is relevant to everyone in the room. (Eye contact helps, too.) 

How to deliver a message

The way to shine at a meeting is to treat it like a speech. It may be an informal speech, interrupted by someone asking a question or challenging a point or having their Godfather theme-song ringtone go off—but still, you’re delivering a mini-speech. 

So the two most important tips for public speaking apply. First, keep it simple. Have one main idea that you can distill into a single sentence; hit it again and again. And second, keep it short. Think of your message as a very intimate TED talk—and keep in mind that TED talks are capped at 18 minutes, which is, according to curator Chris Anderson, “long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention.”

And then deliver your message. You could just, you know, talk. But if you want people to actually listen to you instead of simply staring at you, try:

The classic approach: Say what you’re going to say. Say it. Then say what you said. 

Or … The old-school approach, from Roman statesman Cicero, 106-43 B.C.: Introduce the main idea. Provide background. Outline key points. Make the full argument, point by point. Refute opposing arguments.

Or … Dale Carnegie’s Magic Formula: Relive a personal experience relevant to the point. Call on attendees to take a single, specific action. Clearly emphasize how the listener will benefit from taking the recommended action.

Or … The Churchillian Flash and Crescendo: Start off strong and surprising. Stick to one dominant theme. Use simple, conversational language. End dramatically.

Or … The TED talk: Have a strong opening hook. Order your points. Craft a great closing story with a call to action.

Each of these approaches allows for emotion, either implicitly or explicitly. And though the energy of emotion is helpful, clarity is the most critical thing. In meetings, formulaic is a virtue. 

I'm Sure You're Wondering Why I've Called You All Here ...

Beware the meeting grenade

Despite the clarity of your message and emotion of your delivery, not everyone might respond with rapt attention and furious note-taking. Barry might audibly yawn, as he does. Sarah might do the thing where she brings an apple to the meeting and, when you’re about to make your most important point, takes a bite. Jennifer might throw in a meeting grenade. 

What’s a meeting grenade? A comment or question that destroys the flow of the meeting. Like this: 

YOU: … But the most important point is, we have to staunch the bleeding. And here’s how—

JENNIFER: What if we, like, monetized our Tumblr?

That’s a meeting grenade. It’s related to the topic but inappropriately delivered, potentially killing the momentum and undermining the authority of the speaker. The way to deal with this, and anything else that has the power to distract from the point you are making, is to pretend that it never happened, to ignore its existence. 

YOU: … But the most important point is, we have to staunch the bleeding. And here’s how—

JENNIFER: What if we, like, monetized our Tumblr?

YOU [glance at Jennifer, then Barry, then Sarah]: We’re going to monetize our Instagram. 

Is it rude to ignore Jennifer’s point? Yes. Which makes it appropriate. When you are delivering an important message in a meeting, the meeting is your meeting. Anything that undermines the clarity of your point is an offense that must be met with defense. And the defense is to remain focused, despite any feelings you might hurt or opportunities to monetize Tumblr you might eschew. 

So make your point. Then, if there’s time, ask Jennifer what her Tumblr plans involve, Barry if he got enough sleep last night and Sarah if that was a Fuji … or maybe a Paula Red. You’ll soften your marked earnestness. But more important, you’ll designate all those distractions as secondary concerns, reinforcing the primacy of the stated point of the meeting and the only thing that matters while you are talking: what you want to say. 

Ideal conditions for meetings

If you have any control over where you’ll be delivering your important message, consider the following rules: 

  • Early in the day is better than late. 
  • Smaller rooms are better than bigger rooms. (Unless the smaller room is just a random space in the office that someone decided to call a “team area.”) 
  • Fewer people are better than more people. 
  • A room temperature of 72 degrees is better than 65 degrees. 
  • Natural light is better than artificial light. 
  • Silence is better than tapping your pen on the table.