Years ago, I frequently participated in professionally facilitated strategic planning sessions. I still remember the leader of one session standing up at the beginning and asking everyone to “Be Here Now”. What did he mean by that? Well, it was actually a plea to the people in the room to be focused on the discussion at hand. This meeting was before the time when literally everyone was multi-tasking and attending to emails, texts, and countless other items that now fill our daily work lives. Today, some companies actually have a “cell phones off” policy during meetings and I certainly understand why those policies exist. While people are obviously physically present during meetings their thoughts can be very far away.
We have all seen this happen and most of us have been part of the problem when we were barely paying attention while in a supposedly important meeting. While it’s easy to blame the participants it’s often the case that they are sucked into a meeting which has no agenda, no set end point, a wandering discussion, and almost no intellectual stimulation. No wonder people are bored and trying to get other tasks done in a work world that has gone far beyond the old “9 to 5”.
How do you keep people engaged? Make sure that there is a compelling reason for people to be at the meeting. If the purpose is to convey information, make sure that it is both relevant and concisely presented. If the purpose is to make a decision, make sure people know what decision they are being asked to make up front. Stick to the agenda. Minimize extraneous conversations that are not relevant. End the meeting on time. Almost everyone’s schedule is booked non-stop; once you start to encroach upon the other items on people’s calendar you will undoubtedly lose their attention. If you can end the meeting early, don’t drag it out just to fill the allotted time. I have never heard anyone complain about a meeting that accomplished the objective but ended early.
Pay attention to the reactions of people in the room. If you can see that you are starting to lose their attention, do something to get it back. Ask them to “Be Here Now” or find some other way to pull their attention back to the topic at hand. If necessary, quit and reschedule with a better agenda and better prepared materials.
People who know me well know that unless it is a strategic planning session or similar, that my tolerance for a meeting rarely extends beyond an hour. If used effectively, a lot can be accomplished in that time period. I recently participated in a quarterly Board of Directors meeting that covered 2012 full year results, accounting changes, key performance metrics, new business development initiatives, January revenue performance to plan, status of the year end audit, performance measures we wanted to introduce for the upcoming year, an update to 2013 goals and budget, approval of prior meeting minutes, and a few new business items as well as a potential problem area we wanted to let the Board know we were watching. It was certainly a lot to cover but the meeting ran barely more than an hour. Materials were well prepared and circulated in advance, people arrived prepared, were focused during the meeting and none of us who were presenting felt the need to fill more time than was absolutely necessary.
The next time you are in a meeting, think about that phrase: Be Here Now!
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