THE BLOG
10/02/2015 05:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Get Your Meeting Mojo On: 7 Steps You Can Take to Change the Culture of Meetings

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How many times have you sat in a meeting and grown increasingly frustrated? Everybody talks at once. People interrupt each other and speak at cross purposes. Some are checking their phones, others look half-asleep, and a few with loud voices control the discussion. Worst of all, when the meeting ends, few decisions have been made, and the call to action is often, "we need another meeting."

What can you do to change this unproductive and debilitating culture? Lots! There are seven steps you can take to get your meeting mojo on and shine as an example to others in these daily interactions.

Step 1: Keep the Meeting Focused

If you're leading the meeting, keep the group focused on clearly stated goals. Present an overview of goals in your opening remarks, and provide an agenda. Then make sure the discussion stays on course. If someone deviates from the subject, get them back on track by saying, "That topic is for another day."

Step 2: Listen Fully

Whether you're chairing the meeting or simply a participant, listen with your mind fully engaged. Listening is more than hearing the discussion with your ears -- which certainly is a step up from what most people do. The kind of listening I'm talking about is listening with your mind fully engaged. As a Harvard MBA student put it to me: "Our professors call on us at random all the time, so I have to be in the ready position during the entire class. I can't let my mind wander."

This is a good rule to follow in meetings: stay attentive so that at any given point in the discussion you can respond to a question or provide insight. You'll also be able to draw together the various strands of the discussion and synthesize ideas that have been put forward. This is a critical meeting skill, and one that shows tremendous leadership.

Step 3: Speak Clearly

Make your points clearly and succinctly. Begin each contribution with a short statement connecting yourself to the theme or previous speaker. For example, say "I'd like to build on what Joe said," or "Our discussion about timing raises another crucial issue."

Then state your message in a single sentence beginning with "my view is that" or "my point is," or "as I see it". It's critical to have a single sentence message that shows others you are focused and have something to say.

Follow your message statement with several proof points to drive home your argument. These need only be one or two sentences each. Don't drag your audience through detail.

Help others, too, get to their point. If you hear someone rambling on, why not say, "Peter, if I understand your point, it is that." Others in the room will be grateful for your intervention.

Step 4: Convey Presence

Project presence in meetings. Often clients ask me how they can gain "executive presence" when giving a major speech or presentation. But projecting presence is equally important in meetings. Presence literally means being fully present. If you have presence in meeting, people will see you as being engaged, thoughtful and committed.

Strong eye contact is fundamental. As you talk, don't look randomly at the room, but make deliberate eye contact with individuals. And when you are not speaking, make eye contact with the speaker, turning your head and body in the direction of the speaker with a receptive look on your face. Sit up straight, with your arms open. Avoid slouching, crossing your arms, or that bane of modern meetings -- focusing on your phone. Finally, eliminate the clutter around you -- bottles, papers, purses or food will make you look less polished and focused.

Step 5: Draw People Out

Give everyone a voice. This is particularly important for those leading the meeting, but everyone can invite participation from others.

Cast your eye over the room, and do your best to include everyone who is there in the discussion. Draw out women, visible minorities, and junior staff - individuals who may not feel that their voices will be heard if they speak up.

Say, "I know Nadia has led a similar program at her last firm -- let's ask for her advice." Remember: the more inclusive the discussion, the more depth it will have and the richer the outcome.

Step 6: Encourage Respect

Define a new level of discourse -- one that reflects polite conversation rather than the "free-for-all" that can characterize meeting dialogue. Discourage interruptions, speaking "over" others or aggressiveness. If someone does interrupt another person, say "I believe Nadia was not finished." If there is cross-talk -- two or more people speaking at the same time -- the meeting leader should halt the discussion and say, "let's have one person at a time."

Step 7: Close With Action

Close the meeting with a summary of the progress that has been made -- and a call to action. The meeting leader typically should do this, but if he or she doesn't -- or if it is a roundtable discussion -- go for it!

All these pointers are elaborated in my book, Speaking as a Leader: How to Lead Every Time You Speak. Follow these steps and you will not only shine in meetings, but you will help change the culture of these every day interactions.