7 ways to run a better meeting

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Meetings, though a necessary element of most jobs, can often feel like a time-suck. They interrupt our daily tasks and make it difficult to get work done. However, there are strategies leaders can employ to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their meetings.

Consider the following seven tips to improve meetings, according to the Harvard Business Review.

1. Limit meetings to a maximum of seven people. While there is no magic number, "there is evidence to suggest that keeping the meeting small is beneficial," according to Francesca Gino, PhD, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of "Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan." In large group meetings, it is harder to keep track of subtle body language cues, an important indicator of peoples' comprehension and reactions to information.

Additionally, large groups inhibit attendees' participation. Furthermore, when there are too many in attendance, people tend to contribute less than they would in a smaller group setting. "When many hands are available, people work less hard than they ought to," according to Dr. Gino. "Social psychology research has shown that when people perform group tasks (such as brainstorming or discussing information in a meeting), they show a sizable decrease in individual effort than when they perform alone." This phenomenon, known as "social loafing," typically increases as the size of a group grows.

Large meetings are sometimes unavoidable. In these circumstances, the meeting leader needs to amp up his or her degree of facilitation and be more deliberate about collecting input from the group and noting peoples' body language.

2. Create a "no devices allowed" rule. Even when we think we are multitasking, our attention is spread thin when we are simultaneously finishing an email, reading a text message and listening to a meeting. "Recent neuroscience research makes the point quite clear on this issue. Multitasking is simply a mythical activity. We can do simple tasks like walking and talking at the same time, but the brain can't handle multitasking," according to Dr. Gino. "In fact, studies show that a person who is attempting to multitask takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task and he or she makes up to 50 percent more mistakes."

Using a cell phone, tablet or another device in a meeting is also distracting to others, and it can even be offensive. If someone is trying to talk during a meeting and they see their boss staring into their phone, he or she will likely see that as an insult.

3. Set an hour time limit. There are numerous advantages to keeping meetings as short as possible, according to HBR. First, people will stay more focused. "Classic studies have found that groups adjust both their rate of work and their style of interaction in response to deadlines and time constraints," according to Dr. Gino. She cited one study that showed that "groups solving problems communicated at a faster rate and used more autocratic decision-making processes under high time pressure than they did when time pressure was low."

At the same time, it is important to give various discussion points the time and attention they require. While time pressures may improve efficiencies, rushing over topics and not giving attendees sufficient time to voice their opinions, concerns and ideas will be detrimental.

4. Get everyone on their feet. There is empirical evidence that proves stand-up meetings are more effective, according to Dr. Gino. In one study conducted in 1999, researchers found that standing meetings were about 34 percent shorter than sit-down meetings but produced the same results. Additionally, standing up may help attendees feel more energized and focused.

5. Call on everyone to participate. According to Paul Axtell, author of "Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations," some people want to talk during meetings but feel unable unless they are called on. This may be because of "cultural reasons, or language barriers, or general disposition." These people may have the most refined perspective and should not be overlooked.

Additionally, people like to know their opinions and ideas matter. Asking attendees to participate in the conversation shows them that their leaders value their opinions. "Just by asking people in the meeting for their opinion, you're going to raise their commitment to the issues being discussed," according to Dr. Gino.  

6. Don't hold meetings just to give updates. If you're already in a meeting for a "worthwhile topic," it's acceptable to give a quick update, according to Mr. Axtell. "But if you're only meeting to transfer information, rethink your approach. Why take up valuable time saying something you can just email?" Mr. Axtell told HBR.

7. Set an agenda prior to the meeting and clearly communicate goals. Dr. Gino and Mr. Axtell agree that mapping out meetings and setting agendas in advance is critical to making them successful. Additionally, meeting leaders should notify participants what a meeting will be about and give them time to prepare to be meaningful contributors. According to Dr. Gino, lacking a clear game plan is often what causes groups to get derailed in decision-making.

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