Seven ways to make meetings better

Although they’re essential to keeping people in the know, meetings can become a time sink that saps morale and diminishes productivity. Here are 7 ways to improve them.

Do you love meetings? Neither do I.

I realized it was time to leave my last job when I noticed I was spending an average of six hours a day in meetings, many of which I had been asked to attend strictly on an FYI basis.

Read.ai has raised $10 million toward the goal of better understanding what doesn’t work about meetings so the people who run them can do it better.

Its software analyzes basic metrics such as start and end times, attendance, and time spent on different topics. It then folds in machine learning-derived observations from audio and video recordings that indicate engagement levels as measured by factors like participation, tone of voice, and visual expressions.

In April, the company issued a report based upon an analysis of more than three million tracked meeting minutes, and it contained some compelling observations.

About one in five meetings is rated as inadequate by attendees, with just 46% achieving a “good” rating.

Among the reasons given are the number of participants who arrive late increases with meeting size, topping out at 51% late attendees for meetings with seven or more people.

On average, 30% of participants show up late, one-quarter are disengaged, one person does nearly half the talking in most small meetings, and 22% of participants in meetings of seven or more people don’t say a word.

These findings mirror my own experience pretty closely, so I was interested in speaking to Read.ai Co-Founder David Shim to ask for his advice for making meetings better. They boiled down to these seven factors.

  1. Start on time. Bad meetings go off the rails early, Shim says. The average one begins 3.3 minutes late, which doesn’t sound like much until you multiply the time wasted by the number of people in the room. The later the start time, the more disengaged the group becomes. Latecomers also tend to participate less than those who were present from the start. “This creates low sentiment at the outset,” Shim says.
  1. Invite fewer people, particularly to large meetings. “On meetings of seven or more, we see that 40% don’t engage in the conversation,” Shim says. “The fact that you decide to invite too many people puts everyone in a hole because they’re afraid of offending others.” Instead, people who rarely contribute to the discussion should either be removed from the invitation list or actively encouraged to speak up.
  1. Know when to shut up. The research found that one person typically consumes nearly half the talk time in meetings of three and six people. That’s a lecture, and lectures are boring. “We see a drop in engagement as fewer people monopolize the conversation,” Shim says. “Bringing in people who haven’t been speaking is valuable because it makes them feel involved. It’s the host’s responsibility to know who’s participating.”
  1. Make meetings shorter. As a journalist, I get a lot of pitches for executive chin-wags and product rollouts, so years ago, I started capping all such meetings at 20 minutes. I found that the more compressed schedule forces people to start on time, get to the point faster, and cut down on small talk. Read.ai’s research agrees. It found that the participant engagement drops by 16% from the start to the end of the average meeting and that disengagement tops out at over 40% in meetings longer than 50 minutes. Shim’s advice is simple: “Put the important stuff at the beginning,” he says.
  1. Avoid back-to-backs and inconvenient times. The value drops as the number of meetings pile up, Shim says. “People are more likely to be late or unengaged, and there’s a point where you can meet with someone too much,” he says. Friday afternoon meetings are singularly unpopular. The best times of the week are Tuesday and Wednesday mornings.
  1. Video on. Although many of us have a love/hate relationship with the camera during video calls, Read.ai’s research indicates that turning it on “results in better responses from others,” Shim says. “Even if you don’t like having video on, it tends to make others feel like there’s a level of engagement.” Plus, you can’t fall asleep as easily.
  1. Ask for feedback. Numerous web survey makers offer limited free subscriptions that are perfectly sufficient for gathering anonymous post-meeting feedback. Given that few of us are experts in meeting facilitation, it seems a shame not to use them.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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