Actions to take: Throughout the week, always be thinking about potential topics for your meeting. Add those ideas to a working document for your agenda. Block out approximately 2 hours to directly prepare. During that time, organize and finalize your agenda, prepare what you want to say for each topic, and visualize how it will go during the meeting.
This is a post in a short series about running your team meetings, i.e. the regularly scheduled meeting with all of your direct reports in attendance. Many of the lessons apply to other meetings, but team meetings are the focus.
A well-run meeting is like an excellent interview. People who give excellent answers in interviews make it look natural. They come off as if their answers are spontaneous, as if they are just having a conversation with the interviewer. Seeing this leads some people to come to the disastrously wrong conclusion they should not prepare. If they prepare, the logic goes, they will come off stilted, like they are reading from a script. These folks have never given an excellent interview, and they would fail miserably at running a meeting. When they try to prepare, they only prepare a little. They know what they want to say only when they are concentrating fully on the topic. Even little distractions and variations from their expectations throw them off. They think, "Better to wing it so I can act normal."
For both interviewing and running a meeting, the opposite is true. The "wing it" folks are doing about 10% as much preparation as they need to. They do just enough preparation to get worse during the main event, because they are trapped into focusing on what they are trying to say.
To run a great meeting, you need to speak with the authority of an expert. Experts can speak naturally and easily because they know their topic so well. They have drilled an understanding of the material into their brains. The metaphors and comparisons they make sound off-the-cuff because they have made similar comparisons a hundred times in the past. They have thought about their topic so much that they can speak extemporaneously about it for hours and integrate any question or thought thrown at them.
In a meeting, your agenda items are your topic. You must be so prepared with what you want to say that your mental energy is available for ancillary tasks.
For a one-hour team meeting, spend approximately four hours preparing each week. The time spent will make you into the expert we described above. Four hours may sound like a lot, but, aside from one-on-ones, this meeting is the primary place you "do" management. Your management tasks (passing info up and down the chain, planning, making decisions, communicating those decisions, etc.) need to get done one way or another. The time you spend thoughtfully crafting your team meeting pays for itself. A well planned agenda item prevents time-wasting follow up like people asking for basic information after the meeting, needing to rehash the same topics in later meetings, and correcting errors caused by those who misunderstood you.
Half of your prep time will be distributed throughout the week, a few minutes here, a few minutes there. Have a working document for future team meeting topics, the same way you do for one-on-one topics (Mine is the same spreadsheet. Each column is a week. Each row is an employee's name, with the top row as the team meeting). During the week, be adding to the document. Pull topic ideas from these sources:
- One-on-one meetings
- Emails from your boss, other departments, and higher up in the organization
- The meetings you attend
- Conversations that pop up throughout the day
In short, always be looking for information that the whole team needs to know about. Almost anything work-related is a candidate for a team meeting, either in your "information dump" section or as a bigger discussion/decision/brainstorm.
You must also schedule dedicated time to work directly on meeting prep. It is a good idea to have a set time each week blocked out for this work. You want to send your agenda at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting, so I recommend blocking out time two days in advance of the meeting.
This time is where you will "become expert" in the things you want to cover during the meeting. Spend two hours or so organizing and finalizing the agenda that you will send to the team. During this time, do three preparatory thought exercises:
- Plan and assign topic purpose to each of your agenda items. Decide what goal you want to achieve with each agenda item. When you assign each topic to a broad category of purpose (informational, brainstorming, discussion, decision), it helps you quickly narrow down how to prepare for it.
- For big topics, prepare exactly what you want to say. I recommend scripting it out, practicing it aloud twice, then bringing a bullet-point reminder of the script to the meeting. This will cement what you want to say without locking you into the rigidity of trying to say it exactly the same way every time.
- Bonus tip: Generally structure your script: 1) one-or-two sentence headline; 2) time spent on why it matters; 3) time spent on the how-to or informational details. (Notice the similarity to the strategy for announcing change)
- Imagine how each agenda item will go in the meeting. Beyond what you will say, how will people react? How do you want them to react? Where do you want to pause for questions? Who might be antagonistic, and who might you call on for support? The time spent asking yourself these questions will help you stay dynamic during the meeting. You will be imagining interruptions and variation while you prepare, so you won't be thrown off by interruptions and variations during the main event.
Four hours a week is all it takes to look like an expert. If you spend this time preparing, everyone will think you are "a natural" at running meetings, because you will look natural. You will have the mental energy to follow side-tangents without losing your place, engage in jokes and banter, and focus on how to say what you need to say. Ironically, becoming "a natural" isn't natural at all. Anyone can do it if they put in the time.