How to Run an Effective Meeting (So You Don’t Waste Your Time or Anyone Else’s)

I cringe whenever I get a work email with “Invitation” in the subject line, because so many meetings feel like a waste of everyone’s time. If more people knew how to run an effective meeting, maybe I wouldn’t be so hesitant to click “Accept.” My to-do list is always packed with tasks, so whenever someone schedules a meeting or a conference call with me, I’m conscious of the fact that it’s taking time away from my other priorities. Sometimes people arrange meetings when an email or phone call would be more effective—and that’s always frustrating—but we can’t give up meetings altogether, because sometimes they really are the best way to move forward.

Before you send out your next meeting invitation, please look over this list of reminders on how to run an effective meeting. If you follow these suggestions, you’ll have an awesome, productive meeting, and your coworkers will appreciate it. (I know I will if we ever work together!)

This is a biggie: Don’t waste anyone’s time.

The first step to running an effective meeting is making sure a meeting is even necessary. If you can resolve the issue at hand with a quick email or phone call, use that option instead. If you absolutely must have a meeting, only invite the people who really need to be there. A smaller group is more manageable, so this benefits the organizer, too. If you have other coworkers who aren’t part of the meeting’s decision-making process, but might be interested in the outcome, leave them off the invite list. Instead of taking an hour (or even a half hour) of their time, you can send a quick email after the meeting to let them know how things worked out.

Be as clear as possible about what you need.

Create a meeting agenda with a clearly defined goal, and share it with everyone you’re inviting. Let each attendee know why they were invited and what’s expected of them, and give them enough time to prepare. Should the team brainstorm on a certain topic beforehand and bring a list of ideas? Do they need to familiarize themselves with certain relevant information? To make the meeting as effective as possible, include your expectations in the invitation, and send around the agenda at least a day in advance.

Be specific about what attendees should expect from you.

Now that I’m a freelancer, my meetings are more likely to be in a public place, like a coffee shop or restaurant, than in a conference room. This often raises questions. Is it rude if I order something to eat—or rude if I don’t? Is the person who set up the meeting planning to pick up the check? How long should I expect the meeting to go?

When you send a meeting invitation, spell out what kind of meeting you have in mind. Is the meeting an idea-generating session, or a training session in which you’ll instruct the team on a new procedure? Be sure to include a start time and an end time. I was recently in a meeting that I expected to last two hours, and it ended up stretching to four. By the end, I felt completely drained. If I had known what I was getting myself into, I would’ve been better prepared to stay that long.

If you are providing food (like coffee and bagels at a morning meeting) mention that ahead of time, too. That way, people can plan on eating at the meeting, which saves them a little time, and prevents the food you bought from going to waste.

You’re the leader, so take the lead.

If you set up the meeting, you’re in charge. Get to the meeting place a few minutes early so you can start right on time. If someone is late, don’t be tempted to wait for them. Just get started, because that person may have had a last-minute conflict. Show respect to the people who did show up by starting on time.

Be prepared to take detailed notes, or delegate this task to someone you trust. (NOTE: If possible, take notes the old-fashioned way, in a notebook. If other people see you typing on a laptop, they may think you’re checking email and that they have permission to do the same. Your meeting will be more effective if people take a break from their laptops and gadgets.)

When you’re leading a meeting, you also set the tone for the discussion. As you get down to business, focus on creating a positive, welcoming environment. When other people make suggestions, offer encouragement and listen with an open mind. Urge people to chime in and offer ideas, and if anyone seems shy about speaking up, ask them directly if they have any thoughts. As someone who’s socially awkward, I sometimes stay quiet in meetings—even when I have ideas—only because I’m not sure when is the right time to speak up. If someone calls on me, I tend to feel more comfortable about weighing in.

As the meeting organizer, you’re also responsible for guiding the discussion to keep it on topic and on schedule. If there’s a clock in the room, sit where you can see it. Knowing the exact time will make it easier to stick to the agenda.

End the meeting on time.

If you want to run an effective meeting, it’s not just about starting on time—you have to end on time, too. A few minutes before the meeting is scheduled to be over, remind people what has been discussed, and outline your plans for moving forward. If people have tasks to work on after the meeting, make sure they understand what they’ve agreed to do. If the meeting is in a conference room, make sure you leave it as clean (or cleaner) than you found it. The meeting is over, but there’s still one more step to make it as effective as possible: Send a follow-up message within 24 hours. Include your notes from the meeting, and clearly identify any follow-up tasks.

Take your meeting leader skills to every meeting.

Now that you know the basics of running an effective meeting, you can make every meeting you’re involved in a more positive experience—even when you’re not the leader.

  • Prepare ahead of time. Bring a list of ideas and questions.
  • If you need coffee or water, get it ahead of time, so you can be a minute or two early.
  • Silence your phone and put it away. (Answering texts or email mid-meeting will distract you from the discussion. Nobody wants to repeat themselves because you weren’t paying attention.)
  • Listen to the person who’s speaking, and avoid side conversations.
  • If discussion strays from the agenda, try to refocus it.
  • Bring chocolate and be willing to share. (Seriously! A few cookies or pieces of candy can improve even the most boring meeting.)