The 7 Secrets To Make Meetings Less Awful

A day full of meetings will leave a bad taste in your mouth. Unless you follow these steps.

Some companies have abandoned the whole idea of a meeting. But if your schedule is still saturated with them, here's how to greet your meets much more skillfully.

1. Account for the loudmouth problem

When placed into a group situation like a meeting, people rely on "messy proxies for expertise." Rather than deferring to competency, people take confidence, loudness, or even race as signals that a person is to be listened to.

To defuse that distraction, don't brainstorm, brainwrite.

2. Sit in a circle

People who sat around circular tables were found to be more group-oriented than those arrayed around square tables.

3. Complete the work, not the schedule

Meetings don't just last 15, 30, or 60 minutes. If the work is done in eight, bail: that's what Sheryl Sandberg does.

4. Make sure the right people are in the room

At Square, having the decision maker in the room leads to quicker decisions—and more original products.

5. Turn your agenda into inquiries

Organizational psychologist and Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams author Roger Schwarz dropped some knowledge on Harvard Business Review that we're still adjusting to. Instead of listing out the agenda with limp, open-ended declaratives, turn them into answerable questions. For example:

  • Don't write: "Discuss video schedule"
  • Do write: "When will videos be completed?"

Suddenly, everybody knows what outcome is to be looked for—and you'll all know when it's been found.

6.Never order more than two pizzas

Some old school Jeff Bezos wisdom: If the folks in the meeting can't be fed by two pizzas, then the meeting is too big.

7.Mind the transition

Before you change from one question on the agenda to the next, Schwarz says make sure everyone who wants to have a say on the topic can make their input. Why? Because otherwise they might be asking that question 15 minutes from now—which gives everybody in the room the heavy cognitive costs of task switching.

Readers: What do you do to make meetings less awful? Let us know in the comments.

Hat tip: HBR

[Sitting in a Circle: Camilo Torres via Shutterstock]

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  • Love the agenda questions idea. I'd add "Hold stand-up meetings." If everyone's standing and you do a quick touch-base you can forestall the need for longer sit-down meetings in which you unpack what went off course because you didn't know what you didn't know. It's also (in theory) tougher for participants to drift off into answering emails and texts while standing--you lose the table edge to hide your phone so it's much more obvious that your attention has left the meeting.

  • I say provide healthy snacks along w/the sweet/salty. It shows a bit more concerted effort and non-lazy thinking. We all work for food after all!

  • Great article, glad that more people are on a mission to help the world get rid of bad meetings. I am the founder of MeetingKing ( and have done a lot of research into why meetings are often a waste of time.

    The main causes of bad meetings are:

    1. participants are not prepared (often including the organizer)
    2. the meeting is not documented, so everyone has a different recollection
    3. there is limited or no follow-up on tasks

    Having good meetings is not rocket science, but some discipline is required. The problem is that juggling all information in email, Word a task manager and file sharing service is too time consuming. We created MeetingKing to help you manage your meeting from preparation to task completion, but whatever tools you use, make sure you prepare, document and follow-up!

  • Patricia Alvarado Salas

    Excellent tips for meeting! I will love more information about tip 5, changing agenda into inquiries