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    Oh Those Meetings...

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011

    I recently sat in on a meeting the made my eyes droop and my toes curl. The purpose of the meeting was clear—it was the regular assembly of a civic organization with established goals—yet it dragged on, veering from topic to topic and back again. One member was consistently breaking into the discussion with information, relevant or not, and what could have been a one-hour meeting was doubled.

    This isn't an isolated incident, of course. All too often meetings fall prey to the random commentator, eating into the other attendees' time (even extending their workday). However, when calling or chairing a meeting, there are a few things you can do to avoid it crumbling into a disorganized, inefficient mess.

    First, decide on a clear purpose for the meeting. This might sound obvious, but you'd be surprised how many meetings wander into nether regions, failing to work toward specific outcomes. Decide what actions should come out of the meeting for each subject, and don't let a topic go by unresolved. Focus on those outcomes, and you can steer rambling speakers back on track.

    Next, prepare an agenda. This includes a listing of each topic to be discussed, from most to least important (the way a news story is written). This ensures that should the meeting have to break up early, you will at least have covered the essentials. If possible, distribute the agenda to attendees well before the meeting, and allow them to suggest additions to be added where appropriate. A clear agenda, reviewed beforehand, will help to focus attention item by item, preventing disruption by off-topic comments.

    At the beginning of the meeting, set a time limit on discussion per topic. This can help to keep the more talkative from rambling on. You might even bring a timer to help the group stick to that limit. By the way, this is also a good idea for any speakers invited—let them know beforehand that you would like them to work within a specific time frame. With this done, stick to the schedule as closely as possible. The participants will thank you.

    For a regular meeting of an ongoing civic, charitable, or non-profit organization, you might consider adding the topics “old business” and “new business” at the end, allowing participants to bring up their topics in an orderly fashion. Otherwise, you'll find random topics thrown in throughout the meeting. This way, you can simply defer non-relevant discussions until you get through your main business.

    Finally, and most importantly, if you are in charge of the meeting, Take Charge. Tactfully steer non sequiturs and off-topic comments back to the subject being discussed. That is the true role of a meeting chairperson—the ability to keep things on track.

    If you have further questions on how to run a meeting, you can't do wrong by referring to Robert's Rules of Order, the quintessential reference for any meeting. Although developed in 1876 by Brigadier General Henry Martyn Robert, who was disgusted with the lack of order in military and governmental meetings, it is still excellent and has been revised to reflect modern meeting practices. You can check the official site, www.robertsrules.org, for some basics.

    —Joyce Lee

    Photo by Brett Jordan