Stop accepting every one of your meeting requests

distracted meetings

“Oh, can you repeat the question?”

Ever hear that in a meeting? That’s a sure sign of someone who’s lost focus, and wants you to help them regain it.

Over time, I’ve had my share of bad meetings. A common trait I’ve noticed about every one of them is that they lack focus.

Conversations deviate, people are distracted by phones and laptops, or you might even have a dreaded rambler. Whatever the case, bad meetings are bad because they’re not focused.

On the flip side, the best meetings are the exact opposite. They’re extremely focused, and everyone leaves feeling good about the progress and decisions that were made.

If you can master the skill of keeping a meeting focused, you’ll make every meeting count.

A major key to having successful meetings is to be strategic about setting them up.

While meetings are essential to building a business, you should be picky about when, why, and how to have one.

Personally, I’ve learned to intuitively ask myself a few questions before I accept a meeting request or decide to schedule a meeting.

A few months ago, I discussed meetings with a friend who was terrible at them. She couldn’t figure out why every meeting she had was ineffective. In turn, she despised all meetings, which didn’t help either.

After explaining my view on meetings, a lightbulb went on for her. She began asking the same questions I ask myself before committing to a meeting, and has since mastered them! (I’m almost sure that she’s surpassed my meeting skills, since she’s a life coach and her business revolves around coaching people through meetings).

What are meetings really for?

First, realize what all meetings are for (this is not rocket science):

We have meetings to exchange information.

That’s it, plain and simple. Ironically, even though the concept is elementary, people still suck at figuring out how to do this well.

Understanding that meetings fundamentally help us exchange information allows us to ask the right questions. This way, we know when it’s worth having a meeting and what that meeting should look like.

Here are 4 questions that will help you determine if a meeting is needed, figure out how to optimize the meeting, and save you a ton of time:

  1. What information needs to be exchanged?
  2. Who has the information that needs to be exchanged?
  3. What’s the best way to exchange the information?
  4. How much time is needed to exchange the information?

I don’t believe one solution fits all for every meeting, which is why these questions can be used as a guide to help make every meeting count.

Let’s discuss each question in detail so you have a better idea of how they’ll help you.

What information needs to be exchanged?

If you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of the number 1.

A focused meeting revolves around ONE topic. A common mistake people make is to try and squeeze multiple topics into a single meeting. That’s no good for you, the meeting, or anyone else!

One of my pet peeves is being involved in a meeting that has little or nothing to do with me. It’s not because I’m self-absorbed; it’s because I lose focus, which makes me ineffective.

This is usually why you’ll start hearing the response: “Oh, can you repeat the question?”

The best way to avoid anyone losing focus in your meeting is to be specific about what information needs to be exchanged.

Write down the information that needs to be exchanged in ONE sentence. If you can’t, you need to schedule multiple meetings.

Doing this exercise will also help you and others prepare for the meeting appropriately. Once you know your meeting’s focus, you’re much more likely to keep of all your participants focused as well.

Who has the information that needs to be exchanged?

After defining the information that needs to be exchanged, you need to figure out who has this information.

In most cases, that’s easy to determine, especially if you’re working with smaller companies (clients, vendors, or team members). This question becomes more complex when you begin to work with big corporations.

Sometimes, information is scattered throughout an organization among different people who are part of different teams. In this case, the challenge is determining who has the critical pieces of information, and coordinating a successful meeting that respects everyone’s time.

Again, a pet peeve of mine is being invited to a meeting that has little or nothing to do with me. I never ever want to be the guy who invites someone to a meeting that’s not relevant to them!

When I worked as a consultant in the corporate world, I remember being invited to a kick-off meeting for a new project that the company I worked for had just signed.

There were 25+ people involved in this meeting… Yes, over 25 people!

Do you know where my attention span was, on a scale from 1 to 10? Probably a -3.

This is what happened to me in that meeting:

95% of the meeting had nothing to do with me, and about 75% of people in the room were in the same boat. It was ridiculous! On top of that, I had also traveled an hour just to attend.

What a waste of my time and their money!

There was absolutely no reason for me (and most others) to be there. If anything, we could have easily jumped on a call, muted our phones, and listened in on standby in case someone had a question. While it’s not an ideal solution, it would have been a much more efficient one.

This brings us to my next question.

What’s the best way to exchange the information?

After narrowing down the topic of the meeting in one sentence, you need to figure out what is the best way to exchange this information.

It’s a common mistake to have meetings when they’re not necessary.

Can the information be exchanged in a short email, or is it too complicated?

Is a phone call enough? Or will an in-person or Skype meeting be more effective and make a huge difference?

There are a ton of these questions you could ask yourself. If you answer them honestly, it will make all the difference.

For example, I know that when I attend sales meetings, I sell best in person. I’ve sold projects remotely too, but it’s way easier for me to make a quicker sale in person. I suspect it has everything to do with reading people and communicating through body language.

Another example: I’ve declined meeting invitations because I know the information could be exchanged in a couple of emails (urgency also plays into the matter).

Every scenario is different, but finding the right format for exchanging information can help create a productive, focused meeting.

My time (and my client’s time) matters to me. So whichever way I find most effective and least time-consuming is usually the route I go. This leads into the next question:

How much time is needed to exchange the information?

We’re all short on time. Respecting your time (and your client’s time) is what real professionals do.

Understanding what information needs to be exchanged along with the best way to exchange that information will help you determine the amount of time needed.

Knowing how much time is needed is a combination of three factors: the type of information that will be discussed, the decisions that need to be made, and the attention span of the people in the meeting.

By considering those three variables, you should be able to come up with a decent time estimate.

Let’s consider the standard “one-hour” meeting as an example. For me, an hour is usually too long for any updates I need to give my clients during a project. During a project, we’re generally exchanging information about preferences, which requires small decisions. Since both mine and my clients’ attention spans are short (due to work we could be doing), I schedule these meetings for 30 minutes, tops.

In contrast, an hour is usually the minimum for meetings that happen before a project starts. The information exchanged before a project usually has to do with sales, demos, requirement gathering, etc., and involves making some big decisions. At this point, my client’s attention span (and mine!) is a bit longer. Depending on the size of the project and who all needs to be involved, some of these meetings could be scheduled for an entire day.

Eventually, these questions will be intuitive

As your business matures, you’ll begin to ask these questions without thinking. They will become second nature, and you’ll instinctively know how to set up a meeting for success.

Although setting up a meeting is not the same as having a meeting, the setup goes a long way toward making sure your meetings get the job done.

Whether you’re an attendee or organizer, making strategic decisions to set up meetings around the idea of exchanging information allows them to fulfill their true business purpose.

What is your criteria for meetings? How do you set them up? Which ones do you decline?

Tell me all about it by email or on Twitter!

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