How to Keep Meetings Meaningful For Everyone

By: Alec Talan

We’ve all been in those meetings: one minute you’re listening to a status update…the next, you start thinking about where you want to go for lunch.

The problem with holding a one-size-fits-all meeting is that everyone absorbs information differently. Everyone has a different movie playing in their heads while you’re leading the meeting.

Don’t assume you have a monopoly on their attention.

It’s Not What You Say…

Here’s a truth I have learned after attending and leading thousands of meetings: the value of communication isn’t what you say. It’s what people hear. And there will be different interpretations.

If you have a car crash and six witnesses, you’re going to have six different perspectives. It’s human nature.

The project manager who comes into the meeting frustrated after being stuck in traffic is going to have a different attitude and perspective than the shiny new intern wearing rose-colored glasses. 

Your reputation as a speaker, too, will color the content of what you say. Some will believe every word you say. Some will question it.

Communication’s effectiveness is based on the receiving end. It does not matter what you say if you aren’t concerned with this fact. The key is using communication tools to mitigate these realities.

Take Your Meeting Minutes in Real-Time For Everyone To Align In Real-Time

This strategy has worked impressively well in my meetings. Not only does someone take meetings in real-time, but they do so on the screen so all participants can see them.

This promotes clarity and ensures that everyone is on the same page. You can’t guarantee that anyone will read those minutes after the meeting, but in the moment, this is your (and their) opportunity to review, understand, and ask for clarification. 

People absorb information differently. Some will glom on just listening. Others need to see the text. Having the two working in conjunction ensures that you get people on the same wavelength, no matter their learning style.

Taking notes in real-time also has the gravity of a written record. It’s permanent and can’t be doubted later. Attendees can reread the written word, whereas they would otherwise have to rely on their (faulty) memories of the meeting content. This way you can get everyone’s alignment and commitment to any action plan or key decision, right there in front of everyone else, on the spot, in writing. 

Taking notes as the meeting is going on gives everyone the opportunity to come to an accord about what’s been written. It grounds people on the same set of facts and prevents confusion later on.

It also sets the tone for future meetings. Everyone wants to chime in about unrelated issues, but having an agenda and minutes right there communicates that the meeting will stay on the path. It simplifies the meeting subjects and makes them object-oriented.

Generously Create Pictures and Diagrams to Illustrate Points

Another potent way to reinforce meeting points is through illustrations. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and often it’s those images that can simplify complex concepts.

An image can show boundaries, relationships, processes, and intangible concepts. What might take 15 minutes to explain with words only could be boiled down to a few circles and arrows to get your point across. This is most apparent in abstract discussions about process, architecture, compliance, sequence of dependencies, and what-if scenarios.

Humans are, by their very nature, multimedia creatures. We seek rich channels of information because we understand any information we get through different vantage points, different perspectives, and different biases, so the more dimensions to the information we have, the more it gives us the certainty that we truly understand it. This means the more tools you can deploy to better calibrate your intended message, the more effort you put into triangulating the message delivery, and the more positive confirmation you get that your message was optimally received, the more work you save your future self from having to revisit old topics. 

And don’t think that just because most of us aren’t working in physical offices anymore that you can’t still doodle or take notes on the screen. There are digital whiteboards, collaboration tools, polling tools, you name it, all of which you can incorporate into your virtual meetings to steer your way out of problems and ensure delivery of the content you want. If anything, the remote environment calls for greater creativity to conduct your meetings with tools and tricks to make everyone feel like they got it and it was worth their time. 

Meetings are necessary. But the key is understanding that there is high variability in how your audience receives your message, so it’s your job as the meeting host to implement the best tools and strategies to make sure your audience gets the message, agrees with it, and is able to carry out the plan.