You know that feeling? The boring PowerPoint feeling! The “wake me up when it’s over” feeling. Well, you’re not alone. Nearly half of employees consider meetings to be the workplace’s chief time waster (Salary.com). And despite their inherent lack of effectiveness, meetings continue to gnaw away at our days. Whether in person, on Zoom, or a hybrid, even the most seasoned leaders struggle to maintain their audience’s attention.
As a leader or meeting facilitator, your first step is simple – do not put your poor colleagues to sleep. The secret to enhancing meeting effectiveness is to modify the format. Meetings are most effective when they materialize as conversations.
1. Talk with, not at, attendees
With few exceptions, meetings should involve significant bidirectional communication. Humans exhibit increasingly short attention spans (common estimates of the adult human attention span range from a mere 10 to 20 minutes). Even the most seasoned leaders struggle to maintain their audience’s attention. As a meeting facilitator, make a conscious effort to ask and field questions, solicit feedback, ask for input, and pause for reflection throughout meetings. A two-way dialogue heightens attendees' abilities to remain engaged and digest the information and content discussed. If you find you are still losing your audience or feel awkward engaging them, consider other practical strategies for developing stronger connections with meeting attendees, before, after, and during meetings.
2. Record the conversation visually
There’s a valuable attendee that’s rarely invited to attend meetings, the whiteboard. Whiteboards can be invaluable in spurring conversations. Whiteboards are valuable visual artifacts that convey a powerful message to attendees that conversation is valued and celebrated. When conversations are whiteboarded as they unfold, attendees are better able to visually connect concepts and develop a shared understanding of them. Ultimately, attendees are more likely to accurately process the information discussed and remember the conversation in the ensuing days and weeks.
Google Ventures is one of many organizations that have recognized the value of whiteboarding meeting conversations. An article published in Fast Company reveals that the team leverages whiteboards as a means of making conversations “less ephemeral”. Google Ventures’ maxim for effective meetings? “Always be capturing”.
3. Limit meeting sizes
It’s difficult to spur a productive and meaningful conversation in a large group setting. As a result, many experts suggest restraining meetings to four to six attendees. On one hand, meetings with fewer than 4 attendees curb the potential for diverse opinions and perspectives and can result in suboptimal idea generation. On the other hand, meetings with more than 6 attendees increase the likelihood that meetings will be dominated by one or two attendees, with other attendees engaging in ‘social loafing’ rather than partaking in conversation. As well, an increased number of attendees renders it difficult for the facilitator to pick up on subtle body language cues that can reveal whether attendees are thoroughly engaged in the discussion. An article published in Psychological Science confirms the 4-to-6-person sweet spot: “In small, 5-person groups, the communication is like dialogue and members are influenced most by those with whom they interact in the discussion.”
When meetings are akin to one-way monologues, facilitators miss out on productive conversations that can give rise to more productive outcomes. Structuring meetings as conversations can be a sure-fire means of boosting engagement and productivity levels.
I care deeply about helping leaders and advancing the human resources profession. I have authored two books, The Art of Executive Coaching and Stress-less Leadership, and maintain a regular blog. I am also a leading contributor for The Society For Human Resources Management, Entrepreneur Magazine, and The Association of Talent Development.
As an active animal advocate, I donate 100% of all book proceeds to animal welfare.
The opinions in this article are my own, and do not reflect those of my publishers or employers.