8 Ways to Keep Any Meeting on Track

See also: Planning and Structuring Effective Meetings

A regular “meeting of the minds” is crucial to keep any business running smoothly. Whether the participants are at the top or the bottom of the corporate ladder shouldn’t make a difference as to how efficiently the meeting is run.

Everyone appreciates a focused meeting that respects their time rather than wastes it.

But facilitating a meeting may not come naturally to you. To keep your meetings on track and helpful, you’ll need to learn how to manage time effectively and how to make sure all participants feel as though their voices are being heard.

Keep these main principles in mind during meetings large and small, and there will be nary a grumble or an eye roll when you announce the next meeting.

People will appreciate that you have a rare gift for making meetings worthwhile!

1. Establish a Time Limit

You can always end a meeting early, but some people like to talk. And when these chit-chatters know that the meeting will last an hour, sometimes they will talk just to fill the time. Or they may be more comfortable bringing up an unrelated topic when there is “plenty of time left” in the meeting.

As you facilitate more and more meetings, you will come to understand about how long a meeting needs to be based on the number of people in attendance and the items to be discussed.

A 30 minute meeting may seem short, but the time crunch helps to keep people focused and on task, and you can certainly schedule another meeting if needed.

2. Invite Key Players Only

Have you ever walked out of a meeting without having spoken up, or indeed without being assigned a task?

Did you wonder why you were invited to the meeting in the first place?

Perhaps the facilitator invited you out of courtesy so that you could “stay informed.” But truthfully, a memo is a far more convenient and efficient way to inform people about department or company news.

Only invite people who will have direct input in the topic at hand.

3. Create a Detailed Agenda

Craft your agenda around a central topic so that as many participants can be involved for as long as possible throughout the duration of the meeting. If your agenda tries to address two completely separate projects, you will have two disparate groups of people in the room, and each group will be annoyed at having to sit there when the talk becomes irrelevant to them. Instead, call two separate meetings to order.

The agenda should not only be focused, but also detail the time allotted to each topic. If there are three main things to discuss within an hour’s meeting, don’t spend more than 15 minutes on any single item. This will help keep the meeting moving along at a good pace. If it turns out that one item needs to be discussed in even more depth, arrange another meeting that zeros in on that topic.

Don’t forget to distribute a copy of the agenda ahead of time so that participants can prepare accordingly.

4. Transition to Each Item Carefully

As the meeting facilitator, you may feel like an agenda item has been taken care of completely and thus move on to the next topic without pause. However, there may be other participants in the meeting who have doubts, concerns or questions.

While speaking up in a meeting should be encouraged, some participants may be timid about interjecting. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak by directly asking if anyone has anything else to bring up before moving on to another topic.

Signal that it’s time to move on to the next agenda item, and if the current item needs to be addressed in greater detail in another meeting, acknowledge that you will quickly set up another time to devote attention to the matter. Ask participants to jot down questions for the future meeting.

If the current item seems to be wrapped up in full, ask for any additional questions, thoughts, or comments. If all you get is crickets, you’ll know that it’s safe to move on to the next topic without leaving anyone behind. The danger in leaving someone behind is that the topic may be brought up again in a few minutes, which is distracting and can derail the focus of the meeting.

Try to keep everyone on the same page.

5. Host the Meeting in a Distraction-Free Environment

Your meeting should not be held out in the open, with distracting sights and sounds. Hold the meeting in a room with the door closed to shut out outside noise. You may even need to pull the blinds on the windows if there is a busy scene outside. If you don’t regularly host meetings or your office is too small, you can always rent a meeting room.

Discourage participants from bringing or using laptops, tablets or smartphones. Pen and paper is ideal for taking notes and doesn’t have the temptation of countless websites to browse, text messages to send or notifications to read.

6. Designate Someone to Write Down Key Details

Information such as questions and answers should be recorded for future reference and for accountability. Action items should also be written down for this reason too. As a facilitator, you will be too busy managing the time and keeping people on task to also write down key points of information as they are raised. Designate a participant to take notes. If all of your participants tend to get incredibly engaged, pull in someone else entirely to observe and take notes.

The meeting notes should be typed up and stored along with a copy of the agenda for easy reference. If a key player was unable to attend, these notes can bring them up to speed. The meeting notes can also be distributed on a weekly basis throughout the department as a “for your information” memo as well.

7. Assign Tasks to Specific People and Give Specific Deadlines

When you call a meeting together in order to discuss problems and solutions, be sure that most of the time is spent on the possible solutions rather than harping on the problems. And when a consensus is reached about the solution, break it down into actionable items, assign those items to specific people and give a specific deadline or time frame.

The same approach should be taken no matter the action item. If you are planning an event or working on a project, it takes a team effort to make it run smoothly. Meetings are an ideal place to assign tasks. Circulating the meeting notes later will serve as a good reminder about what needs to be done and who needs to do it. This way, when the follow-up meeting rolls around, no one can claim ignorance about what was expected of them.

8. Identify Tangents or Side Conversations and Redirect Swiftly

One of the most difficult aspects of facilitating a meeting is keeping everyone on track. If you follow all of the other guidelines, it should be much easier to maintain focus during a meeting. However, there are bound to be participants who have something else on their mind or who can’t quite get back into work after a long weekend.

When someone goes on a tangent, starts talking and doesn’t stop, or simply gets too chatty with their neighbor about something completely unrelated, it’s your job as facilitator to steer this person back on track. Have some phrases at the ready to help you through it, such as, “This sounds like an interesting idea. Can you tell me more about it after this meeting?” Another good one is: “Could you email that to me so I can spend more time digesting it?” And sometimes you just have to say it like it is: “You seem distracted. Is there a problem?”

Being diplomatic but firm will keep the meeting on track without causing undue office drama.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership eBooks

Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.

Our eBooks are ideal for new and experienced leaders and are full of easy-to-follow practical information to help you to develop your leadership skills.

Facilitating a meeting is a skill that will become easier with time.

You might have a very easy time creating agendas and inviting key players, but your time management skills are rusty. This is a common dilemma.

Practicing is the only way you can improve, so if you are presented with the opportunity to facilitate more meetings, take it.

About the Author

Cathy Habas is a professional writer, editor and Spanish-English translator based in Louisville, KY. She enjoys road trips and spending time outside with her six dogs.