First of all, consider whether the meeting is really necessary. To have a meeting just for the sake of it is a waste of time and resource. Could the business in hand be dealt with by a telephone call, an exchange of e-mails, an audio conferencing call or a video conference or could it simply wait until the next scheduled meeting?
If a meeting is necessary, make sure that the right people are going to be there. Too many people and the meeting is likely to be unproductive; too few and affected individuals are likely to feel excluded. If the meeting is of a standing body, extra individuals may need to be invited for particular agenda items.
Make sure that everyone knows in good time when and where the meeting will be held, who will be there, and what will be discussed. If you know that someone is out of the office or on holiday until just before the meeting, make special arrangements to advise them of the relevant details.
Make sure that everyone has the agenda, minutes of the previous meeting, and all the necessary supporting papers in good time for them to be read, considered, and consulted upon.
Provide a suitable room and ambience. Everyone should be able to sit in comfort and see each other. The room should be well-lit and well-ventilated. There may be a need for a flip chart and felt-tip pens or an overhead projector or a laptop for a PowerPoint presentation. If it is appropriate, flowers or fruit or candles may provide a pleasant atmosphere.
The meeting should start on time and finish on time - and everyone should know that this will be the case. This will encourage people to come along, knowing that the meeting will not go on endlessly, and it will encourage them to arrive for the scheduled start time, knowing that if they do not they will have missed some of the business.
The opening of a meeting is important. It helps if the chair briefly sets the scene and indicates the purpose or aims of the meeting. Some organisations like to open meetings with a few moments of stillness or contemplation, so that everyone mentally puts everything else to one side and focuses on the meeting and what they want out of it.
Each agenda item should have an appropriate time allocation, reflecting the importance of the item and the amount of discussion anticipated. This timetable should be a guide and not a straitjacket - it will assist a sensible prioritisation of business, but some flexibility will be necessary in the light of the amount of discussion which is found to be necessary and the strength of feeling on the controversial issues.
Consider having one or two short breaks. This will allow people to go the toilet or have a smoke and it is likely to help everyone to stay fresh and focused. If there is real tension over an issue, a short break may clear the air and allow a new approach.
The best meetings allow everyone to have a say and allocate the resultant work among the team members. If this does not seem to be happening, you can encourage the chair of the meeting with timely interventions along these lines: "I think that Jane would like to make a point", "I'd be interested to know what John thinks", and "Does everyone have something to do?"
The very best meetings generate new and exciting ideas. This is most likely to be achieved if everyone is allowed to express a view and not cut off or put down as soon as they appear to challenge the conventional wisdom or organisational orthodoxy, if everyone is encouraged to put forward suggestions even if at first they seem novel or counter-cultural, and if everyone really listens to what is being said and judges ideas on their merits and not on the basis of who put them forward.
Effective meetings should be action-orientated. Therefore, at the end of every agenda item, it should be clear what has been agreed, who is to be responsible for giving effect to this agreement, and what is the timescale for implementation. If this is not the case, say to the chair of the meeting: "Before we leave this item, can I just be sure what we have agreed here?" or "Can we just clarify who is going to be responsible for that decision?" or "When do we want this to be done?"
The conclusion of a meeting is important. The chair should summarize what has been achieved or agreed, thank everyone for their contributions and support, and try to ensure that people leave the room feeling good about the time they have devoted to the meeting.
At the end of the meeting, you should be clear what you need to do as a result of the meeting and quickly carry out your action points or allocate them to a colleague. Delay will tend to lead to you overlooking your action points or postponing them to the last moment.
Minutes of meetings should be produced as soon as possible. They should focus on what has been agreed and make clear who is responsible for actioning each decision and what timescale is expected of that person. The minutes should be circulated not just to all those who attended, but also to those invited but unable to attend, to any other colleagues involved in any of the action points, and to others who need to know what is going on or who will be affected by the decisions.
Some notes from Roger Darlington