Running a meeting can be a nerve-wracking experience. As an introvert, I’m usually the person listening and asking the gentle questions to integrate disparate ideas. This style works well for low-stakes meetings where I just one of the attendees. When I’m running a meeting, I need to adopt a different strategy. I’ve developed a few tips for myself that help me prepare for and be comfortable with running a meeting.
Develop your ask, your arc, and your pitch.
There must be a reason to meet. Otherwise, why have a meeting? If there’s a reason to meet, you have a goal to accomplish by the end of the meeting. For me, a meeting goal has three parts – the ask, the arc, and the pitch.
The ask is simply my purpose in calling a meeting. What do I need to accomplish by the end of this meeting?
I write my meeting purpose in the form of an ask, so I am prepared to call for this action. An ask might take the form of a decision, an approval, an action item, or an assigned task. For example, instead of performing a “status update” for a project meeting, I asked the group “Can we agree on a prioritization for upcoming development phases?”
The arc is the narrative arc I use to establish the need or value for the ask. Why is this decision important?
A narrative arc is the beginning, middle, and end of a story. Some might be tempted to adapt the narrative arc to a problem statement and resolution, but I personally don’t like this. “Problem” and “resolution” are too passive, and don’t allow space for an ask – it’s a simple retelling of thoughts and history. I prefer adapting the narrative arc to Context, Conflict, Choices:
- Context – what is the least amount of backstory the meeting participants need to make an informed decision?
- Conflict – what is precipitating the need for a decision?
- Choices – what decision choices are available, which choices have already been eliminated, and what risks exist for each choice?
The pitch is an elevator speech, a combination of the ask and a condensed version of the arc.
I grew up on the adage “Tell them what you will tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” My version of this adage is “pitch the ask, demonstrate value, make the ask.” I want meeting participants to be in the headspace of focusing on the meeting purpose. The pitch is my meeting opener that establishes my goal and prepares participants for the ask I’m about to make. If you’d like to read more about crafting a pitch, Kyle Racki wrote a great and extensive article.
Practice your pitch.
I always practice a pitch, at least three times. The pitch is a “magic moment,” one of those opportunities you only get once. If I practice and become comfortable with my pitch, I’ll feel more comfortable starting the meeting. If I start the meeting confidently, I’m more likely to feel comfortable throughout the entire meeting. This is important – stress can cause thoughtless reaction, and discomfort or lack of confidence leads to stress. If I feel confident at the outset of a meeting, I am more likely to run a successful meeting.
Practicing has to be an intentional rehearsal in order to be useful. I have a short list of Do and Don’t for practicing a pitch:
- Schedule uninterrupted time to practice
- Present the pitch out loud
- Place myself in the position of being in the meeting as much as possible: rehearse in the actual room, sit or stand, wear similar clothes, etc
- Iterate and improve, try several different versions
- Rehearse with an audience if possible
- Memorize the pitch
- “Practice” by reading the pitch to yourself
- Try to practice in the moments between other things
Pre-wire your meeting to prepare key stakeholders or decision makers.
Meetings actually start the second I send a calendar invite. As people are approving or declining my meeting invite, they are wondering why they’re invited to this meeting, and starting to draw conclusions about the meeting topic or objectives. If I want to run a successful meeting, I need to engage and listen to the key influencers before the scheduled meeting time. This is referred to as pre-wiring a meeting.
Pre-wiring can come in many forms. My personal favorite pre-wiring activity is meeting with key influencers in person. In my experience, people highly value in-person, informal meetings. Meeting someone in person conveys that I care enough about that person to invest a block of my time and dedicated attention. I’m also better able to engage in active listening when I’m with someone in person, and conversations can quickly move through topics and adapt to what needs discussed.
For more on pre-wiring, I suggest starting with Marie Langan’s article on Career Breakers Community and the Manager Tools podcast episode titled How to Prewire a Meeting.
Show up early.
There’s an important concept in culinary called mise en place, which roughly translates into “everything in its place” and refers to the practice of intentionally preparing a space for cooking. Mise en place is a great metaphor for how I prepare for meetings. Before meetings, I review my meeting goals, arrange the room or meeting materials, and perform other pre-meeting preparations that help reduce anxiety. When I show up early to meetings, I have time and space to mentally put everything in its place.
It’s not enough to reduce my own anxiety to ensure a successful meeting. If I was the only person that mattered in a decision, I wouldn’t have to call a meeting. Everyone participating in the meeting needs to feel engaged, invited, and safe in order to fully contribute. As the person running the meeting, it’s my responsibility to help reduce everyone’s anxiety, not just my own. Small talk before a meeting is important, as it helps establish and reinforce personal connections we have with one another. Our rapport with one another serves as a reminder that even if we disagree on details, we are all focused on the same organizational mission and values.
Working through conflict or friction often requires pulling back from the details, reminding ourselves of what we agree on, and working forward from that place of agreement. Navigating the complexity of friction and conflict requires that I as a meeting facilitator have no anxiety or stress; the easiest way to reduce stress is to show up show up early and prepare for meetings.
Think of questions, not statements.
If I’m not intentional, I often find myself storing up things to say when other people have stopped talking. The more mental bandwidth I spend on remembering the points I want to make, the less mental bandwidth I have to engage in active listening.
We are all capable of low-maturity participation – sharing opinions and comments that are designed to make ourselves look good or feel smart. Active listening is a skillset that helps us rise to a higher-maturity participation – engaging in conversations intentionally in order to achieve shared goals.
Active listening is a well-documented set of skills. Some introductory articles on active listening include the MindTools article on Active Listening and the Center of Creative Leadership’s article on Coaching.
Spend your equity on the most important contributions.
You may not be aware of it, but your organization recognizes certain attributes, behaviors, and actions as “leadership” values. Different organizations code leadership differently, and it’s important to pay attention to feedback you receive and develop an understanding of how your organization codes leadership.
Meetings are important opportunities to practice what my organization codes as “leadership” behaviors. For example, one way my organization codes leadership is “inertia” – summarizing points, calling for the decision, and tasking activities are all inertia-related leadership behaviors. Another is integration – moving through conflict and friction by integrating different points together, instead of calling for a compromise between people that disagree with one another.
Meeting time is finite. Be intentional about how you spend your “meeting equity” – facilitate conversation through questions that others haven’t asked, integrate disparate contributions, and perform “leadership” behaviors.
Do you have favorite meeting facilitation tips, strategies, or tactics? We’d love to hear about them – share them below in the comments!