Ineffective meetings may be wasting time and lowering morale. Two communication experts offer seven strategies for dramatically improving your meetings.

Many people dread meetings for being time consuming, pointless, and boring.

The primary reason for meetings is to share or brainstorm information or to develop action steps toward accomplishing a goal. Period. But if this were the result of most corporate meetings, people wouldn't moan and groan when they learn that another meeting is going to be held. From our experience facilitating and attending meetings, we've found that bad meetings have similar traits regardless of the industry, company, or project:

Poor meetings lead to poor project results

Most meetings create at least one unwanted result, such asmore meetings, frustrated participants, or unclear expectations. All of these lead to poor performance or no performance at all. People aren't converting decisions into action because often no decisions were made or articulated. Culture plays a part in how meetings are perceived, too. For example, Americans consider meetings a place where decisions are made; in contrast, the French use meetings to share ideas, allowing the decision makers to review their newly gathered information and come to a decision.

Signs of bad meetings are participants arriving late, leaving early, unnecessarily attending by phone, not participating when at the meeting, canceling altogether, spending hours and hours in a meeting, or leaving without a clear idea of why the meeting was held and what the outcome was.

The long-term results of poor meetings are more damaging. Low morale, ineffective time management, high project turnover rate, unavailable employees, and zero headway will doom a project and frustrate participants, leading to wasted company funds and talent.

Facilitators turn poor meetings into productive worksessions

Have someone facilitate your meetings. Yes, it must besomeone who knows the essentials of good facilitation ? or your meetings still won't improve ? but it's well worth the investment. Here are some thoughts that every facilitator should keep in mind when preparing for, running, and following up on a meeting:

  1. Create an agenda and stick to it.

    Going into a meeting with the nuts and bolts of what the group wants to discuss, agree on, and accomplish increases the chances that participants will make actionable decisions within a set time frame. Without an agenda, people will bring up loosely related subjects that aren't critical to achieving the meeting goals ? that distract from the main issue. Great ideas and beneficial tangents will occur with an agenda and artful facilitation.

  2. Watch the clock. Meetings that are too long can cost a bundle.

    The Center for Continuous Quality Improvement at the Milwaukee Area Technical College surveyed its 130-person management council to find out how much timeits members spent in meetings. Multiplying the time spent by members' salaries, the survey found that the college was spending $3 million per year on council meetings!

    A good facilitator will chart out periods of time for each discussion and will help the group decide how best to use the remaining time allotted if an agenda item requires more discussion. He or she will also give participants checks on time and keep the meeting on track.

    Curious how much your meetings cost? Calculate the per-hour salary of each participant and add up the fees. Doing so will inspire you to trim unnecessary meeting time.

  3. Turn ideas and decisions into action.

    Meetings can be so vague that participants don't know what they're supposed to do next. Bad meetings can cause two people to do the same task while another task sits idle. Because the capacity for misunderstanding is limitless, good facilitators should get agreement on every decision, help the group develop an action item associated with every decision, and assign a person responsible for the action. The meeting minutes reflect these assignments.

  4. Have fun, but don't mismatch activities and people.

    Meetings are work. But that doesn't mean participants can't have fun. Allow joking, small talk, etc., if it makes the group more productive. (Know when to cut chatter, too, like when no one has focused on the issue at hand for a couple of minutes.) Make the environment one in which people are comfortable ? both physically andemotionally ? but watch out for inappropriate games or exercises.

    For example, you might avoid a "touchy-feely" get-to-know-you game for an IT group. Many technologists are not very extroverted and might crawl into a nonparticipatory shell if confronted with such an uncomfortable task. Also, don't plan an activity that involves an inappropriate invasion of space, such as sitting on a stranger's knees while he guides you with his hands on your hips (as was the case in a recent meeting I attended), unless you know for a fact that all attendees will be comfortable with that level of physical contact. Know your meeting participants, including cultural interaction issues, and always give people the option of not participating.

  5. Speak plain English.

    You can't make decisions and accomplish goals if no one knows what you're talking about or if what you've said allows for multiple interpretations. Eliminating meaningless corporate jargon allows for more natural conversation and a better understanding of what's expected ? leading to better ideas and realistic action items.

  6. Learn from your mistakes.

    At InnoVision Communications, we're always looking for ways to improve our facilitation skills. After each meeting or workshop we conduct, we review what worked and what could have been improved. Good facilitators reserve the end of a meeting to get feedback from the group and learn from that feedback.

  7. Take responsibility.

    Participants can also use facilitation techniques in a meeting, whether asking for clarification on a point, checking the time, using language that everyone will understand, or getting the discussion back on track. If you see symptoms of a poor meeting, put the onus on yourself to cure it.