Ask Me Anything About How to Master Meetings at Work

Sep 13, 2018

I believe that what happens in meetings often determines our fate and that learning how to excel in meetings is one of the most important leadership skills everyone needs to master.

I’m the founder and resident meeting maven at Lucid Meetings, where we focus on providing science-backed, heart-centred solutions for people who want to run consistently awesome meetings. I’m also the author of *Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make Or Break Your Organization*.

At Lucid, I lead our research, publication, and product management efforts, and am constantly seeking the best ways to make it easy for people to enjoy meetings that get work done. You can find lots of great resources on the Lucid website if you’re eager to dive right in. Leadership teams call my blog "a treasure trove of valuable info and guidance" and "a game-changer for our organization." - I’m sure you’ll find a tidbit there that you can put to use right away.

My perspective on meetings is unique. I brought a degree in theatre to a career in tech, back before “women in tech” was even a conversation. Under-qualified and the only woman on my team, I endured many team meetings at the bottom of the pecking order. If you struggle with meetings where you’re not in charge, believe me, I’ve been there.

As my career advanced, so too did my access and authority. I learned what works and what doesn’t in meetings with international committees, in boardrooms, with software teams, and when working with high-profile clients. Now as a founder, I care about my company’s success and use meetings to drive the results we need.

Today, I combine what I’ve learned from my business experiences with the latest industry research and a deep expertise in meeting practice as I work to help others get a grip on their meetings.

In this AMA, I’ll offer practical guidance for business leaders, team leads, and anyone seeking to improve their professional competency in meetings. I’m looking forward to answering your meeting questions!

Elise.Keith says:

This AMA will end Sep 14, 2018 10AM EDT

Elise.Keith says:

This AMA will end Sep 15, 2018 12PM EDT

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Will you come up with another book in the future? If so, what would be the theme?
Sep 15, 9:14AM EDT0
How can professionals improve those seemingly endless and confusing conference calls and virtual meetings? The ones where half the participants are probably multitasking — ?
Sep 15, 8:06AM EDT0
In a meeting, how does it feel like to be contradicted about a subject you are expert in by a non-expert but confident co-worker?
Sep 15, 4:28AM EDT0
What are some of the preparations that can be done before meetings to boost the morale for the meeting?
Sep 15, 12:45AM EDT0
Many people tend to drag their feet wen it comes to meetings, I dare say some even hate them. What are some of the things people hate about meetings? What do you do to alleviate these feelings when you organize meetings?
Sep 14, 3:27PM EDT0
Where do you see Lucid Meetings after 5 years? 10 years?
Sep 13, 1:42PM EDT0

Lucid will be the go-to resource for organizations seeking consistently excellent meetings. 

Sep 13, 6:02PM EDT0
How's the response for "Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization" like?
Sep 13, 12:05PM EDT0

The reviews so far are really positive!

It's interesting to see how each person connects with a different part of the book. Some find the first two sections which cover how to make meetings effective (answering questions like most of those asked here on the AMA) most useful. 

Others are raving about how useful they've found the meeting taxonomy that explains how each of the meeting types work. 

The other meeting experts who've read it have all been very complimentary. They also point out places where they think I should have gone deeper.  It's a 416 page book, so I'm glad I didn't make it longer! But it just shows how complex and interesting meetings can be when you start taking them seriously.

You can read several reviews on Amazon now, and many endorsements in the first few pages.

Sep 13, 12:22PM EDT0
What qualities should a person have in order to become a meetings planner?
Sep 13, 11:16AM EDT0

People with a job title of Meetings Planner tend to work on large events and conferences. They're part project managers, part experience designers, and they coordinate a lot of details.

This isn't my focus area. If you're interested in this as a career, check out:

Sep 13, 12:13PM EDT0
What's a simple web-based tool for appointment scheduling?
Sep 13, 10:14AM EDT0

Here are a few:

Many CRM tools also have built-in appointment setting apps.  Makes you wonder why that isn't just a feature built in to Google calendar and Outlook, doesn't it?

Sep 13, 12:10PM EDT0
After how long do meetings start to be unfruitful? What is behind your answer?
Sep 13, 8:14AM EDT0
  1. When you've achieved the meeting goal and said thank you to everyone, it's time to stop.
  2. When people are getting too tired or frustrated to make quality decisions, it's time to stop.
  3. If you haven't had a break in the last hour, it's time to stop.

There is no "right" length for all meetings - some should be short and others long, depending on the type of meeting. 

Keeping a meeting fruitful requires a clear structure, or plan, for moving through the discussion, and work to keep the group's energy up.  If the structure falls apart and the energy dips, then the meeting becomes unfruitful, and that can happen at any time.

Sep 13, 12:37PM EDT0

Can you share a personal encounter with a "client from hell"? How did you handle it?

Sep 13, 4:25AM EDT0

Oh, so many! Can't we all?

The challenge in client meetings is that it's often not "the client" who creates problems, but rather one specific person on the client's team who, for whatever reason, has decided that you're their enemy.

I've been in situations where I've come in prepared to share a status update, or to train a group on a piece of software, only to find that someone in the room is hell-bent on getting me fired. That person somehow decided that our project threatens their job in some way, and they're out for blood.

This is where knowing the different types of meetings comes in handy. In those situations, I think I'm there for a pretty straight-up congenial meeting (like a training) only to discover I'm under attack.

When that happens, I have to let go of my training plan and quickly start using techniques that work in an issue resolution meeting -  a totally different approach.  

Knowing how to recognize when the meeting I'm in isn't the one I thought I was going to have, or the one the group needed to have, has been one of the most useful things I've learned at Lucid Meetings.

Sep 13, 12:47PM EDT0
What is your personal approach to the use of phones during meetings?
Sep 13, 4:19AM EDT0

Technology used in service of the meeting is fine. So if people are using their phones to call in, that’s obviously ok. Or if they’re using them to interact with an online meeting system by adding comments, voting on polls, etc., that’s also great.

I know some groups ban phones in meetings, because apparently their group is unable to use their phones responsibly. It’s certainly easy to say “no phones,” and that’s what we do with our school children who can’t be trusted to stay on task otherwise.

In adult professional settings, I much prefer working to establish a mutual agreement using ground rules or meeting norms where everyone commits to staying focused on the meeting.

Learn more about that here: Using Ground Rules to Improve Engagement and Run Excellent Team Meetings

Sep 13, 12:07PM EDT0
What work are you doing at Lucid Meetings that you feel is most in line with your long-term goals?
Sep 13, 3:06AM EDT0

Right now, it's work like this - getting out and talking with people.

Lucid Meetings' mission is to help organizations succeed through exceptional meetings.

That starts by spreading awareness and growing the community involved in the conversation.  Most people aren't aware that consistently exceptional meetings are even possible because all they've heard and seen about meetings is negative. 

Once someone realizes that not only is it possible, that it's totally reasonable to expect excellent meetings across your organization, then we can all start having the more honest and useful conversations that make it happen.

Long term, we want to provide a home and resources for a much broader and more inclusive global discussion around effective meeting practice.

This is a step in that direction.

Sep 13, 12:31PM EDT0
Should meetings have a time constraint? How would you set it?
Sep 12, 9:00PM EDT0

Yes. Meetings need a defined start and end time.

Sticking to this time matters. Research into what makes people rate a meeting as high quality found that starting and ending on time was one of the most important things you can do.

That said, the length of a meeting doesn’t impact how well it’s rated. Both short and long meetings can be really great.

To find the right duration for a meeting, start by figuring out the process you’ll use to run the meeting. For example, if you’re holding a quick standup where everyone has 1 minute to share an update, the correct time limit for that meeting is 1 minute times the number of people involved, plus another two minutes to start and end. These meetings are often between 5 and 15 minutes long.

On the other hand, the leadership team’s annual strategic planning meeting might require 2 full days.

I like to start with an example meeting process since these usually include recommendations about how long the meeting needs. You can find several examples with a quick online search and in the Lucid Meetings template gallery.

Sep 13, 1:57AM EDT0
In which ways can meetings change the course of a project?
Sep 12, 2:09PM EDT0

If you think about a typical project lifecycle and all the meetings involved, you’ll recognize many opportunities for what happens in a meeting to alter the project’s destiny.

At the outset, we often learn what the project needs to achieve in discovery meetings. Teresa Torres ( and others working in the software world teach great discovery and prototyping techniques which include how to conduct interviews that reveal important success criteria. How we define a project at the start clearly impacts the project’s course.

The cadence of project check-in meetings drives the rate of work completion. Meet too often and people get frazzled and irritated. Fail to meet often enough and the project gets off track and bogs down. Beyond the content of the meetings, the schedule with which they’re held has a significant impact on the overall project timeline.

Finally, most big project decisions get finalized in meetings. The Challenger space shuttle launch provides a famous example of a time when the project team had concerns, but in the meeting where they made the go/no-go decision, those concerns weren’t given the weight they deserved. The tragic fate of that launch could have been changed in any one of many meetings during the course of that project. Instead, every time those teams met, they decided to stick with their existing plans and forge ahead. We all wish they’d seized the opportunity to change course when they had the chance in those project meetings.

Sep 13, 1:58AM EDT0

How do you keep meetings on track where there are non-stop-talkers in the room?

It feels rude to constantly remind them they are using everyone's time - yet without that the meeting would only accomplish 50% of the goals.

Sep 12, 10:57AM EDT0

Regardless of whether it’s rude or not, it sounds like it doesn’t work very well if you have to remind them more than once.

The best way to deal with this problem is to prevent it in the first place. There are many ways to work with a group in a meeting besides open discussion.

Open discussion, where people are free to address the group however they see fit, is the default way people run meetings. You don’t need to learn anything about meetings to hold an open discussion, because the assumption is that meetings will work just like any conversation does, only now you’re involving more people.

One of the many differences between a meeting and a conversation, though, is that you can’t easily bow out of a meeting when someone drones on. In conversations, we can escape. In meetings, we have to facilitate instead. This means learning facilitation skills.

Groups that suffer from unbalanced participation in meetings like you’re describing should experiment with different ways to get people involved. For example, the KJ Technique is a great way for a group to share answers to a question then identify their top priorities, and it doesn’t leave any room for people to pontificate. 

If the group is large enough—say 6 or more people—consider using the 1-2-All technique. This gives everyone a chance to speak their mind, but they don’t all get to occupy the full attention of the whole group. 

Bonus: not only do techniques like these constrain the talkers; they also get the deep introverts engaged. With some preparation, you can design meetings that support the discussion you need to have *and* make sure everyone has an opportunity to participate.

I know you may be tempted to dismiss this as too facilitator-froofy for your group, and I admit it can be awkward the first few times you try it. One thing I learned by studying high-performing organizations, however, was that they use specialized meeting techniques like these ALL THE TIME. When they find something that works, it gets baked into “the way” they meet. For high-performance organizations, using specially designed meeting techniques is not awkward. It’s a part of their culture.

Sep 13, 1:59AM EDT0
When it comes to a layout for the meeting room, how important is to consider the number of people and why should the layout matter?
Sep 11, 1:48PM EDT0

Last year I read A Gentleman in Moscow, a lovely novel set at the dawn of the Soviet Union. In the book, there is a scene set right after Stalin’s death. Stalin didn’t name a successor, leaving several rivals vying to become the new leader.

In the book, the leading rivals and power players were all invited to a dinner meeting. They arrived alone, in pairs, and in small groups to find a large U-shaped table with no name tags. There were no instructions. Everyone had to sort themselves out and select a place at the table to sit.

Some chose to sit down the legs of the U, and some at the table that formed the base of the U - the head table, as it were. No one claimed the seat in the absolute center of the U, leaving the traditional place of power vacant.

Khrushchev arrived late. When he entered the room, he walked around the table, exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands. Then, casually and with natural authority, Khrushchev claimed the center seat.

Shortly thereafter, Khrushchev was named the new leader of the Soviet Union.

The U-shape setup is an efficient way to seat a lot of people who will either be looking at a presenter positioned at the open part of the U, or at the leader who sits in the top center. When you see movies depicting meetings between politicians or boards, you’ll see this rectangular shape over and over because it helps communicate the part of the story that is about power and dominance.

Round tables, on the other hand, equalize the power dynamics. They make it possible for everyone at the table to listen to or address anyone else equally. When ideas are shared in writing, they can literally be placed in the common center of the group, becoming the work of “us” collectively. The circle is the shape of gathering around a campfire, of collective intent, and unity.

I recently led a workshop for a group working to improve their meetings, and let the sponsor know that we would need several round tables for their group. Imagine my horror when I arrived to find a large U-shaped setup, complete with white linen and drinking goblets. I did a lot of improvising that day to make things work. We ran over time, and the interaction wasn’t as dynamic as I’d hoped. The group kept staring at me like I was a guest lecturer there to entertain them, rather than a guide trying to help them work together. It just wasn’t possible to create the same small group intimacy, nor to get as deep into the material as we needed to when everyone had to awkwardly twist about to hear each other.

Whatever room setup you get, you can make it work. Heck, we make these meetings work without any room at all—let’s have three cheers for the internet and remote collaboration! But if you have a choice, work to set the room up to create the power and interaction dynamic you need.

For more, check out this article about how the shape of a training meeting impacts the outcome.

Sep 13, 2:01AM EDT0
How can a moderator of a meeting make it more lively?
Sep 11, 5:01AM EDT0

Video! Music! Dancing!

Or, if that’s going to far (which it probably is :), then at least work to break up the action. If people are sitting, get them standing. If there’s lots of talking, add some moments of silent individual reflection. Take a break every hour or so.

Most importantly, learn some facilitation techniques. Keeping the meeting energy alive is part of what facilitators learn to do. Session Lab, MindTools, and the Lucid glossary all include information about facilitation techniques that get people engaged and keep meetings lively.

Teams often stick to old ways of meeting simply because their group has always met that way. Everyone’s afraid to switch things up because they’re not sure they’re allowed to.

Many meetings work the way they do out of habit, not because anyone thinks they’re particularly great. Remember that most people would prefer an interesting lively meeting to a snooze-fest, and experiment! Let the group know you’re going to try something new that you hope will improve the energy, and that you want their feedback afterward, then go for it.

Have some fun!

Sep 13, 2:03AM EDT0
How can employees speak freely dring meetings without worrying about retirbution, especially if the meeting has high ranking officials?
Sep 11, 4:33AM EDT0

I guess it depends on what you mean by “speak freely.” I know my teenagers think that “freedom” means freedom from the consequences of their actions, and that free people can do whatever they want regardless of how it impacts others. I believe selfish or intentionally destructive speech has no place in the workplace, so can’t help if that’s what you mean.

When employees want to offer something of value to the group, whether this is a new idea or a concern they have, but they’re afraid to speak freely because of the possible consequences, then it’s up to leadership to provide safe ways to engage.

This doesn’t always mean there is a culture problem. Some employees will never feel safe speaking freely in front of a group, regardless of whether there’s a culture of retribution in the workplace. This is why many formal brainstorming, feedback, and decision-making methods include:

  1. Time for silent independent reflection. This lets everyone form their ideas without undue influence from the high-ranking officials.
  2. Collection of ideas in writing. This way, people don’t literally have to speak to get their idea out there.
  3. Allowing anonymous ideas. That way, the ideas can be judged on their own merit, and aren’t attached to the person.

If you feel people have valuable things to say in your workplace, but they don’t because they fear retribution, consider collecting the ideas anonymously in writing before the meeting. Then, during the meeting, use the time together to look at and discuss what people shared. This will help everyone in the meeting focus on the ideas rather than on the people sharing them.

Sep 13, 2:04AM EDT0
How can one keep emotions at bay when dealing with an emotionally charged meeting?
Sep 10, 10:18PM EDT0

I don’t know that it’s always beneficial to do so.

If you look at the research on how decision making works in the brain, you’ll realize that an enormous part of how we make each decision is wrapped up in our emotions.

I believe it’s incredibly important to acknowledge the emotions in our meetings because if we don’t, we risk ignoring the impact they’re having on our decisions. Pretending to be emotionally detached lets us fool ourselves into believing that we’re acting rationally, which is when we make the biggest mistakes.

Instead, I recommend acknowledging the reality of the situation. Ideally, there will be a leader present strong enough to speak to the situation and call out the emotions impacting the group.

Then, as a group, you can move forward in the meeting knowing that everyone is aware and committed to working through the present challenge.

A few resources:

If you have an upcoming meeting that you know will be emotionally challenging in advance, take a look at Dr. Patricia Thompson’s Mindfulness-Based Technique for Leading Sensitive Discussions.

Also, the book Crucial Conversations has wonderful tips for approaching charged situations. Highly recommended.

Sep 13, 2:06AM EDT0
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