Christopher Hoult

Software engineer, actor, speaker, print designer

As my first post on a new blog - and hopefully not also the last post, like so many other blogs - I've had some thoughts on meetings and their associated etiquette brewing for quite a while. In fact, the following was outlined at least four years prior to this post, so it seems rather fitting that it finally arrives.

Meetings are the bane of almost every professional's life - and as soon as you're past a magic number of employees or team members, they become simultaneously endemic and necessary. We often find ourselves mired in meetings where we're merely stakeholders, or perhaps are required for just a small portion of the alotted time. Rather than the fulfilling and informative affairs they are supposed to be, meetings become things to be dreaded and avoided.

Or, worse still, they become a drain on your time and energy and achieve absolutely nothing: I frequently find I have designated the first day of the week as "Meeting Monday" - the time I have available for coding or other directly productive work is reduced to four of the eight hours I'm contracted for.

Yet with a few simple rules or considerations, we can refashion our meetings and reduce the amount of wasted time and the boredom - oh, the boredom! - and recover a bit of our day and productivity.


Is it necessary?

Before you set one up, ask yourself: "Is a meeting really necessary?" - can you achieve the same information gathering or distribution goals via other forms of individual or group communication? Perhaps your ticketing system tells you everything you wish to know, or some other form of automated reporting can give you the same information. (Hat-tip to Stuart Herbert).

Invite wisely

When inviting people to your meeting, think "Does this person really need to attend? Are they a chicken or a pig?" Most calendar software allows you to mark attendees as required or optional, so make sure you're clear with those you invite as to whether they're considered necessary for the meeting to go ahead.

Set an agenda

While this can seem over-bureaucratic, setting an agenda for your meeting not only provides structure and contraints to what might otherwise be an unordered mess, but gives those you invite a heads-up as to the talking points and subject of the pow-wow. Distribute a short agenda up front - with a maximum of four or five items - as a good shortcut to keeping the meeting focussed.

Notify changes

If something changes about the meeting - attendees, location, time, agenda - ensure you let everyone know in good time. It's a fairly common courtesy to show those who will go out of their way to attend, and it ensures that everything proceeds on time and smoothly. In addition, agenda changes help those coming to prepare for the get-together properly.

Know your venue

This goes for any kind of presentation too, but make sure you know the capacity and audio-visual capabilities of the room you're using for your meeting before you arrive. If you've never been in the room before, arrange to visit prior to the start of your get-together so you know the lie of the land. Double-check your connectivity - if you intend on presenting to the meeting, ensure you know that everything works - including the wifi. If others are showing their work, let them know about what they'll need to present ahead of time.

Show up

If you've organized a meeting - make sure you attend! This is a surprisingly common occurrence: ask yourself how many times you've attended pow-wows only to find the organizer has gone AWOL? The meeting can't start or run effectively without a leader. If you cannot make it, but the event can carry on without you, make sure you inform the other participants and nominate a chairperson for the meeting in your place.

Stick to your agenda

The absolute worst thing that can happen to a meeting is for it to break down into an undirected mess. Stick to your agenda: it's a way of keeping you on track and satisfying the expectations of the attendees. It is also a good idea to "time-box" each item - you only have a set amount of time to complete the meeting in, so apportion time to each agenda item as appropriate to its significance. Don't be afraid to be militant on this - as the chair of a meeting you don't have to announce the timings, but it's your job to move the discussion on. If it helps, don't be shy of asking the participants to continue the discussion at a later date or in a different forum - but please, please, please don't mention anything about taking the conversation "offline"!

Agree actions

As an organizer, it is your responsibility to record and distribute any agreed actions. While note-taking by participants is to be encouraged, I'm of the opinion that maintaining concentration is more important during a meeting. This extends to full-on minutes - recording whole conversations is a high-cost task, and pretty much prevents the minute-taker from fully participating in the meeting.

Also, when agreeing actions, ensure that actions are only assigned to those in the meeting. Should someone not present be required to act, ensure an attendee is given the task to engage that person rather than assigning an action directly.

Once the meeting has finished, distribute the actions to everyone present. (Hat-tip to Stuart Herbert).

End on time

Everyone loves to reclaim a bit of time from their day: always aim to finish five minutes early. People will have time to get to their next activity as well as have a little break, and it means you're never going to hold up the next use of the location you're in.


Show up

If you're asked along to a meeting and you accept the invite - make sure you attend! There's nothing worse than a meeting missing a key participant; it derails the agenda and almost guarantees a bad taste in the mouth.

Arrive early

Oftentimes, the worst part of the meeting is the waiting to start - it focuses the mind on the work you've just paused and represents a tangible waste of time. The long wait until the start of business gives more of an opportunity to strike up totally off-topic conversations that bleed into the rest of the affair once everyone is present.

It's also just plain rude.

So show some respect and get there on time - hell, arrive one or two minutes early: the sooner we get started the sooner we finish!

One conversation at a time

This should go without saying really, but if someone's talking, keep quiet! The focus of participants can be easily disrupted by a side conversation - not to mention the fact that the meeting is there to facilitate group communication, so having private chats is entirely counterproductive to the spirit of the get-together.

Not needed?

Every now and then you get part way through a meeting and you realise you have nothing to contribute to the get-together and nothing to learn. Instead of just sitting there doodling in your notepad, excuse yourself from the meeting. No-one will be offended, there will be fewer people in the room (which will have a direct impact on time anyway) and you will recover some of your very valuable time.


In short, your watchwords are: