Top 5 principles for effective meetings

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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Meetings, formal and informal are an integral part of organisational life. Effective meetings are an essential tool to achieve a range of tasks. This includes information sharing and problem solving as well as delegating and decision-making. When ineffective, you waste time and you may make poor decisions too. Here Isobel Tynan takes us through the five principles that increase the likelihood of your meetings being as effective as possible.

1. What’s the purpose of the meeting?

The first consideration, when attending a meeting or organising your own, is its purpose. It sounds really obvious but some people go to a meeting because their boss invited them to it, or they think they can’t refuse.

There are many reasons for holding meetings. They may be a forum for internal colleagues to progress work. It could be an external meeting, such as meeting a potential client for the first time or updating an existing one.

Related questions to consider, particularly when it’s a problem solving or decision making meeting, are:

  • Who called the meeting?
  • Are they the person who owns the problem or the person with the authority to make a decision?

By answering these questions leads to what outcomes you want from the meeting and who should attend it. Being clear on the purpose of the meeting also focuses all attendees. They understand their purpose in attending the meeting, what’s expected of them, and what outcomes they want from the meeting.

2. Setting an agenda (and avoiding hidden agendas)

There are two aspects to take into account when considering the agenda.

The first is what roles are assigned to individuals in the meeting While this will differ depending on the purpose of the meeting the roles described below are usual.

Ideally, your meeting will have a facilitator. A facilitator is different to the traditional chairperson role, as a chairperson is generally involved in both the content and the process of the meeting. A facilitator, on the other hand, is strictly only involved with the process. Their duties include:

  • Managing the meeting
  • Keeping the meeting on time and on track
  • Ensure group participation and that everyone’s contribution is protected
  • They may also take notes


Their role is designed to be neutral. As a result, they do not add their views or ideas. However, in reality, you may find that you are playing the part of both facilitator and contributor to the meeting.

Next, your meeting may have a client or colleague. The meeting may have been initiated due to a problem they have or a decision they wish to make. They are a decision-maker and have expertise and knowledge of the issue under discussion. They will decide how they move forward on the issue and will commit to the implementation of the next steps.

Finally, you will have meeting contributors; they are invited as a source of knowledge and expertise.   The facilitator is essential to ensure all contributors are afforded the opportunity to input into the meeting.

Consider the agenda

The second aspect to consider is the agenda itself. To focus time and achieve results circulating an agenda beforehand is essential. This focuses the participants’ time on the important issues. Without a structured agenda the urgent issues crowd out the important. Meeting can also end without achieving important decisions.

In addition, agendas have the added benefit of allowing room for some flexibility without losing the way. It may be important to allow a meeting to go off on a tangent knowing that the structured agenda will get it back on track.

A sample agenda might include the following points:

  • Each item under discussion has an owner and is allocated a particular amount of time
  • There’s also an objective beside each item e. g. is the reason the item is under discussion

Having a clearly defined agenda makes it easier to stick to the budgeted time and progress through the meeting. If the agenda is also displayed at the meeting the actions agreed can be visibly written up at the meeting.

3. Agreeing the Meeting Content

When the purpose of the meeting is clear and the agenda has been set it should be quite straightforward to agree the content. Research from Harvard found that this isn’t always the case. They conducted a survey of top companies worldwide. Their objective was to understand how senior management teams invested their collective time at meetings. The survey looked at how:

  • They set priorities
  • They manage the time
  • Successful they think they are at managing decisions

Some of the most interesting findings included:

  • Too little attention is paid to strategy
  • Top management meetings aren’t structured to produce real decisions
  • Top management’s agenda the same from meeting to meeting or ad hoc


4. Ensure great communication 

The following communication skills ensure a better flow to meetings.


We paraphrase what someone has said for a number of reasons:

  • To ensure that we understand somebody’s ideas and suggestions
  • You paraphrase the other person to let them know you’ve been listening
  • In checking your understanding of what you think they meant by what they said.
  • Why so? Even if even if we hear the words correctly, our understanding of their meaning can be off the mark. Therefore, in checking understanding, it’s important not simply to repeat back the speaker’s words, but to paraphrase them in your own words to reflect your understanding.


Non-verbal communication

The words we use the tone of our voice and our non-verbal language all impact on the atmosphere and the outcome of the meeting. A lot of meaning comes through non-verbal communication.When there is incongruence between the spoken message and non-verbal communication, we pay vastly more attention to non-verbal messages.

We only receiving  7 percent of the message via words themselves. Tonality (i. e. the intonation, volume and enunciation of the words) accounts for 38 percent. Non-verbals (e. g. body gestures, facial expressions, postures) account for the remaining 55 percent.

Acknowledging contribution and building on ideas

In meetings, it’s natural for other’s ideas to trigger ideas of our own, which build on theirs. Crediting is acknowledging the part other people’s ideas have played in your own. It is important to build a sense of ownership and commitment. It becomes “our” idea instead of yours vs. mine.

People also feel validated which may help them to contribute even more and ensures the meeting atmosphere remains positive. Crediting is also important because this sense of ownership increases their commitment to the decision or course in action. If you don’t acknowledge the part that others play in your thinking you can inadvertently create the feeling that you’ve somehow taken over or “stolen” the other person’s idea. Though the reaction may not be a conscious one, its effect can be to make the other person reluctant to offer you ideas and suggestions in the future.

5. Follow up

The best way to conclude the meeting is to refer back to the agenda and agree with meeting participants the following:

  • You have achieved what you set out to achieve
  • Verbally go through actions agreed
  • Agree what the next steps are and who will take ownership of them
  • For informal meetings an e-mail agreeing action points
  • For formal meetings minutes are circulated.


Anne Sexton

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