If you have any kind of interaction with others during your working day, you have no doubt encountered terrible, time wasting meetings. Meetings where no one seems to know what's going on, the topic meanders here and there and very little is accomplished. Badly run meetings like that are a bug bear of mine. Though I have been caught behaving badly in meetings myself (talking too much, not listening enough, etc.), I have learned to be better because a meeting is one of the most expensive, least productive parts of the day, so it's better for everyone if the meeting is effective.
What makes a meeting effective? Well, for me, an effective meeting is one where all the attendees are relevant to the discussion, there is a clear goal in mind and someone chairs the meeting to ensure that goal is achieved. To that end, each meeting should meet four basic requirements:
1. Must have a realistic agenda stating meeting structure and goals
2. Must have only relevant attendees
3. Must have proper equipment prepared and ready
4. Must have a chairperson
Contrary to the belief of a few individuals I've worked with, the agenda does not have to take up the better part of a novel. In fact, it should be short and concise so that there's a high chance everyone has read and understood it before attending the meeting. If you make the agenda too long, everyone will show up without having read it. Of course, there's still no guarantee that even with an easy-to-read agenda those who show up for your meeting will have read it. Therefore, the first thing to do in the meeting is read the agenda aloud so that everyone present is aware of why you're all there. Also, make sure to let everyone know who is present, especially if some people have never met or there are remote attendees via phone conference.
The agenda should also be realistic. Don't schedule a half hour meeting and then cram in an hour's worth of agenda. The goals of the meeting should be achievable in the allotted time. In addition, make sure that appropriate time is set aside for starting up and closing down the meeting. You'll need time to set up equipment, introduce the agenda and attendees and review actions; there is no magic clock at the start and end of meetings so make sure you account for these activities.
We've all been sat in a meeting wondering why in the world we're there. The right thing to do in those situations is leave, but that's a bit of a gutsy move 30 minutes into your boss' presentation. The point is, if you're not adding value to or getting value from the meeting, you shouldn't be there running the risk of taking value away from everyone else. If you receive a meeting invitation with an agenda that looks decidedly outside your bailiwick, ask the organizer why you're included and consider suggesting someone more relevant to attend. It is perfectly fine to not show up to a meeting from which you won't gain anything and that won't gain anything from you. However, it is not fine to accept a meeting invitation and then not show up. Show courtesy for the organizer and other attendees by either not accepting in the first place or by giving plenty of notice that you won't be able to make it (in some situations, this may not be possible, but those situations are exceedingly rare).
On the flip-side, if you're organizing the meeting, write the agenda first and then decide who should be present. Consider what value they will add to or gain from the meeting. Consider personalities and what might work for or against the agenda (that doesn't mean you shouldn't invite people who's personalities might clash, but it does mean that you should consider it and how it may impact the discussion). Make sure that everyone on the list is on it for a valuable reason (I personally dislike the optional attendee; if someone is optional, they aren't needed by definition and shouldn't be included).
When you do attend a meeting, try to be respectful of the others in the meeting. Be assertive but avoid talking over people, shouting and other overly aggressive conduct as it can stifle discussion. Try to give opportunities for everyone to have their say. This is something that I personally have had to work hard on in my career as I tend to talk a lot and repeat myself to get my point across. I can also be quite stubborn if backed into a corner. Being aware of your own personal flaws in meetings is important, so if you don't know what they are, ask your colleagues. You may not like what you hear, but you can use it to your advantage. If you're a talker, try to talk less. If you're naturally quiet, look for opportunities to assert yourself.
In my office, it is not unusual for back-to-back meetings to be organized. This is quite frankly ridiculous. Before any meeting can begin, the organizer or their appointed lackey must have opportunity to check the relevant equipment is in place and working, but usually we don't allow time for this activity. Instead, the attendees sit and wait for this activity to be completed. This is the side-effect of our Outlook-driven, half-hour block meeting organisation habits. In a perfect world, I would like the first five minutes of every meeting to be set aside for the organizer to check that all the meeting equipment is ready – that includes the room, projector, telecommunications and anything else you might need. If you need more than 5 minutes, consider booking a bit of time before the meeting for just you and the room so that you can set up. No one likes watching someone else flail with technology and it can quickly derail any meeting, so get it done privately beforehand.
You've invited the right people, given them a clear agenda with achievable goals and made sure all the required equipment is set up, but without an appropriate chairperson, the meeting is likely to go nowhere. Every meeting needs someone that will keep everyone else on topic and on track. The chairperson should be someone that grasps the concepts being discussed in the meeting but isn't necessarily involved. This way they can have an objective view of the discussion and spot rambling, off topic discussions and other destructive behaviours before they get out of hand. If something comes up that was not on the agenda, the chairperson can note it as an action for another time, avoiding a costly sidetrack.
You'll spot any meeting where there is an ineffective or total lack of a chairperson (they're the meetings where long pauses occur as people decide who should speak next or what topic should be discussed), whereas a meeting with an effective chairperson will often end early. By being outside of the main discussion, the chairperson is free to focus on the goals and keep track of what actions and decisions have been made. This has the wonderful side-effect of saving time; when the goals are met, the meeting is done, even if it's done early. This avoids the common situation in meetings where someone says, "Well, we've finished early, so does anyone have anything else." This phrase is a sure fire way to run over time and get nowhere.
If you've never been a chairperson, find an opportunity to give it a try. It's a great learning experience as it gives a very different perspective on a meeting
One size fits all
There is no doubt that there are other things you can do to have more effective meetings (apparently, stand-up meetings are quicker at reaching the same conclusions as sit down meetings), I am certainly no expert, so tailor your meetings to suit your specific domain. However, these four basic requirements should fit pretty much any meeting so give them a try and let me know what works for you. Perhaps you've got some tips or tricks yourself.